Mrs. Alpha Robertson
Mrs. Alpha Robertson

Alpha Robertson’s reflections on controlling one’s personal feelings of anger and hatred come at the conclusion of Spike Lee’s Academy Award nominated documentary film 4 Little Girls. Robertson’s 14 year old daughter Carole was one of four black girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Robertson tells Lee that holding on to anger and hatred “wasn’t going to do [her] any good,” but she acknowledged that she struggled with those feelings. Robertson’s obviously gentle, loving spirit makes watching her publicly negotiate what clearly remains an open wound painfully difficult to witness–and I’ve done so on numerous occasions; it’s an absorbing film.

I have thought about the scenes Lee devotes to Robertson and they strike me as masterful. She helps to set in relief the terrible ugliness of racism as the antithesis of love. It produced Carole’s absence and forced a gentle spirit, her mother–and by Mrs. Robertson’s account, her husband as well–to absorb a powerful blow. The shaky, unsteadiness of Robertson’s voice throughout her scenes in the film disrupts any comfort the viewer might take in imagining the salve of time.

I read in at least one place that when the bodies were recovered from the blast, they were so mangled that the girls could only be identified by their shoes. This might explain why in Christopher Paul Curtis’s young adult book The Watson’s Go to Birmingham–1963, Kenny finds his own sister’s shoe and worries that she has died in the blast as she was supposed to be in church that morning. In Lee’s film, Robertson recalls that Carole was wearing her first pair of little pumps, with a slight heel, when she attended church that morning. I imagine Carole’s delight.

Carole is clearly identifiable in the morgue photographs Lee includes in his film. Since he did not ask the families’ permission before including these photographs, one can only imagine how Robertson experienced these post-mortem images of her daughter as they flashed across the screen. How do those terrible photos sit with her recollection of her daughter’s “little heels?” Her daughter’s delight?

Alpha Robertson was 83 when she passed away in 2002. I think about her sometimes and I marvel.

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