Every time I visit the Children’s Defense Fund’s Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee I am stopped in my tracks by this image. I’ve been visiting the farm for years for spiritual retreats and children’s movement trainings. But it doesn’t matter how many times I have seen this image, as I walk up the steps of The Lodge on the Farm I am never prepared for the way my heart falls into my stomach at the sight of these little rocking chairs. I am stopped in my tracks. I am moved to tears. I am always angry.
These four little rocking chairs were installed in memory of the four little girls who were in Sunday School studying a lesson entitled, “The Love That Forgives” when their Alabama church was bombed on September 15, 1963 at 10:25 am on that Sunday morning. Killed in the blast were 11 year-old Denise McNair, 14 year-old Cynthia Wesley, 14 year-old Addie May Collins and, 14 year-old Carol Robertson.
I know that I will end up in tears at the sight of these chairs, but I make my way toward them anyway. I do so, for the memory of these children, and with the knowledge of another reality that is a bit more difficult, maybe, to represent or bear. One the same day that these four little girls were killed, two other children were also killed.
Johnny Robinson was 16 years old. He was shot in the back by police as he threw rocks at the cars full of white youths whose response to the murder of the little girls was to ride through their traumatized town waving Confederate battle flags. I walk toward these chairs because Johnny’s grieving rock-throwing was considered a crime; but, Confederate flag bearing terrorism is still acceptable. Virgil Wade was 13 years old. He was shot outside of Birmingham while riding his bicycle. The only explanation the Jefferson County Sheriff had for his murder was, “no reason at all, but general racial disorders.” (a summation of the quote in the New York Times article on these murders dated September 15, 1963.)
I’m stopped in my tracks because we still live in a country that does not honor or prioritize the lives of Black children. These Black lives mean nothing beyond the day rate paid to cover the salaries of the compromised who are employed by youth jails, private prisons and too many charter schools companies.
Black girls in a Sunday School class – learning what generations of Black women and girls learned before them from the church: forgive. They meant nothing to white supremacy.
A grieving and angry black boy hurling rocks at those who would celebrate his community’s terrorization. No sympathy for him. No grief counselors. Always bullets.
A black child riding his bike miles away from the violence. No explanation for his erasure from the earth beyond “general racial disorders.”
Fifty-four years after this Baptist church was bombed, these black girls were killed and these black boys were erased (rarely do we remember them), we are still unable to protect Black children, to understand the grief and trauma they bear, or to get answers for the ways their lives are erased and explained away under reports of collateral damage.
I am taking a huge liberty in my prayer this morning. With full appreciation of Langston Hughes’ prophetic words in his poem “Kids Who Die” written in 1938 to a nation hell-bent on killing black children, I’m changing one word as an angry, pissed-off plea in 2017 unto the God who surely sees it all.
Wake up, get up, God. See that your children [live].
“Kids will [live] in the swamps of Mississippi organizing sharecroppers.
Kids will [live] in the streets of Chicago organizing workers.
Kids will [live] in the orange groves of California telling others to get together.
Whites and Filipinos, Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will [live] who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment and a lousy peace.