By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
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There are events so traumatic that they change public opinion and speed the passage of legislation. The bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, 1963, horrified formerly complacent White Americans, creating momentum for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The struggle for civil rights involved a number of ghastly, startling moments–the beating of Freedom Riders, the murder of three volunteers in Mississippi, the assassinations Medgar Evers and Dr. King–but nothing quite as pointlessly terrible as that blast, which killed four young girls–Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.
With any historically significant event, it becomes easy, with the passing of time, to view the occurrence with detachment. How lucky we are, then, to have Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls! Through a series of interviews with family members, friends, eyewitnesses, and major political players, Lee reconstructs the events leading up to the tragedy, as well as the lives and promise of the victims. We come away seeing the girls for who they were–children. Their historical status as martyrs is important to American history, but the fact of their loss is only one way to view them. First and foremost, they were normal kids, with all of the playfulness, precociousness, and vitality that entails.
Many films have detailed the cruelty of the Jim Crow South, but Lee has the advantage of time on his side. Three decades after the bombing, the key players were still available to speak, but now they could do so honestly, without fear of retaliatory violence. Society had changed, so much so that one of 1963’s chief segregationists, former Governor George Wallace, appears onscreen desperate to show how he’s evolved. He’s no longer racist, he assures us, because his “best friend” and personal assistant is Black. (The film adds no comment on this–there is no narrator–but it’s obvious that Wallace’s professed change of heart lacks self-awareness, to say the least.)
Lee’s filmography contains a number of searing, vital films about race in America. (Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X are essential viewing.) Still, his greatest triumphs may be his documentaries, which display a keen interest in multiple viewpoints and a deep humanism lacking in most histories. 4 Little Girls is a superb film, one of the best about the civil rights movement of the 1960s.