Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware.
Outside of Birmingham, Alabama, those names have gone largely forgotten in the decades since Robinson and Ware died on Sept. 15, 1963, the day four Black girls were killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.
They died in the erupting chaos after the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church that morning in an attack that killed 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair. In the uprising that followed, a white police officer killed Robinson and a white teenager killed Ware.
“For so long, the four little girls got all the recognition, and they forgot about the two little boys,” James Ware, Virgil’s older brother, told The Birmingham News in 2013.
Aside from the four girls, Robinson, 16, and Ware, 13, were the only two people to die in the aftermath of the attack that day. Robinson was with his friends when a group of white people drove by waving Confederate flags, throwing garbage and hurling racist slurs at the Black group, according to NPR. Witnesses said then that a police car arrived after Robinson and his friends were seen throwing rocks at a car draped in a Confederate flag.
“The crowd was running away and Mr. Robinson had his back [turned] as he was running away,” FBI agent Dana Gillis told NPR in 2010. “And the shot hit him in the back.”
Gillis, now retired from the FBI, told NBC News via email that he was tasked with delivering a letter to the Robinson family in 2010 with more information about Robinson’s case and what actually happened that day. Consumed by grief, the Robinsons didn’t talk much about the teen’s death, especially after local and federal grand juries decided not to prosecute Jack Parker, the officer who killed him, NPR reported. Parker died in 1977.
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Gillis met with the family as part of an FBI civil rights program to resolve civil rights-era cold cases. Revealing information about Robinson’s death was supposed to give the family closure, The Birmingham News reported in 2013.
“We didn’t get no closure,” Robinson’s sister, Diane Robinson Samuels, said then. “We ain’t got nothing but heartaches.”
Unlike Robinson, Ware didn’t know about the church bombing that day as he rode on the handlebars of his brother James’ bike. Ware and his brothers had picked up a paper route and, to prepare for the gig, visited a scrapyard to find a bike for Ware, Time reported. On the way home, a group of white boys spotted them, apparently mistaking them for other Black boys accused of throwing a brick at a white teen.