HAMMOND | A play and presentation about the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 moved some people to tears Thursday as students and faculty at Purdue University Calumet packed Alumni Hall.
The production was part of the university's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed Sept. 15, 1963, a Sunday. The racially motivated explosion killed Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, and injured 22 others. The bombing and deaths marked a turning point in the United States' civil rights movement and contributed to support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Artistic director Toni Washington Simpson, who owns a Gary company called Unity of Purpose, used actors and actresses from Northwest Indiana and Chicago's south suburbs to bring the church bombing to life. For the past five years, Washington Simpson has served as the creative producer for Purdue Calumet's King holiday celebrations.
The production also used excerpts from a documentary by Spike Lee about the bombing, allowing the audience to see the terrorism, bombings and other acts of violence that occurred during the 1960s civil rights movement.
Corey Graddick was a standout as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Members of the Beachfront Dance School, of Gary, portrayed the girls who walked into the church on that Sunday morning in 1963 to prepare a sermon titled, “The Love That Forgives,” when the bomb exploded. The explosion blew a hole in the church's rear wall and destroyed the back steps and all but one stained-glass window.
Lisa McNair, Denise's sister, said she doesn't remember a time when she didn't know about the bombing. As a youngster she asked if the people who bombed the church were in prison, and her parents, Christopher and Maxine McNair, told her they were not.
Lisa McNair was born a year and four days after her sister's death. She said Denise grew up as an only child and Lisa never knew her but learned about her through her family, her neighbors and history.
“This was a pivotal moment in the struggle. Adults had been killed, but these were four young girls who were at church, doing what they were supposed to be doing. It’s important to share this story,” McNair said.
She also said because of what happened to Denise, her parents were careful in what they allowed her and her younger sister to do. She said today, her parents are 85 and 88 and doing well.
In response to questions from the audience, Lisa McNair said she felt like the bombing cheated her of knowing her older sister. She believes her sister would not like people using the N-word if she were alive today.
"It invokes anger and violence. It's demeaning," McNair said.
Regelle Douglas, 19, of Highland, a sophomore at Purdue Calumet, said she was moved by the convocation.
"This presentation reminded me to be appreciative and to continue my education, not just for myself but for my grandparents who couldn't and for the people who marched and protested so that I could (get an education)," she said.
"One thing I miss about living in Chicago was the black-history lessons. I was always intrigued by what I was taught. This presentation brought me back to that little girl who would spend hours reading books about slavery and black history. The 16th Street bombing was the one that stuck out most to me."
Demetrius Rias, 14, a seventh-grader at Eggers Middle School in Hammond, said the play gave a lot of historical background he wasn't aware of.
"People don't know about history like that. It had a great impact on me. It showed how black people were treated," Rias said.
"I hate the N-word. People don't know how black people were treated, and they use that word. Young people use it. Kids use it in the streets. I think presentations like this need a wider audience."
Ambassador Christian Academy freshman Cassandra Araugo, 14, said the opportunity to meet a member of the McNair family brought the civil rights movement to life.
"We're learning about things we didn't know before — that we could only have learned by meeting these people," she said. "The civil rights movement was important. If those things hadn't happened, who knows what state this country would be in today? The civil rights movement is still moving, not as prominent as it was before, but we are still moving towards Dr. King's vision."