Justice Jackson, at 1963 church bombing remembrance, says we must own hard parts of history

Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson speaking into a microphone from the pulpit of a wood-paneled church
Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks Friday at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where a Ku Klux Klan bomb killed four Black girls 60 years ago.
(Butch Dill / Associated Press)
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Standing at the pulpit of the Birmingham, Ala., church where four little girls were killed by a Ku Klux Klan bomb in 1963, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said the nation must remember and own the uncomfortable moments of its past in order to move forward.

Jackson, the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, spoke at the remembrance Friday morning at 16th Street Baptist Church.

“Today we remember the toll that was paid to secure the blessings of liberty for African Americans, and we grieve those four children who were senselessly taken from this earth and their families robbed of their potential,” Jackson said.


She said that the country should celebrate the great strides that have been made since 1963, but that there is still work to do.

”The work of our time is maintaining that hard-won freedom, and to that we are going to need the truth, the whole truth, about our past,” Jackson said.

A stained glass window depicting Jesus as a Black man.
A stained glass window inside 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The window was a donation from the people of Wales following a racist bombing that killed four Black girls at the church in 1963.
(Jay Reeves / Associated Press)

Jackson said that atrocities “like the one we are memorializing today are difficult to remember and relive,” but that it is also “dangerous to forget them.”

“If we are going to continue to move forward as a nation, we cannot allow concerns about discomfort to displace knowledge, truth or history. It is certainly the case that parts of this country’s story can be hard to think about,” she said.

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The justice did not mention efforts in Republican-led states to limit how racial issues are discussed in classrooms. Instead, Jackson, who was born in 1970, gave the example of how her own parents made sure that from a young age, she learned about what happened in Birmingham, Selma and other battlegrounds of the civil rights movement.


“Yes, our past is filled with too much violence, too much hatred, too much prejudice, but can we really say that we are not confronting those same evils now?” she asked. “We have to own even the darkest parts of our past, understand them and vow never to repeat them.”

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Klansmen had placed a bundle of dynamite outside the church under a set of stairs on that day in 1963. The girls were gathered in a downstairs washroom to freshen up before Sunday services when the blast exploded at 10:22 a.m. It killed 11-year-old Denise McNair, and Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14. A fifth girl, Sarah Collins Rudolph, the sister of Addie Mae, was in the room and was severely injured but survived.

The bombing came during the height of the civil rights movement, eight months after then-Gov. George Wallace pledged “segregation forever” during his inaugural address, and two weeks after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.

Hundreds of people, Black and white, filled the church for the remembrance. The church bell tolled four times as the names of the girls were read. The crowd also stood to honor Rudolph, the “fifth little girl” in the room that day.

U.S. Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) said they were standing on solemn ground, where the senseless deaths “awakened a slumbering consciousness of America and galvanized the civil rights movement.”

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For many, Jackson’s presence at the church made the remembrance more poignant.

Sewell and other speakers said the lives of the four slain Black girls are in a way intertwined with Jackson’s life. They said she is the embodiment of what civil rights foot soldiers in the 1960s dreamed would be possible, and noted that the Voting Rights Act and other gains that followed paved the way for the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.


“It has been 60 years in the making,” said former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). “Dr. Martin Luther King said that these girls would not have died in vain, and our speaker, Ketanji Brown Jackson, is the personification of that today. She is that hope.”