Historic Amnesia: Four Little Girls and Assata Shakur

That song…did more for me to get me out of myself than any song that I’ve ever done.  I was so outraged when the four colored girls were killed in…that Baptist church.  I tell you I was so outraged that I didn’t—I only walked the floor for hours at a time and that’s how it came out.  It just came out as a complete outraged protest against the injustices of this country against my people (Simone, Interview on Protest Anthology, 2008  – from Danielle Heard’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”: Nina Simone’s Theater of Invisibility”)

Approaching the fifty-year anniversary of the release of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” the ghosts of Mississippi and the horror of white supremacist violence continues to haint the nation.

On Friday, May 24, 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley Congressional Gold Medals.  The murder of the “4 Little Girls” on September 15, 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church galvanized the black freedom struggle in its fight against white supremacy.

President Obama described the violence in the following way: “That tragic loss, that heartbreak, helped to trigger triumph and a more just and equal and fair America.”  Indeed – although it also triggered radicalization, outrage, and increasing calls for black power.

Taylor Branch, in Parting the Waters, describes Diane Nash’s reaction as one of growing dissatisfaction with methods embraced by the mainstream civil rights movement:

That night, Diane Nash presented to King the germ of what became his Selma voting rights campaign in 1965. She was angry. Privately, she told King that he could not arouse a battered people for nonviolent action and then give them nothing to do. After the church bombing, she and Bevel had realized that a crime so heinous pushed even nonviolent zealots like themselves to the edge of murder. They resolved to do one of two things: solve the crime and kill the bombers, or drive Wallace and Lingo from office by winning the right for Negroes to vote across Alabama. In the few days since, Nash had drawn up a written plan to accomplish the, latter with a rigorously trained nonviolent host, organized at brigade and division strength, that would surround Wallace’s government in Montgomery with a sea of bodies, “severing communication from state capitol building . . . Lying on railroad tracks, runways, and bus driveways . . . Close down the power company.” Her plan amounted to a protracted sit-in on the scale of the March on Washington. “This is an army,” she wrote King. “Develop a flag and an insignia or pin or button.”

The terrorism practiced by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations was part and parcel of American Apartheid.  The lynching of Emmett Till, the daily violence of white supremacy, and the bombings at 16th Street reflected the politics, morals, and values of the (southern) white American landscape but also contributed to a growing call for radical intervention.  Assata Shakur described the impact of white mobs, lynchings, and bombings on her political ethos:

Mostly, when I was young, the news didn’t seem real … only the news concerning black people had any impact on me. And it seemed that each year the news got worse. The first of the really bad news that I remember was Montgomery, Alabama. That was when I first heard of Martin Luther King. Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white woman. The Black people boycotted the buses. It was a nasty struggle. Black people were harassed and attacked and, if I remember correctly, Martin Luther King’s house was bombed. Then came Little Rock. I can still remember those ugly, terrifying white mobs attacking those little children who were close to my own age … We would sit there horrified–from Harvey Young, “’A New Fear Known to Me’: Emmett Till’s Influence and the Black Panther Party”

There is more than a bit of irony, hypocrisy, and failure to understand history that in the same month that the “4 Little Girls” have been awarded this medal Assata is put on FBI’s most wanted list.  It is outrageous that someone committed to ridding America of white supremacist violence–to making sure no more children were murdered in the name of racism, segregation, and hatred–has been declared a terrorist worthy of a 2 million dollar bounty. She was fighting against the very terrorism that killed these girls.