Nearly 35 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, a bomb tore through the basement of a black Baptist church, killing four young girls. It was a horrific moment in the life of the community -- and a defining moment in the history of America's civil-rights movement. Acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee explores the origins, events and aftermath of that fateful September day when the moving documentary 4 LITTLE GIRLS debuts MONDAY, FEB. 23 (9:00-10:45 p.m. ET), exclusively on HBO.
Other playdates: Feb. 26 (11:15 a.m.) and 28 (4:15 p.m.), and March 1 (10:15 a.m.), 6 (noon), 11 (10:00 p.m.) and 26 (3:15 p.m., 11:00 p.m.).
In his first feature-length HBO project, Spike Lee takes an in-depth look at one of America's most heinous crimes, a racially motivated bombing that may have been an act of retaliation for the emergence of the civil-rights movement championed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 4 LITTLE GIRLS is both a moving human account by family members and friends of the four girls who perished in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing, and an important historical account of the forces that shaped race relations in Birmingham (called by King "the most thoroughly segregated city in the U.S.") and the nation in the 1960s.
Along with archival film footage and home photographs, 4 LITTLE GIRLS includes comments by virtually every surviving member of the victims' immediate families and insights from local and national figures who were affected by the tragedy. Among those interviewed are actor Bill Cosby, reporter Walter Cronkite, Reverends Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and Fred Shuttlesworth (all of whom worked with Dr. King), King's widow, Coretta Scott King, former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, football star Reggie White and others.
Also included is Lee's revealing interview with former Alabama governor George Wallace, who epitomized the segregated South with his infamous blockade of the state university in 1963. Today, an old and disabled Wallace proclaims that his best friend is black, and pulls his paid black nurse's aide into the picture to prove the point.
4 LITTLE GIRLS paints individual portraits of the victims through anecdotes by family members and friends. The four bombing victims were:
- Denise McNair -- A lovable and caring child, 11-year-old Denise was the youngest of the four -- the other three were all 14. Her father, J. Christopher McNair, recalls that, as hard as it was for him to look at his dead daughter with a brick lodged in her head, it couldn't have been any more painful for him to tell her, when she was alive, why she couldn't be served a sandwich at a whites-only department store cafeteria.
- Carole Robertson -- An avid reader who was active in her girl scout troop, vivacious Carole was also a dancer and musician. She was supposed to play clarinet in her first band performance the Monday after the bombing.
- Cynthia Wesley -- The adopted daughter of school principal Claude Wesley and his wife, Cynthia was a member of the church choir who was scolded by her mother for not adjusting her skirt before going to church that day. "You never know how you're coming back," her sister Shirley Wesley King recalls her mother telling Cynthia.
- Addie Mae Collins -- The quietest of the four, Addie is remembered by her sister Janie Gaines as a sweet peaceful girl who loved life and brought love to others.
4 LITTLE GIRLS also captures the social climate of Birmingham in the years and months leading up to, and after, the tragedy:
- When blacks created a new, affluent neighborhood in the '50s on the site of a former garbage dump, the neighborhood soon become known as "Dynamite Hill" due to frequent bombings by jealous whites.
- The city's history of racism led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to target Birmingham for protests in the early '60s. Ironically, the heightened tensions that resulted may have indirectly led to the bombing (as Dr. King himself lamented).
- Eugene "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety, widened the gap between whites and blacks through his brutish responses to organized protests in Kelly Ingram Park (next to the 16th Street Baptist Church where the bombing took place). There, Connor's police and fire departments discouraged protesters with high-powered fire hoses and police dogs.
- Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, was not arrested for the crime for 14 years. Although Chambliss was eventually convicted and sentenced to life, possible accomplices were never apprehended.
The deaths of the four little girls galvanized the SCLC movement as never before, and helped focus national attention on civil rights. Remembers Walter Cronkite, "At the moment that the bomb went off and those four little girls were blasted and buried in the debris of the church, America understood the real nature of the hate that was preventing integration, particularly in the South, but also throughout America. That was an awakening."
Adds the Reverend Jesse Jackson, "The bad news is four innocent babies were killed. The good news is we were able to transform a crucifixion into a resurrection -- new life, new energy and more determination."
Spike Lee has directed the feature films "Get on the Bus," "Girl 6," "Clockers," "Crooklyn," "Malcolm X," "Jungle Fever," "Mo' Better Blues," "Do the Right Thing," "School Daze" and "She's Gotta Have It."
4 LITTLE GIRLS is a 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks Production. A Spike Lee Joint. Director and producer, Spike Lee; producer and editor, Sam Pollard; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; music composer, Terence Blanchard; associate producer, Michelle Forman; line producer, Daphne McWilliams; coordinating producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.