Birmingham Church Bombing

Birmingham Church Bombing


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The Birmingham church bombing occurred on September 15, 1963, when a bomb exploded before Sunday morning services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama—a church with a predominantly Black congregation that also served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders. Four young girls were killed and many other people injured. Outrage over the incident and the violent clash between protesters and police that followed helped draw national attention to the hard-fought, often-dangerous struggle for civil rights for African Americans.

Birmingham in the 1960s

The city of Birmingham, Alabama, was founded in 1871 and rapidly became the state’s most important industrial and commercial center. As late as the 1960s, however, it was also one of America’s most racially discriminatory and segregated cities.

Alabama Governor George Wallace was a leading foe of desegregation, and Birmingham had one of the strongest and most violent chapters of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The city’s police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, was notorious for his willingness to use brutality in combating radical demonstrators, union members and any Black citizens.

Precisely because of its reputation as a stronghold for white supremacy, civil rights activists made Birmingham a major focus of their efforts to desegregate the Deep South.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been arrested there while leading supporters of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in a nonviolent campaign of demonstrations against segregation. While in jail, King wrote a letter to local white ministers justifying his decision not to call off the demonstrations in the face of continued bloodshed at the hands of local law enforcement officials.

His famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was published in the national press, along with shocking images of police brutality against protesters in Birmingham that helped build widespread support for the civil rights cause.

16th Street Baptist Church

Many of the civil rights protest marches that took place in Birmingham during the 1960s began at the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which had long been a significant religious center for the city’s Black population and a routine meeting place for civil rights organizers like King.

KKK members had routinely called in bomb threats intended to disrupt civil rights meetings as well as services at the church.

At 10:22 a.m. on the morning of September 15, 1963, some 200 church members were in the building—many attending Sunday school classes before the start of the 11 am service—when the bomb detonated on the church’s east side, spraying mortar and bricks from the front of the church and caving in its interior walls.

Most parishioners were able to evacuate the building as it filled with smoke, but the bodies of four young girls (14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair) were found beneath the rubble in a basement restroom.

Ten-year-old Sarah Collins, who was also in the restroom at the time of the explosion, lost her right eye, and more than 20 other people were injured in the blast.

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15 was the third bombing in 11 days, after a federal court order had come down mandating the integration of Alabama’s school system.

Aftermath of the Birmingham Church Bombing

In the aftermath of the bombing, thousands of angry Black protesters gathered at the scene of the bombing. When Governor Wallace sent police and state troopers to break the protests up, violence broke out across the city; a number of protesters were arrested, and two young African American men were killed (one by police) before the National Guard was called in to restore order.

King later spoke before 8,000 people at the funeral for three of the girls (the family of the fourth girl held a smaller private service), fueling the public outrage now mounting across the country.

Though Birmingham’s white supremacists (and even certain individuals) were immediately suspected in the bombing, repeated calls for the perpetrators to be brought to justice went unanswered for more than a decade. It was later revealed that the FBI had information concerning the identity of the bombers by 1965 and did nothing. (J. Edgar Hoover, then-head of the FBI, disapproved of the civil rights movement; he died in 1972.)

In 1977, Alabama Attorney General Bob Baxley reopened the investigation and Klan leader Robert E. Chambliss was brought to trial for the bombings and convicted of murder. Continuing to maintain his innocence, Chambliss died in prison in 1985.

The case was again reopened in 1980, 1988 and 1997, when two other former Klan members, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were finally brought to trial; Blanton was convicted in 2001 and Cherry in 2002. A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial.

Lasting Impact of the Birmingham Church Bombing

Even though the legal system was slow to provide justice, the effect of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was immediate and significant.

Outrage over the death of the four young girls helped build increased support behind the continuing struggle to end segregation—support that would help lead to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In that important sense, the bombing’s impact was exactly the opposite of what its perpetrators had intended.

READ MORE: Civil Rights Movement Timeline


16th Street Baptist Church bombing

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16th Street Baptist Church bombing, terrorist attack in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, on the predominantly African American 16th Street Baptist Church by local members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Resulting in the injury of 14 people and the death of four girls, the attack garnered widespread national outrage.

Throughout the civil rights movement, Birmingham was a major site of protests, marches, and sit-ins that were often met with police brutality and violence from white citizens. Homemade bombs planted by white supremacists in homes and churches became so commonplace that the city was sometimes known as “Bombingham.” Local African American churches such as the 16th Street Baptist Church were fundamental in the organization of much of the protest activity. In 1963 the 16th Street Baptist Church hosted several meetings led by civil rights activists. In an effort to intimidate demonstrators, members of the KKK routinely telephoned the church with bomb threats intended to disrupt these meetings as well as regular church services.

When a bomb made of dynamite detonated at 10:22 am on September 15, 1963, church members were attending Sunday school classes before the start of the 11:00 am church service. The bomb exploded on the east side of the building, where five girls were getting ready for church in a basement restroom. The explosion sprayed mortar and bricks from the front of the building, caved in walls, and filled the interior with smoke, and horrified parishioners quickly evacuated. Beneath piles of debris in the church basement, the dead bodies of four girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, all age 14, and Denise McNair (age 11)—were discovered. A fifth girl who had been with them, Sarah Collins (the younger sister of Addie Mae Collins), lost her right eye in the explosion, and several other people were injured.

Violence broke out across the city in the aftermath of the bombing. Two more young African Americans died, and the National Guard was called in to restore order. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the funeral of three of the girls. Despite repeated demands that the perpetrators be brought to justice, the first trial in the case was not held until 1977, when former clan member Robert E. Chambliss was convicted of murder (Chambliss, who continued to maintain his innocence, died in prison in 1985). The case was reopened in 1980, in 1988, and finally again in 1997, when two other former clan members—Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry—were brought to trial. Blanton was convicted in 2001 and Cherry in 2002 both received life sentences (Cherry died in 2004, Blanton in 2020). A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 before he could be tried.

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was examined by director Spike Lee in the Oscar-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls (1997). In the film, Lee interviews witnesses to the bombing and family members of the victims while at the same time exploring the backdrop of segregation and white harassment that were central to the time period.


Baptist Street Church Bombing

It was a quiet Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama—around 10:24 on September 15, 1963—when a dynamite bomb exploded in the back stairwell of the downtown Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The violent blast ripped through the wall, killing four African-American girls on the other side and injuring more than 20 inside the church.

It was a clear act of racial hatred: the church was a key civil rights meeting place and had been a frequent target of bomb threats.

Our Birmingham office launched an immediate investigation and wired the FBI Director about the crime. FBI bomb experts raced to the scene—via military jet—and an additional dozen personnel from other offices were sent to assist Birmingham.

At 10:00 p.m. that night, Assistant Director Al Rosen assured Assistant Attorney General Katzenbach that “the Bureau considered this a most heinous offense…[and]…we had entered the investigation with no holds barred.”

And we backed that promise up. Dozens of FBI agents worked the case throughout September and October and into the new year—as many as 36 at one point. One internal memo noted that:

“…we have practically torn Birmingham apart and have interviewed thousands of persons. We have seriously disrupted Klan activities by our pressure and interviews so that these organizations have lost members and support. …We have made extensive use of the polygraph, surveillances, microphone surveillances and technical surveillances…”

By 1965, we had serious suspects—namely, Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., all KKK members—but witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. Also, at that time, information from our surveillances was not admissible in court. As a result, no federal charges were filed in the 󈦜s.

It’s been claimed that Director Hoover held back evidence from prosecutors in the 󈦜s or even tried to block prosecution. But it’s simply not true. His concern was to prevent leaks, not to stifle justice. In one memo concerning a Justice Department prosecutor seeking information, he wrote, “Haven’t these reports already been furnished to the Dept.?” In 1966, Hoover overruled his staff and made transcripts of wiretaps available to Justice. And he couldn’t have blocked the prosecution and didn’t—he simply didn’t think the evidence was there to convict.

In the end, justice was served. Chambliss received life in prison in 1977 following a case led by Alabama Attorney General Robert Baxley. And eventually the fear, prejudice, and reticence that kept witnesses from coming forward began to subside. We re-opened our case in the mid-1990s, and Blanton and Cherry were indicted in May 2000. Both were convicted at trial and sentenced to life in prison. The fourth man, Herman Frank Cash, had died in 1994.

If you are interested in learning more, please read our 3,400 pages on this case—what was called the “BAPBOMB” investigation—posted online.


Contents

By the 1940s, black families were trying to purchase homes in segregated white areas of Birmingham. The local Ku Klux Klan began a terror campaign against black families attempting to move to the west side of Center Street, sometimes firing shots or bombs at houses, or lighting a home's door on fire. Center Street became known as Dynamite Hill because of these attacks. From the late 1940s to the 1960s over 40 unsolved bombings occurred in Birmingham. Klan members specifically targeted civil rights lawyer Arthur Shores who lived in Birmingham. Some families refused to leave, instead tolerating the attacks in an effort to support desegregation efforts. [3]

  1. July 28, 1949 — Home of the Reverend Milton Curry Jr, at 1100 Center Street North. [4]
  2. August 2, 1949 — Second bomb at the Curry’s home. [5]
  3. April 22, 1950 — Third bomb at the Curry’s home. [6]
  4. December 21, 1950 — Home of Monroe and Mary Means Monk at 950 North Center Street, who had challenged the city of Birmingham’s zoning laws. [7]
  5. 1957 — Bomb at 1216 13th Street North in Fountain Heights was reportedly the fourth home bombed in less than a year. [8]
  6. August 20, 1963 – Home of civil rights lawyer Arthur Shores.
  7. September 4, 1963 — Second bomb at the Shores' home.
  8. September 15, 1963 — 16th Street Baptist Church bombing killed four young girls: Addie May Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. [9]
  1. ^ ab Eskew, p. 53
  2. ^ Elliott, Debbie (July 6, 2013). "Remembering Birmingham's 'Dynamite Hill' Neighborhood". National Public Radio (NPR) . Retrieved 26 March 2016 .
  3. ^
  4. "Remembering Birmingham's 'Dynamite Hill' Neighborhood". npr.org . Retrieved 2020-01-04 .
  5. ^“Horrific years of Bombingham”, AL.com, June 26, 2016.
  6. ^“Horrific years of Bombingham”, AL.com, June 26, 2016.
  7. ^“Horrific years of Bombingham”, AL.com, June 26, 2016.
  8. ^“Horrific years of Bombingham”, AL.com, June 26, 2016.
  9. ^“Horrific years of Bombingham”, AL.com, June 26, 2016.
  10. ^
  11. "Birmingham Church Bombing - Black History - HISTORY.com". HISTORY.com . Retrieved 2017-06-01 .

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Vigilance And Victory: How The Birmingham Church Bombing Revealed America's Ugly Truths

On Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala., at 10:22 a.m., a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The blast, erupting from the church's east side, sprayed mortar and bricks, caving in the building's walls.

Of the nearly 200 congregants inside, attending Sunday school classes and preparing for the 11 a.m. service, about 22 were injured. But perhaps most notably, four little girls -- three 14-year-olds and one 11-year-old -- were killed, putting the bombing among the most well-known and heartbreaking tragedies in the fight for civil rights in America's Deep South.

In a bittersweet irony, the Birmingham church bombing catapulted the civil rights movement to a new stage, and ultimately helped influence the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the immediate effect of the deaths, in the face of vaunted American ideas like justice and liberty, was to reveal a country that had refused to take an honest look in the mirror.

For centuries, society had relegated African descendants to second-class citizenship, and as a result, created a complicated perception of black physicality. The subjects of fear and fascination since their first interaction with Europeans, blacks, over time were dehumanized and subjected to unjust treatment as a result.

"Black bodies are complex signs that represent something both appealing and repulsive for the society in which we dwell," Anthony B. Pinn explains in his essay, "DuBois' Souls: Thoughts on "Veiled" Bodies and the Study of Black Religion."

The images that circulated right after the Birmingham church bombing not only put the hypocrisy of American liberty into the spotlight, it also humanized African-Americans. But while the pictures of the destruction that killed the four girls helped fight the long-held perception at that time that black bodies are less-valuable, it is a battle that still carries on today.

Chains Of The Past

One main reason it was possible for Ku Klux Klansmen Robert Chambliss and his accomplices to carry out the bombing was the sociological tension created by centuries of American slavery, said Sherwin Bryant, associate professor of African American Studies and History and director of the Center for African American History at Northwestern University.

"Western modernity has largely been at war with black subjects," Bryant told The Huffington Post. "It has mostly been at war with, and seeking to subjugate and dominate, people of African descent."

The institution of slavery ultimately developed a need for white colonists to establish dominance over black bodies, which largely still exists today, he said. Race and racism are byproducts of that slavery.

"Slavery had everything to do with, first and foremost, a kind of social and political status that one had, or more precisely was denied in the colony," he said. "What happens in Atlantic slavery is slavery becomes tethered, almost exclusively, to Africans and the very idea of blackness and particular kinds of labor, the very kinds of labor that no one would want to do. So as those things become practices tethered to blackness and African descendants, or black bodies, there you begin to see the way in which slavery was a part of making race."

But the abolishment of slavery and the end of the Reconstruction Era created a kind of anxiety among whites about the position of power, he said. That resulted in a desire to control the activities of African-American citizens through acts of terror.

"What you have cropping up, after the federal government sort of abandons black Southerners, you basically have white vigilante violence that begins to emerge to subjugate blacks," Bryant said. "There’s a certain attempt to subjugate and keep black folks in place, and one of the main ways that was attained was through black terror."

Empathy v. Embarrassment

Examples of this terrorism ranged from calling a grown black man "boy," or refusing to call a married black woman "Mrs.," to violent rapes and lynchings -- or the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. But how does society justify such inhumane treatment? The answer lies in whether the victim is seen as a human being.

"Racism is the most powerful force that can completely erase the humanity of human beings," Dorothy Roberts, a law and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told The Huffington Post. "It’s a perverse sickening combination of very deeply embedded assumptions and experiences, but also the stake that people have in their privileges."

These psychological effects of racism made it possible for large groups of whites, women and children included, to gather to watch lynchings -- a horrific scene captured in photos throughout history and recounted in James Baldwin's fictional stories in "Going to Meet the Man."

"The only way they could do that is if they didn’t see that person as a human being," Roberts said. "Torture is the end result of racism. That one human being can torture and justify it because they don’t see that victim as a human being, and racism makes it possible to do that."

But the lack of empathy among those crowds is a far cry from the feelings that photos from the church bombing evoked in Americans nationwide. Those dark images and what they represented were in stark contrast to the droves of whites who stood with black activists fighting for equality.

As images of brutality against peaceful protesters and unjust killings circulated both nationally and internationally, pressure mounted for the U.S. to respond. However, Bryant said he's unsure whether empathy played a larger role than embarrassment during the civil rights movement.

"One of the things that really helped the civil rights movement to break through, was the fact that the United States was fighting a war against fascism around the globe and yet at the same time treating its black citizens as less than human," he said.

"So being embarrassed and called out on the world stage, that sort of inconsistency, questions of human rights violations being raised on the world stage, that is what began to help turn the tide for civil rights. I don’t think that it was 'empathy,' but a particular kind of shaming, or showcasing the absurdity of liberty, the absurdity of the American democracy and the ways in which the black experience actually gives lie to that kind of rhetoric and discourse."

"That has been our reality, empathy has not been our reality."

"We All Did It"

In the aftermath of the bombing, the city of Birmingham and then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace feigned attempts to track down the perpetrators. But to many proponents of the civil rights movement, the suspects were only a small part of a much bigger problem.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told Wallace the young girls' deaths were partly the governor's fault.

"The blood of four little children … is on your hands," he said. "Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”

The day after the bombing, the Milwaukee Sentinel published a story effectively scolding the nation, saying that "the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths . in a sense are on the hands of each of us.”

Also the day after the bombing, a white Alabama lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr., delivered a speech against prejudice and injustice at a lunch meeting of the Birmingham's Young Business Men's Club, and was forced to leave the city as a result.

Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, "Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?" The answer should be, "We all did it." Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it.

In 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley became soldiers in a war they didn't fully understand, and died for a cause beyond the reach of their young minds.

But the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the deaths of four innocent little girls forced Americans to confront the ideology that black lives were not as valuable as white lives -- something the nation still grapples with today.

"You might argue that we won the war, but we lost the peace in some ways. Many of the civil rights gains have been gutted and marginalized, and it really is difficult to get a handle on where we are," Bryant said. "There’s a way in which white privilege continues under a veneer of black liberty."


The Stark Reminders of the Birmingham Church Bombing

On September 15, 1963, 14-year-old Cynthia Morris Wesley and three other members of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church youth choir left their Sunday school class to freshen up for their roles as ushers in the main service. The lesson for the day had been “The Love That Forgives.” Eleven-year-old Denise McNair met Cynthia and her classmates in the women’s lounge, in the northeast corner of the basement.

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Carole Robertson, 14, was the most mature of the girls. She was wearing medium-high heels for the first time, shiny black ones bought the day before. Carole’s mother had gotten her a necklace to go with the shoes and put a winter coat on layaway for her.

Also in the lounge was 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins. One of eight children, Addie was a little on the shy side, but she looked radiant in her white usher’s dress. Cynthia and Carole also wore white. The three ushers were standing with young Denise by the window, which looked out onto Sixteenth Street at ground level. So elegant was this church that even the restroom window was made of stained glass.

Addie’s younger sister Sarah Collins stood at the washbowl. At the request of a Sunday school teacher, 15-year-old Bernadine Mathews came into the lounge to encourage the girls to return to their classrooms. Cynthia said she needed to push her hair up one more time. “Cynthia,” Bernadine chided her, “children who don’t obey the Lord live only half as long.”

At 10:22 that morning there was a resonant thud, as if someone had hit the world’s largest washtub, followed by a ripping blast that sent a streak of fire above the church. Closed doors flew open, and the walls shook. As a stale-smelling white fog filled the church, a blizzard of debris—brick, stone, wire, glass—pelted the neighborhood. Some of those inside believed the Russians were coming.

A motorist was blown from his car. A pedestrian calling his wife from a pay phone across the street was whooshed, receiver still in hand, into the Social Cleaners, whose front door had been whipped open.

Pastor John Cross moved toward the fog that clung to the northeast side of his church. There was a 7- by 7-foot hole in the wall of what had been the women’s lounge. The bomb had made a crater 2 1/2 feet deep and 5 1/2 feet wide, demolishing a foundation that had been a 30-inch-thick mass of stone facing over a brick-and-masonry wall.

Cross walked through the gaping hole. Some deacons and civil defense workers began digging into the wreckage. Strewn about were blood-spattered leaflets printed with a child’s prayer: “Dear God, we are sorry for the times we were so unkind.”

A gingerly excavation uncovered four bodies. They were stacked horizontally, like firewood. Cross had no idea who they were. They looked like old women, and he knew that the basement had been filled with Sunday school children.

“Lord, that’s Denise,” said Deacon M.W. Pippen, owner of the Social Cleaners. Denise McNair was Pippen’s granddaughter. Only then did Cross realize the corpses were girls. Pippen had recognized Denise’s no-longer-shiny patent-leather shoe. The clothes had been blown off the girls’ bodies.

Samuel Rutledge, looking for his 3 1/2-year-old son, instead found a female buried alive, moaning and bleeding from the head. He carried her through the hole toward the street. “Do you know who she is?” people asked one another. Again, Cross thought she had to be 40 or 45 years old. But Sarah Collins was only 12. After being loaded into an ambulance (colored), she sang “Jesus Loves Me” and occasionally said, “What happened? I can’t see.” The ambulance driver delivered Sarah to University Hospital and returned to pick up his next cargo, the corpse of her sister Addie Mae.

Approaching her father in the crowd on the sidewalk, Maxine Pippen McNair cried, “I can’t find Denise.” M.W. Pippen told his daughter, “She’s dead, baby. I’ve got one of her shoes.” Watching his daughter take in the significance of the shoe he held up, he screamed, “I’d like to blow the whole town up.”

Word of the bombing reached Martin Luther King in Atlanta as he was about to step up to the Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit. “Dear God, why?” he had silently asked. Then he appealed to secular powers, writing President John F. Kennedy that unless “immediate federal steps are taken,” the “worst racial holocaust this nation has ever seen” would come to pass in Alabama. His telegram to Gov. George Wallace charged, “The blood of our little children is on your hands.”

King prepared to go back to Birmingham, to another riot scene. The now-familiar assortment of law enforcement officials stood guard with their shotguns at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church while two FBI lab men flown down on a military jet sifted through the debris.

One of the stained-glass windows had survived the explosion. Only the face of Jesus had been blown out.

Prosecutions in the killings of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Morris Wesley and Carole Robertson were delayed by the reluctance of witnesses and a dearth of physical evidence. One suspect died in 1994 without having been charged three others were convicted of murder between 1977 and 2002.

From Carry Me Home, by Diance McWhorter. Copyright © 2001 by Diance McWhorter. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Diane McWhorter is the author of Carry Me Home, an account of “the climactic battle of the civil rights revolution” in her hometown in 1963, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.


Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (1963)

The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing took place on September, 15 1963. Four young girls, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, were killed in the racially motivated attack by the Ku Klux Klan against an African American church active in the ongoing civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama.

The attack was meant to disrupt black community activists who had been demonstrating for weeks for an end to segregation in the city. It had the opposite effect. Because the four young girls killed were on their way to a basement assembly hall for closing prayers on a Sunday morning, the national public’s anger and revulsion at the slaughter of children at a place of worship helped build support in the John Kennedy administration for civil rights legislation. Twenty-two others were injured, many of them children that had been in the same group as the girls.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had been a rallying point for civil rights activists throughout the spring and summer leading up to the bombing. The activists had finally reached an agreement with local authorities to begin integrating schools, and segregationists were outraged. Four men (Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, and Herman Cash), who were members of the United Klans of America, went to the church and planted nineteen sticks of dynamite outside the basement behind the building.

The explosion, which occurred around 10:20 that Sunday morning, destroyed the rear end of the building. The steps going outside were destroyed as were all but one of the church’s stained glass windows. Many cars outside damaged or destroyed, and even the windows of the laundromat across the street were blown out.

The public funeral for three of the girls attracted over 8,000 people, but not one city or state official attended. The Birmingham Post-Herald reported a month later that in the aftermath of the bombing no one had been arrested for the incident itself, but twenty-three African Americans had been arrested for charges ranging from disorderly conduct to “being drunk and loitering,” mostly in the vicinity of the church. One black youth was gunned down by police after he threw rocks at passing cars with white passengers.

Of the four involved in the bombing, Robert Chambliss was tried for murder first. He was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985. Cherry and Blanton were convicted of murder in in 2002 and 2001, respectively, and they were both sentenced to life in prison. Cherry died in 2004. The fourth, Herman Cash, died in the 1994 before charges could be brought against him.


A typical day tore apart

On the 15th of September 1963, four girls — Denise McNair (11-years old), Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson (all 14-years old) — travelled to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where they would help with the service and fill the role of ushers. They filtered into the building, with the youngest of the friends, Denise McNair, arriving last at around 10:10 AM. She joined her friends in the women’s lounge to get ready for the service.

While the church was stirring, a call came through that early morning. A teenage girl, Carolyn McKinstry, answered the phone, but the voice on the other side only said: “Three minutes” (Klobuchar 2009: 11). Not knowing what to make of it, she hung up and went to the Sunday school classroom.

In the women’s lounge, the four girls stood near a mirror, gauging the progress of their preparations. Denise was having trouble tying her sash, so Addie began tying the bow for her friend. At 10:22 AM, a loud noise tore through the peacefulness.


Primary Sources

(1) I. F. Stone, I. F. Stone's Weekly (30th September, 1963)

It's not so much the killings as the lack of contrition. The morning after the Birmingham bombing, the Senate in its expansive fashion filled thirty-five pages of the Congressional Record with remarks on diverse matters before resuming debate on the nuclear test ban treaty. But the speeches on the bombing in Birmingham filled barely a single page. Of 100 ordinarily loquacious Senators, only four felt moved to speak. Javits of New York and Kuchel of California expressed outrage. The Majority Leader, Mansfield, also spoke up, but half his time was devoted to defending J. Edgar Hoover from charges of indifference to racial bombings. His speech was remarkable only for its inane phrasing. "There can be no excuse for an occurrence of that kind," Mansfield said of the bombing, in which four little girls at Sunday School were killed, "under any possible circumstances." Negroes might otherwise have supposed that states' rights or the doctrine of interposition or the failure of the Minister that morning to say 'Sir' to a passing white man might be regarded as a mitigating circumstance. Even so Mansfield's proposition was too radical for his Southern colleagues. Only Fulbright rose to associate himself with Mansfield's remarks and to express condemnation.

(2) Duncan Campbell, The Guardian (23rd May, 2002)

A former Ku Klux Klansman was convicted yesterday of the murder of four black girls in the 1963 church bombing in Alabama that acted as a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, was convicted of first-degree murder after the jury of nine whites and three blacks had deliberated for less than a day. He will spend the rest of his life in prison.

The court found that Cherry had been one of a group of Klansmen who plotted to bomb the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which was at the centre of local civil rights protests. Two other former Klansmen have been convicted and a fourth died before facing trial.

The bomb killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14. Their deaths came days after local schools were desegregated.

During the week-long trial, relatives of the dead girls listened as some members of Cherry's own family gave evidence against him.

The former truck driver became a suspect immediately after the bombing but until 1995, when the case was reopened, it had seemed that he would escape trial. But members of Cherry's family, with whom he had fallen out, came forward to tell investigators that he had boasted of taking part in the bombing.

During the trial, his granddaughter, Teresa Stacy, told the court: "He said he helped blow up a bunch of ******s back in Birmingham." His ex-wife, Willadean Brogdon, told the court that he had confessed to her that he had lit the fuse to the dynamite that caused the explosion.

During the early 60s in Birmingham, black people were attacked by whites with little danger of facing punishment, and Cherry was active in violent attacks against civil rights activists.

He had boasted of punching the civil14 rights leader Rev Fred Shuttlesworth with knuckle dusters, saying that he had "bopped ol' Shuttlesworth in the head". He also boasted of a splitting open a black man's head with a pistol.

Cherry, who had moved to Mabank in Texas, denied involvement and pleaded not guilty, but clandestinely recorded tapes showed that he was associated with the other convicted former Klansmen, Thomas Blanton Jr and Robert "dynamite Bob" Chambliss.

Cherry had been a demolitions expert in the Marines.

The case had been closed more than three decades ago after the FBI director at the time, J Edgar Hoover, had said it would be impossible to get a guilty verdict because of the existing climate of racism.

(3) Caryl Phillips, The Guardian (18th August, 2007)

In early 1983, I was in Alabama, being driven the 130 miles from Birmingham to Tuskegee by the father of one of the four girls who had been killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963. Chris McNair is a gregarious and charismatic man who, at the time, was running for political office he was scheduled to make a speech at the famous all-black college, Tuskegee Institute. That morning, as he was driving through the Alabama countryside, he took the opportunity to quiz me about my life and nascent career as a writer. He asked me if I had published any books yet, and I said no. But I quickly corrected myself and sheepishly admitted that my first play had just been published. When I told him the title he turned and stared at me, then he looked back to the road. "So what do you know about lynching?" I swallowed deeply and looked through the car windshield as the southern trees flashed by. I knew full well that "Strange Fruit" meant something very different in the US in fact, something disturbingly specific in the south, particularly to African Americans. A pleasant, free-flowing conversation with my host now appeared to be shipwrecked on the rocks of cultural appropriation.

I had always assumed that Billie Holiday composed the music and lyrics to "Strange Fruit". She did not. The song began life as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a schoolteacher who was living in the Bronx and teaching English at the De Witt Clinton High School, where his students would have included the Academy award-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, the playwright Neil Simon, and the novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Meeropol was a trade union activist and a closet member of the Communist Party his poem was first published in January 1937 as "Bitter Fruit", in a union magazine called the New York School Teacher. In common with many Jewish people in the US during this period, Meeropol was worried (with reason) about anti-semitism and chose to publish his poem under the pseudonym "Lewis Allan", the first names of his two stillborn children.

On that hot southern morning, as Chris McNair drove us through the Alabama countryside, I knew little about the background to the Billie Holiday song, and I had never heard of Lillian Smith. After a few minutes of silence, McNair began to talk to me about the history of violence against African-American people in the southern states, particularly during the era of segregation. This was a painful conversation for a man who had lost his daughter to a Ku Klux Klan bomb. I had, by then, confessed to him that my play had nothing to do with the US, with African Americans, with racial violence, or even with Billie Holiday. And, being a generous man, he had nodded patiently, and then addressed himself to my education on these matters. However, I did have some knowledge of the realities of the south - not only from my reading, but from an incident a week earlier. While I was staying at a hotel in Atlanta, a young waiter had warned me against venturing out after dark because the Klan would be rallying on Stone Mountain that evening, and after their gathering they often came downtown for some "fun". However, as the Alabama countryside continued to flash by, I understood that this was not the time to do anything other than listen to McNair.

That afternoon, in a packed hall in Tuskegee Institute, McNair began what sounded to me like a typical campaign speech. He was preaching to the converted, and a light shower of applause began to punctuate his words as he hit his oratorical stride. But then he stopped abruptly, and he announced that today, for the first time, he was going to talk about his daughter. "I don't know why, because I've never done this before. But Denise is on my mind." He studiously avoided making eye contact with me, but, seated in the front row, I felt uneasily guilty. A hush fell over the audience. "You all know who my daughter is. Denise McNair. Today she would have been 31 years old."


When Racial Tensions in the U.S. Were at their Worst: The 16th Street Birmingham Baptist Church Bombings

Heavyweight boxer Floyd Patterson, speaking at New Pilgrim Baptist Church after bombings and discrimination riots. Getty Images Martin Luther King Jr. held a press conference in Birmingham the day after the attack. He said that the U.S. Army out to come to Birmingham and take over this city and run it. CNN Civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is followed by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, and Ralph Abernathy as they attend funeral services at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church for three of the four black girls killed in a church explosion in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 18, 1963. Associated Press This general view shows part of the overflow crowd attending the funeral services at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church for three of the four black girls killed in a church explosion in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 18, 1963. The Sept. 15 explosion at the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church, where several integrationist meetings were held, ripped apart a Sunday School classroom. Associated Press Coffin being loaded into hearse among the crowd at the funeral for victims of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Photo by Burton Mcneely//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images The family of Carol Robertson, a 14-year-old African American girl killed in a church bombing, attend graveside services for her, Sept. 17, 1963, Birmingham, Ala. Seated left to right: Carol Robertson&rsquos sister Dianne and parents, Mr. Alvin Robertson Sr. and Mrs. Alpha Robertson. The others are unidentified. AP Photo/Horace Cort Mourners at the funeral for victims of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Photo by Burton Mcneely//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images Man digging grave for a victim of the church bombing. (Photo by Burton Mcneely//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images) Sept. 15, 1963: Juanita Jones, center, comforts her sister, Maxine McNair, whose daughter Denise McNair died earlier that day in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. At left is Clara Pippen, mother of the two women. The man at right is unidentified. The bombing occurred days after black students began attending Birmingham city schools. Birmingham News /Landov Mr. and Mrs. Chris McNair hold a picture of their daughter, Denise, 11, in Birmingham, September 16, 1963, as they tell a newsman about the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. One day earlier, Denise and three other girls died in the blast while attending Sunday school. McNair operates a commercial photo studio. Associated Press The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama took place on Sept. 15, 1963, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite with a timer under the front steps of the church. al Over 3,300 mourners including 800 clergymen attended the funeral of the other three girls. al One of two men being questioned about the recent bombings sits in the back seat, at right, of a state trooper car with bullet holes in the windshield, as he arrives at the city jail for safe keeping, Sept. 30, 1963, Birmingham, Ala. At left is a state trooper. Associated Press Robert E. Chambliss is smiling after his arrest for murdering four young girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Getty Images Robert Chambliss was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in 1977 of 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in 1985. al Ten years after Chambliss died the FBI reopened the investigation into the bombing, finding in addition to Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, then deceased, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry committed the bombing. Blanton & Cherry were arrested and indicted in May of 2000. al Bobby Cherry was tried and convicted of four counts of first-degree murder on May 22, 2002, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Cherry died at the Kilby Correctional Facility on Nov. 18, 2004. al When asked if he had anything to say he simply stated I guess the Lord will settle it on Judgment Day. al Thomas Blanton, the last surviving Klansman convicted in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing will go before the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles on Aug. 3rd for his first parole hearing. He is serving his sentence at the St. Clair Correctional Facility. al Thomas Blanton was tried and convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in May of 2001. al


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