In the annals of civil rights history, certain names have been etched into collective memory, their stories serving as enduring symbols of resilience and tragedy. Yet, alongside the harrowing narrative of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, there exists a quieter, but no less poignant, tale of two forgotten young lives—Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware.
September 15, 1963, is a date eternally seared into the memory of Birmingham, a day when the 16th Street Baptist Church became a site of unspeakable horror, claiming the lives of four innocent Black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson, and Denise McNair. However, amidst the chaos that followed the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the church that morning, two more lives were tragically cut short—those of Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware. Their names, unlike the girls, have largely faded from public consciousness over the years.
Robinson, just 16 years old, met his untimely demise as he and his friends encountered a group of white individuals who waved Confederate flags, hurled racial slurs, and provoked tensions. Witnesses recounted that a police car arrived on the scene after Robinson and his friends retaliated by throwing rocks at a car adorned with a Confederate flag. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, a shot rang out, hitting Robinson in the back, taking his life.
FBI agent Dana Gillis, who investigated Robinson’s case, delivered a letter to the grieving Robinson family in 2010, shedding light on the events of that fateful day. However, local and federal grand juries declined to prosecute Jack Parker, the police officer responsible for Robinson’s death.
Virgil Ware, only 13 years old, was caught in the crossfire of racial tension. White teenager Larry Sims, acting under the influence of a friend, fired a shot, unintentionally striking Ware in the chest and face. Sims was convicted of second-degree manslaughter, while his friend, Michael Farley, received the same charge. Astonishingly, both were given lenient sentences, with their jail terms suspended and replaced with two years of probation.
DeJuana Thompson, President of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, emphasized that while the world may have forgotten Robinson and Ware, the city of Birmingham has not. An exhibit at the institute ensures that their stories are preserved and shared. She also highlighted the ripple effects of such acts of terror, affecting various parts of the city in ways often overlooked.
For decades, the families of Robinson and Ware bore the weight of both loss and the obscurity of their stories. Ware’s remains rested in an unmarked grave along an Alabama road until 2004 when he was finally reinterred in a marked grave. The recognition of their sacrifice continued to grow as they were posthumously inducted into Birmingham’s Gallery of Distinguished Citizens in 2011. Subsequently, a sculpture titled “Four Spirits” was unveiled in Kelly Ingram Park, commemorating the four girls and Robinson and Ware. This powerful memorial serves as a testament to their enduring legacy.
Yet, for Robinson’s family, the revelation of information about his death did not bring the closure they had hoped for. Diane Robinson Samuels, his sister, articulated their continued heartache and the void left by his absence.
Virgil Ware’s story, different in its innocence, serves as a stark reminder of the indiscriminate brutality of racism. Unaware of the church bombing, he rode on the handlebars of his brother James’ bike when tragedy struck. Mistaken for other Black boys, Ware and his brothers were confronted by a group of white boys, leading to the fatal shot that would forever silence the young boy’s laughter.
As we reflect on the history of the civil rights movement, let us remember not only the well-known heroes but also the forgotten victims, like Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, who fell victim to the shadows of hatred and intolerance. Their stories, like the countless others lost to history, deserve to be heard and remembered.