On Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four young black girls. One of those girls was Diane Braddock's 14-year-old sister, Carole Robertson.
It was a day that Braddock would never forget and one that changed her life, and the country, forever.
The world mourned the four girls' deaths, which made headlines in newspapers around the globe. The tragic event has been recognized as a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights in the United States, spurring the movement to a higher level of intensity and acting as a catalyst for the passage of important civil rights laws in coming years.
Braddock, who was 19 at the time and had finished her sophomore year at Clark College in Atlanta, was spending the summer living with her aunt in New York City and working in a coat factory on Long Island.
"My parents called my aunt and told her to let me know immediately because they didn't want me to hear about it on television," said Braddock, who now lives in Laurel. "When my aunt told me, I fainted."
Braddock, who had an older brother who was a graduate student in Tennessee at the time, said she had a special relationship with her baby sister, Carole.
"I had a lot of friends and she tagged along with us all the time. They all looked out for her. She was everybody's little sister," Braddock said. "She and I played checkers together and we'd read together while listening to Randy [a WLAC disc jockey ] on the radio. She always wanted to go to the movies with me on Saturdays, and I'd let her."
Braddock flew back to Birmingham later that day, and said she landed in a city filled with people — black and white — in shock.
"There were protests in Birmingham that Sunday because people were upset," Braddock said. "A lot gathered at the church in disbelief. It was a somber group filled with much sadness."
In 1977, former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Chambliss received a life sentence for his part in the Birmingham bombing. In 2001 and 2002, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, respectively, received life terms for their roles in the four girls' deaths.
Braddock said that horrific day remains prominent in her memory and especially this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the church bombing.
Remembering the day
Braddock's mother's great-grandfather was one of the founders of 16th Street Baptist Church. Braddock's maternal grandfather was a deacon at the church, and her maternal grandmother was the church organist.
"My grandmother wasn't playing that day and my mother was not there yet" on the day of the bombing, Braddock recalled. "My father had dropped Carole off for Sunday school and at 10:22 a.m., when the bomb went off, he was on his way home to pick up my mom. I was told that the blast was heard and felt for blocks away."
Although Braddock grew up in a middle class family — her father was a musician and principal and her mother was a teacher and librarian — she said they realized that outside of their separate world of family and friends, Birmingham was a dangerous place to live during the 1960s. Many blacks who tried to vote had their lives and livelihoods, mainly in low-paying mill jobs, threatened. Braddock said children and many adults never went anywhere alone. Still, she said, they never expected such an horrific act of hatred to hit so close to home and snatch the lives of their young loved ones.
In her home at Victoriam Falls in Laurel, Braddock has a collection of artwork that Carole's friends and others have given her depicting the four girls. A long table in her dining room is filled with neat rows of programs, brochures, photos and newspaper articles of the numerous nationwide events she attended this year, held in remembrance of the bombing. There are also old newspaper articles about the bombing, books written about the tragedy and at a far end of the table, three 8 by 10-inch photos of Carole smiling, with her hair in long pony tails, at the ages of 8, 10 and 14 years old.
"Carole was a smart little girl — a straight-A student — who was in plays a lot, Girl Scouts activities; she was a library aide and my dad taught her to play the clarinet," Braddock said. "I could see her being a professor or politician because she was gregarious, had good leadership and diplomatic skills, and although she was the youngest, she was always the mediator for me and my brother when we argued."
Ironically, Braddock said Carole had just been elected to be a representative on a biracial committee of students appointed to discuss race relations in Birmingham.
She said her family never got over the bombing, especially her father.
"My dad was never the same afterward and died when he was 59 of a heart attack," Braddock said. "It was such a shock for him that someone could do this and he wasn't there to protect Carole. My mom attended the church for a while, but we later switched to my dad's church."
Braddock said she returned to New York and transferred to Queens College.
"It was too painful to go back [to Birmingham], and my parents supported that decision," she said.
Congressional Gold Medal
In the center of Braddock's Laurel dining room table is the Congressional Gold Medal that Congress voted April 24 to award the families of the four girls. Braddock has a picture propped up near the medal that she took with another victim's sister and Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and major player in the civil rights struggle, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol the day of that vote. Braddock was holding a picture of Carole, who was dressed up for her coming-out debutante ball.
The medal has the names of all four girls engraved on it, along with the date of the bombing and the phrase: "Pivotal in the struggle for equality," on one side. The other side of the medal has a rendition of the church engraved on it.
"We had input on the medal's design," Braddock said. "The family wants to make a case to put it in."
Braddock also has photos of herself and others connected to the bombing that were taken at the White House when President Barack Obama signed the bill that authorized the medal.
"[Obama] said 'I am here because of the civil rights movement and I want to thank you on behalf of a grateful nation,'" Braddock said. "He said 'we can never repay you for your loss.' "
The medals were presented to the families Sept. 10 in a ceremony on Capitol Hill, attended by the leadership of both parties and members of both houses of Congress. At a later ceremony in Birmingham on Sept. 13, Braddock and family members of the other bombing victims were given bronze replicas of the medal by Congressional Black Caucus members. District of Columbia officials declared Sept. 15 Carole Robertson Day.
Because Carole was an avid reader, an artistic reading bench, with pictures of the four girls hung above it, was dedicated in her honor at the Birmingham library this year.
Other 50th anniversary events have kept Braddock in and out of Laurel all year. A retired Prince George's County school principal, Braddock moved to Laurel eight years ago after living in Hyattsville for 30 years. She is a consultant with the county school system and is active with her sorority and the local Democratic Party. She also sits on the board of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning in Chicago.
Braddock has made sure her seven grandchildren know about their great aunt and she has taken them to the Birmingham church. When one of her grandsons saw Carole's picture in a Newseum exhibit, he instantly recognized his great aunt.
"I don't want them or anyone to ever forget what hatred and ignorance can do," Braddock said. "It's important to not let hate prevail and to remember these innocent girls, whose deaths sparked lots of change in this country."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun