It was 50 years ago today, on the morning of September 15, 1963 that the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred, killing four little girls– Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair– in what was a racially motivated act of terrorism perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan that still reverberates today.
At about 10:22 a.m. on the Sunday morning of September 15, 1963, “Twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for the sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives,” when the bomb exploded,” changing the course of history and cementing Birmingham’s nickname and reputation as “Bombingham.”
1963 would be the year Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream Speech”– 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. The same year, Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham for violating the anti-protest injunction established by local Birmingham government to violently stamp out the flames of racial equality. It was in this context where he wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” defending non-violent resistance to racism and unjust laws.
It was a year marked by great shifts in public sentiment toward the Civil Rights movement that culminated with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson. Images and reports of children being attacked with fire hoses and dogs, lunch counter sit-ins being broken up with batons, thousands of arrests of protesters, including children, had filled the local jails to their structural limits and thrust the issue of racism in America into the faces of the public and dared them to continue to look the other away.
Local white clergymen, supported by white businessmen and politicians and local media, under the leadership of Alabama Governor George Wallace and Commissioner of Public Safety at the time, Bull Connor– Klansmen with badges in suits– acted to preserve their white culture and heritage by destroying the lives and livelihoods of an entire race of people under the guise of freedom and liberty for the white man.
While civil rights leaders had called for unity and forgiveness in the aftermath of this act of terrorism, with Rev. John Cross still trying to pick up the pieces on the steps of the church now reduced to rubble, saying, “we should be forgiving as Christ was forgiving,” progress was at hand, but not without a price.
Over 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of all races, attended the services for the four victims.
But the firebombing of black community churches continued in Alabama and throughout the South well into the 1990′s, with dozens of incidents occurring between 1993-1996.
Incidentally, as a product of the times, 1995 would be the year America experienced its most devastating act of domestic terrorism by pro-white militants, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Responding violently to what they perceived as government attacks on their freedom and way of life, the two men plotted and carried out the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah Federal Building that was responsible for the deaths of 168 people, including six children.
After the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, federal and local authorities were reluctant to make arrests, even though they had their suspects. On October 8, 1963, Robert E. Chambliss(“Dynamite Bob“)was arrested and fined $100 and sentenced to six months in prison for having 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit, but it wouldn’t be until 1977 when Dynamite Bob would be the first one convicted of the murder and bombing. Claiming that witnesses and evidence were lacking, Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr.– all Klansmen– were named in an FBI memo by J. Edgar Hoover, dated May 3, 1965. This memo wasn’t revealed until the case was reopened years later in 1971 by Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley.
With Hoover out of the way and no longer able to suppress the evidence, Robert Chambliss was finally convicted in 1977. After almost 40 years, Bobby Cherry was finally convicted in 2002. Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. was tried in 2001 and found guilty at age 62. Herman Cash died in 1994 without ever having been charged.
After the bombing, a September 16, 1963 Washington Post story reported,
The only stained glass window in the church that remained in its frame showed Christ leading a group of little children. The face of Christ was blown out.
This week, Birmingham, Alabama marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
This past week, Congress posthumously honored Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley with The Congressional Gold Medal.