Fifty years have passed since a bomb stopped the old sanctuary clock in Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, locking in a moment that would change a nation.
The four girls killed in the blast have been honored as civil rights martyrs, their names etched in history books.
But what of their siblings, including one who barely survived?
For the brothers and sisters of the four girls, it was an event that would rock their foundations and shape their lives. Some would go on to promote understanding and equality. Others still struggle, fighting the past half a century later.
Scattered across three states, they share an unthinkable tragedy. But they've moved through the world and made sense of the nonsensical in profoundly different ways.
It was 10:22 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, when a stack of dynamite hidden beneath an outside staircase by Ku Klux Klansmen left a massive hole and crater in one side of the church. The blast blew out windows, filled the place with dust and debris, and destroyed a ladies restroom in the basement -- killing the four girls and injuring nearly two dozen people.
Even before the bombing, the church -- in the heart of the city's black community -- had been a backdrop to the civil rights movement. It had drawn high-profile visitors, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It became a perfect spot for meetings, sitting catty-corner from Kelly Ingram Park, a staging ground for marches. Chilling photographs of young people being attacked with fire hoses and by dogs show the church steps in the background.
Bombs in this Southern city weren't new. The nickname "Bombingham" was earned for good reason. By the time this one hit, there had been scores of unsolved -- and uninvestigated -- bombings in the city, says Carolyn Maull McKinstry, 65, who was in the church that day.
Explosions were part of life, part of the landscape, and could be heard from her family's front porch, says McKinstry, who was friends with the four girls and wrote about the bombing in "While the World Watched." Sometimes the blasts would make the earth move.
"Terrorism is not new to us," she says from a room inside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the historic church. Her community knew terrorism -- and, she adds, figures like Trayvon Martin -- long before the world did.
This attack upped the tensions and the ante. It killed innocent children in a sacred space, which helped make it the bomb heard around the world. It happened a couple weeks after the March on Washington, as those who didn't share King's dream dug in their segregationist heels.
It would be more than a decade before an ounce of justice was served. One suspect was convicted for murder and slapped with a life sentence after the case was reopened in the 1970s. Two others wouldn't pay until 2000 and 2001, after the case was reopened a second time. By then, a fourth suspect had died and would never face the court.
The bombing ignited horror and change. It was a pivotal moment that helped prod the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Killed that morning as they primped after Sunday school class were Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, all 14.
They have been remembered in films, books and songs. They've been memorialized in plaques, statues and artwork. Their headstones include phrases like "martyr," "She died so freedom might live," and "She loved all -- but a mad bomber hated her kind."
Earlier this week, in the U.S. Capitol, they were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Among those accepting the honor were surviving siblings, all with stories of their own.
One pair of sisters, born after the bombing, grew up in the shadow of a figure they longed to know. Another, already grown and out of the house when she got the news, would guard her identity and never move back South.
Another sister was adopted by a victim's family to help fill a void, while that victim's biological brother still struggles to find where he fits in.
And then there's the sister who was with the four girls that day. She was horribly injured, physically and in spirit, her anger and sense of injustice still palpable.
In her shadow
It was surreal, weird, sometimes confusing to grow up in the shadow of an iconic, almost mythical spirit. When ladies in the community would hug them a little too tight or long, or cling to their hands and say they were praying for them, the McNair girls didn't know what to make of the attention.
They knew their sister Denise had died at their church in a bombing and that it was a significant event in history, but their parents refused to share details. Any questions they had were given one- or two-word answers. Maybe it hurt too much to talk about the past. Their father would later say he didn't want to push it in their faces.
"Relatives said Daddy didn't cry for six months, maybe a year," says Lisa, who was born a year and four days after the bombing.
"If he did, he did it where we didn't see it," says their mother.
Kimberly, born four years after Lisa, says she was 8 when the ugly truth began to come out. They were visiting their grandmother; after someone mentioned Denise, the older woman fetched and opened a mysterious box.
From inside, she pulled the chunk of concrete that had been lodged in Denise's head. Her shoes, her purse, the drops she had used that day for her allergies. Their mother sat by and cried while the girls sat spellbound and listened.
"She felt we needed to know," says Kimberly, "because it was a part of us, too."
But it wouldn't be until their parents were interviewed by Spike Lee for his Academy Award-nominated 1997 documentary, "4 Little Girls," that the McNair sisters fully understood. Everything their parents had kept to themselves came out. As Kimberly puts it, the film made Denise "three-dimensional." Their father would travel to different cities to attend the film's premieres and sob at every one of them. It was, they believe, the purge he'd so desperately needed. Now, whenever the sisters see the film, they start crying as soon as the opening credits roll.
Their mother, Maxine, was in the church's choir loft when the bomb exploded. She jumped up to try to find her daughter, not knowing she was buried in the rubble. She wouldn't see Denise again until, at the hospital, she and her husband later identified their only child's lifeless body.
"I couldn't stop screaming for several days," Maxine says. "They had to give me an injection to calm my nerves."
The couple, who had tried to have more children ever since Denise was born, came home to silence.
That they had another daughter almost exactly a year later, and then another, felt like a miracle.
Today, Lisa and Kimberly look at their mother with awe and admiration.
"No one would have blamed her if she'd crawled into bed and cried for the rest of her life," says Lisa. "Mama said a minister friend of hers told her, 'Maxine, God has a divine plan, and you just have to follow it.'"
As an evening summer storm pounds the living-room skylights in the Birmingham-area home the family shares, their rescue dog Banjo vies for lap space.
Maxine, now 85 and suffering from Alzheimer's, swats the mutt away -- "Get that thing on the floor." She closes her eyes but never stops listening. As the conversation turns to what Denise might have been, Maxine's eyes open.
"She would have been awesome," says Lisa, who remembers stories of Denise standing up for others. "A doctor or lawyer or politician."
"I think she would have left Birmingham. I just think she would have been adventurous," says Kimberly. "And I'm sure she would have given my parents the grandchildren they wanted."
"We have granddogs," says Lisa, giving Banjo a squeeze.
"You two are crazy!" Maxine howls with laughter.