Birmingham tragedy’s 50th anniversary commemorated by scholarships

An anonymous donor has given $2,000 to set up four $500 scholarships in the memory of four young girls who were killed in a racially motivated church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.

Raquel Whitmore, Rebecca Britton, Donavia Beltran and Jasmine Felder, who are current Marshall University students, will receive the scholarships at a presentation and remembrance of the event at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, in the Drinko Library Atrium on the Huntington campus.

The African American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was nearly destroyed by a bomb placed there on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963. The blast killed the four girls, who ranged from ages 11 to 14, and injured 23 others as they attended Sunday school classes. The church had been a rallying point for civil rights activities during the spring of that year and was a meeting place for civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth.

“During the past summer a local donor, who wants to remain anonymous, contacted the MU Foundation office and offered to set up these gifts,” said Maurice Cooley, director of the Center for African American Students.  “She had just finished reading Carolyn Maull McKinstry’s book, While the World Watched, about those events and she was so moved that she was inspired to offer these gifts.”

The donor’s requests were simple, Cooley said. In addition to anonymity, she requested that the recipients be current African American female students at Marshall, that the awards be given before the anniversary date of the bombing and that each scholarship bear the name of one of the bombing victims: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. In addition, the donor has purchased four copies of McKinstry’s book, which will be presented to the scholarship recipients during the event.

Cooley will give opening remarks, give a presentation about the events that are being commemorated, and offer a short reading on that era and the church bombings.  He will be assisted by Krystle Davis, program director of scholarship and donor relations at the foundation, who has also been instrumental in planning this event. Cooley says he has not yet had an opportunity to speak to the donor but says he is sincerely impressed by the “heartfelt kindness and the sensitivity that this one person experienced and acted on to positively impact the lives of others. In offering this gift she told a staff member that it is the recipients who are important and not the person who is giving it.”

The public is welcome to attend the Sept. 12 presentation, Cooley said.