Unknowing Heroes

 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church QuiltMy favorite quilt in NURFC’s And Still We Rise exhibit is Syvia Hernandez's quilt, Birmingham Bombing. Hernandez's quilt commemorates the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963, and the four girls whose lives became the sacrifice that brought Birmingham to finally face the consequences of its evil actions.

Things in Birmingham had been bad for a very, very long time, but the status quo was also very, very good at hiding that fact from the world. Birmingham was a closed city, hostile to “outsiders” and “agitators,” almost as much as it was hostile to its own poor and African-American citizens. But the horrific death of four girls, on a beautiful church Sunday -- very literally sacred time, especially in this Bible Belt town -- shattered that insulation and the beginning of the end of institutional segregation in Birmingham, and, within a year, the United States, brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Without the deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, Birmingham likely could have continued to violently oppress its citizens for many years; it was the women, in this case teenage girls, who brought the fight into the light.

In the historic fight for abolition of slavery, women were at the forefront, likening their own struggle for rights to that struggle for freedom of the enslaved African-American population. They were in a unique position to point out to those in power, often in their own homes, the moral repugnancy of “owning” another human being, of using someone else’s powerlessness to make yourself more powerful. In the same way, the women of the South led the way in the Civil Rights Movement, from Rosa Parks’ refusal to be pushed to the back any longer, finally to that horrible September day when the bombing in Birmingham finally went too far. The women knew that as long as one is enslaved or denied equality, no one can be truly free. We must keep fighting that fight today, reminding everyone that “until justice rolls down like waters,” until we are all free and equal in that freedom, we cannot truly call ourselves the “Land of the Free.”


-Gina Armstrong, IMLS Coca-Cola Museum Studies Apprentice