OTD in History… September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham Alabama becomes a symbol of civil rights struggle
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history September 15, 1963, White supremacists bombed the African American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama as parishioners were in the church killing four school-aged girls and injured 14, igniting a race riot that would kill two more and sparked an urgency in the civil rights struggle. Members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite under the stairs of the east side of the church hitting the basement restroom were the girls had been. Just 18 days after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, On September 18, King would deliver the girls eulogies from what he called “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” It would take decades for any of the four Ku Klux Klansmen involved to be held responsible. The bombing became a symbol of the need for civil rights legislation and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act nearly a year later in 1964.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was a symbol of the civil rights movement with meetings for the movement’s leaders. Birmingham was as King said a “symbol of hardcore resistance to integration.” King, Ralph David Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth met in the three-story church, while it was the meeting point the 1963 Birmingham campaign’s Children’s Crusade, between May 2 and 5. During the protest, 1,000 children skipped school, marched for integration, and 600 people mostly children some as young as six were arrested. On May 8, the city agreed to integrate buses and buildings, and three schools would integrate starting September 4.
The KKK in Birmingham was one of the worse chapters in South, while the governor as History.com notes, “made preserving racial segregation one of the central goals of his administration.” Birmingham was the epicenter of racial confrontations and violence for ten years with 50 bombings. The latest wave of violence began 11 days earlier after a federal order to desegregate the state’s schools. Before the 16th Street Baptist Church, there had been three other bombings attacking African Americans. This time the KKK decided to hit the church with a timed bomb at 10:22 am., as it was full for the annual youth day and the start of services. One of the men called in telling the acting Sunday school secretary, a 14-year-old school-girl Carolyn Maull, “three minutes.” A minute later, there was an explosion.
After the bomb went off, the uninjured came out of the church, covered with blood and white power, and the church was in ruins, pieces of stain glass and rubble everywhere. The damage was widespread, according to Barbara Maranzani writing in the History.com the article, “Over fifty years ago, a bomb exploded at a predominantly black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and setting off nationwide soul-searching.” Maranzani recounts the “dynamite exploded underneath the church’s stairs, knocking a gaping hole in a restroom wall, creating a crater over two-feet deep in the basement and spraying debris all over the building. The blast was so powerful, in fact, that it blew a motorist from his car, destroyed vehicles parked outside and shattered windows blocks away.” Only one of the church’s stain glass windows were spared, the one where Jesus lead the children. The three of the victims were fourteen-years-old, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, while Denise McNair was eleven. Collins 12-year-old sister Sarah was one of the injured losing an eye, with 21 pieces of glass that flung in her face. Collins’ older 16-year-old sister Junie had just gone upstairs to the Church’s main floor avoiding the worst of the explosion. The girls were changing into their robes for choir and tying their sashes.
After the explosion, approximately 2,000 African Americans gathered on the church’s location and police placed barricades surrounding it, some fought with the police officers. The 16th Street Church’s Reverend John Cross Jr. tried to calm the crowd by “recited Psalm 23 through a bullhorn.” In the 24 hours after the explosion, African American youth rioted fighting with white youth and destroying business, stoning cars and firebombing property all owned by whites. During the riots, two more school-aged children were killed, two African American boys, Virgil Ware, 13, and Johnny Robinson, 16. Police killed Robinson, and a 16-year-old Eagle Scout segregationist shot Ware as he was riding his bicycle. Approximately, 20 were injured in the bombing and the riots. Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace sent out “500 National Guardsmen and 300 state troopers” on September 15, during the riots and added “500 police officers and 150 sheriffs’ deputies” the next day.
The next day on September 16, King held a press conference calling for the US Army “ought to come to Birmingham and take over this city and run it.” President John F. Kennedy, who delivered a highly regarded call for Civil Rights legislation in June and subsequently submitted legislation to Congress, responded by urging the bill’s passage. Kennedy expressed, “If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and state — if they can only awaken this entire nation to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost.” Besides this according to historian Taylor Branch, Kennedy had a “hands-off” approach, which Branch recounts, “There’s not much the federal government can do, which in retrospect is kind of shocking.”
The reaction by whites in Birmingham was not sympathetic many celebrating “four less niggers.” Governor Wallace created the hostile environment encouraging the violence, in a New York Times interview telling them a “few first-class funerals” would stop integration. King put the blame thoroughly on Wallace and told him via telegram, “The blood of four little children … is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.” The rare outcry from the white community came from a young lawyer Charles Morgan Jr., who told a meeting of businessmen, “Who did it [the bombing]? We all did it! The ‘who’ is every little individual who talks about the ‘niggers’ and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son … What’s it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States.” Morgan spoke up but in doing so he was forced to move from Birmingham.
There were two funerals; the funeral for Carole Rosamond Robertson was held separately on September 17 at St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, because he mother objected to King saying that African American community’s “apathy and complacency” led to the bombing. The next day, the funerals for the remaining three girls was held at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church. There were 800 religious leaders from all races and religions but no representative from the city or state present. Thousands attended the service including white members of the community. King delivered the eulogy urged, “This tragic day may cause the white side to come to terms with its conscience. In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not become bitter … We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Life is hard. At times as hard as crucible steel, but, today, you do not walk alone.”
Finding justice proved a long arduous process and did not lead to charges initially although the FBI was involved in the investigation. The investigation focused on four KKK members. Initially, Robert Chambliss considered the mastermind, was charged with murder, buying 122 sticks of dynamite, but by October the murder charge did not stick, and he faced only a sentence of six months in jail which was suspended and $100 fine. Two associates of Chambliss were also charged with illegally purchasing dynamite; John Hall and Charles Cagle, both received the same sentence as Chambliss. The investigation also suspected the involvement of Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover squashed the investigation closing it down in 1968 without allowing any federal charges and locking up the files. As historian Taylor Branch has indicated Hoover hated King, his vendetta interfered with the FBI’s responsibilities. In August 1963, Hoover designated King as ‘’the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation,’’ in a memo, had King’s phones has tapped and surveyed him in hotel rooms.
Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case in January 1971, upon entering the office. In 1977, Baxley charged and successfully convicted Chambliss then 77 for four counts of murder. On September 26, a Jefferson County grand jury indicted Chambliss. The key testimony from his November trial came from Chambliss’ niece Elizabeth Cobb, who told her he had “enough stuff put away to flatten half of Birmingham.” On November 18, a jury convicted Chambliss of the four murders and he was given a life sentence, he died in 1985. The FBI decided to reopen the case in 1997. Finally in 2000, Cherry and Blanton were each charged with four counts of murder, both were convicted and given four life sentences in prison. Cash was the only one involved, who was never charged having died in 1994 before the FBI reopened the case.
The four girls became symbols of the Civil Rights movement; journalist Diane McWhorter writing in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Carry Me Home, Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution writes there were two milestones for the Civil Rights movement in 1963. McWhorter notes, “The first milestone was the huge nonviolent demonstrations that Martin Luther King Jr. staged in the spring… The second of the emblematic “events of Birmingham” — as President John F. Kennedy referred to the inspiration for his own Emancipation Proclamation, the bill eventually passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — was the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In some ghoulish symmetry with the youth triumph of the spring, four black Sunday school girls were killed by the explosion.” (McWhorter, 15)
According to Branch, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing “came out of history. It was because that church had been so pivotal in mobilizing the nation, really breaking down people’s resistance to the idea that this was something they should deal with. When people saw the dogs and fire hoses loosed on small children marching out of that same church in May, all around the country and, indeed, all around the world, they said, you know, this racial segregation is something that I have to do something about.” President Kennedy used the events in Birmingham in 1963 to push through meaningful civil rights legislation. Unfortunately, Kennedy was assassinated in November, his successor Lyndon Johnson, who presided in the Senate over the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960, pushed this milestone legislation in the summer of 1964. Johnson followed through with the Voting Rights Act the following year in 1965 finally giving Southern African Americans the voting power to remove segregationist officials opposed to integration through the vote.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
McWhorter, Diane. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama : the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963–65. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.