OAKLAND -- She was a college student beginning a year of study in France when she heard about the latest horror in her Alabama hometown: four African-American girls killed in a church bombing, two of them known to her as family friends.
Years before she became an international symbol of a turbulent American era, Angela Yvonne Davis was a homesick 19-year-old searching for a French phone booth. She wanted to check on her parents back in Birmingham.
"As horrendous as it was to imagine that bombing, I really wish I had been able to be there," Davis said this week. "Whenever you lose someone, you want your friends and family around."
Just 18 days after the euphoric March on Washington dared Americans to imagine an end to racism, Ku Klux Klan members on Sept. 15, 1963, planted dynamite under the steps of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, a gathering spot for young activists fighting the city's deeply entrenched racial segregation.
The deadly attack -- 50 years ago this Sunday morning -- aroused worldwide sympathy for the U.S. civil rights movement. It was also one of the sparks that set Davis, who turns 70 in January, on a radical path against racial injustice that made her a polarizing figure.
The youngest victim, Denise McNair, was 11. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were 14. Davis sees them not just as helpless victims but as children who were among many who had confronted segregation, stood up against police brutality earlier that year and formed "the backbone of the movement at that time."
"People criticized Dr. (Martin Luther) King for wanting to utilize children as the troops of that movement," Davis said. "But they wanted to participate. They wanted to stand up. Dr. King also knew that they would make for a great deal of drama to publicize what was going on in Birmingham."
The longtime Oakland resident, feminist scholar, anti-prison activist and UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus is scheduled to commemorate the Birmingham tragedy with a speech at 5 p.m. Sunday at the First Congregational Church, 2501 Harrison St., in Oakland.
Joining her is lawyer Margaret Burnham, founder of a project at Boston's Northeastern University School of Law that aims to record the history and help solve cold cases of racially motivated murders in the '30s-'60s era. Burnham also helped defend Davis after the FBI pursued her as one of the agency's "most-wanted" fugitives in 1970. A Santa Clara County jury acquitted Davis in June 1972 of charges the activist professor supplied weapons involved in a San Rafael courthouse shootout that left a judge and three others dead.
Davis moved to Oakland after her 18-month jail stint and has lived here since, continuing her academic and activist career and running twice for vice president on the Communist Party platform in the 1980s.
She has long described the 1963 bombing as a personal turning point, but it was also part of a pattern, she said, "the most dramatic and most horrendous example of a kind of racist violence that was always there" in Birmingham.
Her childhood was "a combination of really enjoying the community, the games, my playmates, and, at the same time, moments of high tension when we would become aware of the fact that violence could break out at any moment," Davis said.
White supremacists so frequently targeted her middle-class black neighborhood for bombings since the late 1940s that it came to be known as "Dynamite Hill" and the city, "Bombingham." Violence hit black residents who dared to cross the color line separating white and black society.
"My mother always used to tell us that we were living in a world that needed to be changed, we were living in a world that should not be the way it was," Davis said.
Davis spoke in Birmingham this spring for yet another 50th anniversary, of the campaign led by King and others to integrate the city through civil disobedience.
But controversy still follows an activist whose revolutionary worldview has remained largely consistent over the decades. The Alabama State Legislature voted earlier this year to pass a symbolic resolution recognizing Davis' work, but several legislators later said they didn't realize whom they were recognizing. The Republican governor declined to sign it, raising concerns about her Communist Party history, according to the Montgomery Advertiser.
Davis said "the most important thing" about the Birmingham bombing "is to not consider this as a part of the story that has come to an end."
"Four young black girls had their lives extinguished because the Ku Klux Klan and other racists in Alabama failed to imagine a world in which racial justice prevailed," she said.
Symbolizing the ongoing struggle, says Davis, are tragedies such as the slaying of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot and killed by a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer.
"You might say the demonization of young black men, the criminalization of young black men, is linked to that ongoing inability to imagine a world in which racial justice prevails," Davis said.
What: Angela Davis, activist, writer, and UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus, and Margaret Burnham, activist, civil rights lawyer and Northeastern University School of Law professor, will speak at a 50th commemoration of the Birmingham bombing.
When: 5-7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: First Congregational Church of Oakland, 2501 Harrison St., Oakland
Tickets: $25 per person, available at www.alumni.northeastern.edu/CRRJ