Candi Staton – 1963

21st December 2023 · 2020s, 2023, Music, Soul

This is utterly heartbreaking. Once heard, never forgotten: Candi Staton’s first-hand memory of one of the worst racist terror incidents in US history, in which four little girls lost their lives.

On a Sunday in September 1963 Candi Staton was singing and playing the piano for a church choir in Birmingham, Alabama. The morning service had barely begun when news came in that another nearby church, on 16th Street, had been bombed in a racist terror attack by the Ku Klux Klan.

Four little girls lost their lives.

Candi, just 23 at the time, recalls driving home with her two terrified small children as riots broke out in the streets of downtown Birmingham, wondering whether they would make it through a mob throwing rocks and overturning cars.

Sixty years later she has memorialised those four little girls in song – Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins – and released it, simply and starkly titled “1963”, on the 60th anniversary of the attack on 15 September this year. It’s just devastating.

It’s more than a memorial to those little girls, and more than a reminder of the racism rife in the South as recently as the year Beatlemania began – it’s also a call for gun control, her lyrics taking in Sandy Hook and Chicago’s South Side.

I have to confess I didn’t know the song until Pete Paphides mentioned it yesterday on another thread, and I didn’t know about the 16th Street bombing in Birmingham, described by Martin Luther King as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”

What makes it (even) worse is that, although the FBI found out who the four KKK members responsible were in 1965, there were no prosecutions until 1971 when just one of them was convicted of one murder.

It was not until 2001 and 2002 that two other men were convicted of all four murders; the fourth man died in 1994 before being charged and tried – but after more than 30 years as a free man.