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Community reflects on 50th anniversary of Birmingham bombing

/ The Daily Orange

Syracuse University and the Cold Case Justice Initiative commemorated the 50th anniversary of a 1963 church bombing, which killed four children, by featuring a speech from a Birmingham judge who knew the victims.

On the morning of Sept. 15 in 1963, a bomb exploded inside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young African-American girls, and was considered a racially motivated bombing.

The event, held Sunday, included a screening of Spike Lee’s “Four Little Girls,” a documentary that follows the four girls from birth to death, as well as their families after the bombing. Helene Shores Lee, an Alabama judge who personally knew three of the victims, spoke about growing up in civil rights era Birmingham.

“A lot of people think this film is about justice and revenge,” said Paula Johnson, a co-organizer of the event and co-director of SU’s Cold Case Justice Initiative. “This was a film about love.”

The Cold Case Justice Initiative is a project by College of Law professors and students to investigate suspected racially motivated deaths from the civil rights movement.

The documentary was followed by a speech from Judge Helen Shores Lee, the first African-American woman to serve in the civil division of the circuit court of Jefferson County.

Lee said she was family friends with three of the four girls who were killed. Watching the Spike Lee documentary for the first time, she said, “brought back horrible memories of her childhood.”

She talked about growing up in Birmingham. Being the daughter of civil rights leader Arthur Shores brought hardships — her home was bombed twice in the span of two weeks.

“I swore when I was able to leave, I would never return to this godforsaken place ever again,” she said about Birmingham.

But she returned years later to make a change in the town, she said, eventually becoming a circuit court judge of the 10th Judicial Court of Alabama in 2003.

Lee focused on the events that occurred in the spring of 1963 in her talk, including the peak of the civil rights movement, sit-in demonstrations, boycotts and several political marches.

There were other stories of dealing with racial issues in Birmingham: drinking from a whites-only water fountain and attending a non-segregated school for the first time, among others.

Danielle McCoy, president of the Student African-American Society, said she enjoyed the diversity of the turnout at the event.

“I’m very happy with the turnout. It’s very diverse and there are kids here as young as 13,” she said. “It angers me because a lot of people in our generation don’t do anything. They don’t see the change.”

McCoy said her generation should take more action, because activists during the civil rights era were the same age when they took action in the movement.

Johnson, co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative and professor in the College of Law, said she believed Lee’s presence brought a personal voice to the event.

Said Lee: “As we move forward into the future, it means very little unless you look back at the past.”

eyrosari@syr.edu

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