A view of police activity outside the bomb damaged 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. This is the only photo Chris McNair shot after the bombing of the Church. His only child, Denise McNair was killed in the bombing
Chris McNair / Getty

This week I am in Birmingham, Alabama, my birthplace, to converse with the MacArthur Fellow and fine-art photographer Dawoud Bey about his exhibition The Birmingham Project. The event, held tomorrow, is a commemoration: 60 years ago, on September 15,1963, the civil-rights movement suffered a devastating blow when four Black girls at 16th Street Baptist Church were killed by a bomb. And, as Bey insists we remember, two Black boys, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, were killed later that day as well. Robinson and Ware have frequently been forgotten, as has the fact that Birmingham’s Black community exploded in outrage over the four deaths.

This was neither the first nor the last time Black children were killed in the South as a message that white supremacy would be maintained at all costs. And it was neither the first nor the last time that the response from Black southerners was more complex than simply nonviolent resistance. In fact, even the term civil-rights movement is in a sense too narrow to describe what was happening in Birmingham and other communities. This was a freedom-movement era, in which some Black southerners focused on civil and legal rights, others focused on economic development or redistribution, and others still saw themselves connected to an international decolonization movement. In Birmingham, though 1963 was a watershed moment, organizing against racial injustice and economic exploitation had been ongoing since the ’30s.

This September, there is a lot to remember and a great deal to correct. Over the course of four days, starting on Thursday, attendees at the commemoration in Birmingham will hear from Dr. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. and Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. All of us who are participating have described ourselves as direct beneficiaries of the Black South’s freedom movement, and have worked to sustain its legacies in varying ways.

Bey’s project consists of a series of diptychs: on one side is a child the age of one of the victims, and on the other, an adult at roughly the age they would be now. Bey deliberately photographed many of his subjects at Bethel Baptist Church, where Birmingham’s fiery leader, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, led his flock and organized meetings. It was Shuttlesworth who introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the Birmingham movement, and who heralded the historic marches from Kelly Ingram Park to City Hall, though in mainstream-media remembrances he is often reduced to a footnote to King, if remembered at all.

The culture wars of the present moment tend to be framed as a political binary. On one side, the thinking goes, is a conservative account predicated on an unflinching patriotism. On the other side is a humble—as in, “Yes, the United States has done some terrible things”—yet still exceptionalist account of America as an unfinished but noble democratic experiment. The dangerous seduction of these frames is that adherents to one or the other often place every piece of historical information into a preordained narrative. But we do better to allow new information to befuddle us, even confound us, as we try to understand how elusive real democracy and economic justice are in this nation. To that end, we ought to sit with who and what has been written out of our conventional civil-rights stories, and what wounds and gaps result.

At best, reflecting on the past can serve as a guide for making ethical demands for a just future. Right now this effort is daunting; the study of Black history is being banned from classrooms and libraries, and correctives to Jim Crow, the architecture for an unequal present, are being decried as unfair and are under rapid dismantling. We are doubly haunted by both the past and the near future. The wildfires raging across America are both literal and symbolic warnings.

And then there is a recent story about a middle-school girl in Mississippi who was raped and had no choice but to give birth to the child, because of Mississippi’s draconian abortion ban. Though this might seem to be a separate category of political concern, Black women in the freedom movement saw reproductive health as absolutely central to their organizing, whether it was Rosa Parks campaigning with the NAACP against sexual assault, Fannie Lou Hamer testifying about the pattern of forced sterilization of Black women—so common that some called hysterectomies “the Mississippi appendectomy”—or the organizing in support of Joan Little, who defended herself against the sexual assault of her jailer and in 1975 became the first woman in the U.S. to be acquitted of murder on the gounds that it was committed in self-defense against a sexual assault. Little’s case exposed a routine practice of sexual violence in prisons, especially against Black women.

So many of our crises are of a piece. The attack on the ideal of diversity in institutions and in the study of our past, for example, is an attack on an ethic of social, political, and civic responsibility to the vulnerable. Our strategies for facing the future must be robust and expansive in kind. If the organizers of the mid-20th century imagined the ideal of freedom as including multiple dimensions—not just voting rights and access to higher education, but also freedom from sexual violence, reproductive rights, access to health care, and a living wage—we must insist upon the same in the present moment. In other words, no commemoration without deep contemplation. For Virgil, for Johnny, and for that little girl in Mississippi.