today in black history

April 14, 2024

Elston Howard becomes the first Black player on the New York Yankees baseball team on this date in 1955.

9/15 came before 9/11

POSTED: September 15, 2015, 8:00 am

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Americans act as if ‘terrorism’ was first spawned on September 11, 2001 when attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Arlington Virginia and an airborne jet that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania claimed the lives of thousands. That date is now so ingrained in our national memory that the April 19 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, committed by Americans with military experience, is somehow overshadowed in significance. Our disposition toward Islam has now made Muslim synonymous with terrorism while there is far more evidence of white violence in American history and our present.

Before 9/11 this country witnessed the terrorist attack on Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 that claimed the lives of four little Black girls, martyrs of the civil rights movement – Carole Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carol Denise McNair, 11 and Cynthia Wesley, age 14. It was an act of hate committed by America’s al Qaeda, the Ku Klux Klan; an act brazen for its audacity of bombing a Christian house of worship on a Sunday morning by a group claiming a holy mission and cowardly for the murder of children who simply sought to exercise their faith.

Though the murder of Emmett Till shocked Black Americans, it was the killing of these four little girls that gave Blacks a real sense of the deep hatred whites held for us. It was a sobering moment when Black parents learning of the Birmingham attack, gazed upon their children with fear for the reality set in that there was little they could do to protect them from this level of violence. It is hard to imagine the horror felt by Black children of the civil rights generation, knowing that at any moment their lives could be snuffed out for the simple ‘crime’ of having been born Black in a nation that still regarded them as disposable property. Five decades later the horror of September 15 1963 is difficult to fathom; the mangled flesh of four innocent girls murdered in their Sunday best hard to conjure.

America never acknowledges the full extent of white terrorism. It is a conversation that is avoided and a reality fiercely denied. The country would rather deflect and debate ‘Black on Black crime,’ itself a byproduct of white terrorism, and use it as a red herring to support a narrative of Black violence that pales in comparison to the centuries of violent acts committed against Black people by whites. Terrorism has been a tool used to control, diminish and murder Blacks from the moment Africans were kidnapped, enslaved, packed like cargo and transported across the Atlantic and brought to this continent for the sole purpose of generating white wealth. The violence inflicted upon enslaved Africans is purposely discounted in our historical narrative, as is what that violence did to undermine the Black family structure, diminish Black women and emasculate the Black male. And when slavery was statutorily abolished, a whole new infrastructure of white violence was created to permanently displace and marginalize Black people.

“We need to make the nation pause on September 15 as it does on September 11 and take responsibility for the history of white violence against Blacks.”

If no one else acknowledges white terrorism, Black Americans must force the conversation. We treat police brutality as a new phenomenon when throughout our nation’s history law enforcement has inflicted violence upon Blacks. This includes our ‘national’ police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), which aided and abetted white terrorists as a practice under J. Edgar Hoover and aggressively targeted Black groups seeking constitutionally guaranteed rights. The thousands of brutal lynchings of Blacks, unequalled in their gruesomeness and barbarity, the burning of Black churches and the countless kidnappings and unexplained disappearances of Black people are footnotes rather than leading chapters of the American story.

In any other country the Ku Klux Klan would be branded a terrorist organization, outlawed and its members subject to arrest. The same goes for the dozens of white armed militias whose singular purpose is the preservation of white supremacy through the elimination of Black people. These groups are allowed to wrap themselves in the American flag and hide behind the Constitution though they make known their belief that Black people are expendable and declare their intent to use any means necessary to bring about our demise. Yet, first al Qaeda and now ISIL are projected as the nation’s greatest threat while a network of white terror operates freely and without any reservations about taking the lives of Black people.

We need to make the nation pause on September 15 as it does on September 11 and take responsibility for the history of white violence against Blacks. The murder of four little girls in 1963 and children like 12 year-old Tamir Rice today is meant as a message to all Black Americans that our lives have no value and can be taken at will with no repercussions. For those who feel the need to cry “All Lives Matter” as an equivalent echo to Blacks’ claim for dignity, start by acknowledging that Black lives have never mattered by telling the story of Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley, and truth of the American experience.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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