Skip to main content

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at the 60th Anniversary of the Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church


Birmingham, AL
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning. The Ku Klux Klan members who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, did not know Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. They neither knew nor cared that these little girls had mothers and fathers, families who loved them, that they proudly turned out for church that day in their Sunday best. The bombers were not even targeting these girls. The deaths of any African Americans would do.

You see, hatred blinds. The killers could see only Black. 

But these girls were so much more than the color of their skin, so much more than their race. Each was unique, with hopes and dreams, with talents and foibles and with that spark of intrinsic worth common to every human being.  

Three of the girls would have turned 74 last April, and one would have been 72 this coming November. Who knows what they would have achieved if they had lived? What contributions they would have made? Whose days they would have brightened?

What I do know is that their lives — like the lives of all of us — mattered. They still matter. 

In his eulogy for the girls, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers.” 

Thirty-five years after the bombing, the virulent hatred denying a person’s basic humanity based on their race still poisoned the hearts of three white supremacists as they tied James Byrd Jr. behind a car and dragged him to his death along an asphalt road in Jasper, Texas. Malign hatred still flourished just a few months later when two men in Wyoming tied 21-year-old Matthew Shepard to a split rail fence, beat him, tortured him and left him to die just because he was gay. And lest you think we live in more enlightened times, the FBI reports that hate crimes climbed to an all-time high in 2021. 

At the Justice Department, we have no higher priority than combating this surge of hate, and we now have the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in our arsenal. We used that statute in obtaining 90 consecutive life sentences against the man who killed 23 Hispanic people at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, because he thought there were too many immigrants from Mexico and we likewise charged and convicted three men with hate crimes for shooting and killing Ahmaud Arbery just because he was Black.

All in all, since January of 2021, the department has charged more than 95 defendants in more than 85 hate crime cases for committing bias-motivated crimes. In that same period, we obtained convictions against more than 80 defendants in hate crime cases.

This work reflects a fundamental obligation of federal law enforcement, protecting the right of each person to dwell in their home, work at their job, jog down a street, shop at a store and engage in acts of daily living without fear of attack based on how they look, where they are from, how they worship or who they love.

We can’t forget the context in which the Birmingham bombing occurred — the efforts of the civil rights movement to achieve racial justice matter now, more than ever. As dedicated as we are at the Civil Rights Division to holding the perpetrators of hate crimes accountable and eradicating unlawful acts of hate, root and branch, we are also continuing the fight against discrimination and for equal justice on many fronts, protecting the right to vote, fighting modern-day redlining, standing up to police misconduct and more. It suffices here to reiterate our determination to carry forward the battle for civil rights and to oppose discrimination and bigotry wherever they arise.

Emmett Till. The Four Little Girls. James Byrd. The Charleston Nine. Ahmaud Arbery. The Buffalo 10. The Jacksonville Three. Racially-motivated hate crimes are a stain on our nation’s history. But we will forever remember the victims. We will remain steadfast in honoring their lives by vigorously defending civil rights in every way we can. We will champion transcendental ideals of freedom and equality to dispel the discord of hatred and prejudice.

By these efforts, we will honor the memories of those four little girls and affirm that their lives mattered. Indeed, that Black lives matter. Thank you.

Updated September 15, 2023