Remembering The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

From left, Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963. (AP)

From left, Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963. (AP)

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 Jaildefending 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.

Unidentified mourners, who overflowed the church, stand across the street during funeral services for 14-year-old Carol Robertson, Sept. 17, 1963, Birmingham, Ala. The girl was one of four young African Americans killed in a bomb blast the previous Sunday. (AP)/Via, The Daily Beast

Unidentified mourners, who overflowed the church, stand across the street during funeral services for 14-year-old Carol Robertson, Sept. 17, 1963, Birmingham, Ala. The girl was one of four young African Americans killed in a bomb blast the previous Sunday. (AP)/Via The Daily Beast

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.

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  • formerlywhatithink

    From one of the linked articles:

    Sarah Collins Rudolph was one if the last people to leave Capitol Tuesday. On Sept 15, 1963, she suffered burns, broken bones and lost an eye in the blast that took the life of her sister Addie Mae Collins.

    Despite her loss and injuries she forgave. “I had to forgive those people. Holding on to hate just keeps you sick and angry.”

    She is truly an amazing person. And. i admit, a better person than me because I would’ve craved revenge. This is the true spirit of Christianity.

    • drspittle

      I would crave revenge, too. I was starting high school when the TV footage was shown on TV. I truly believe many Americans were truly horrified by seeing the dogs, the fire hoses and the beatings that the marchers endured. I know it seard my soul on a deep level and I think it’s one of the reasons I’m so enraged by the racism I see and hear in the media and on blogs. I remember my mother telling my father not to buy her a Christmas gift that year but to send the money he would have spent to Birmingham to rebuild the church.

  • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

    This happened when I was two years old, but I remember it being talked about on news shows as if it were a recent event when I was in grade school. Looking back, I saw a lot of footage of protests and protesters being hit with billy clubs by police on horseback and hit with fire hoses (that could rip the bark off trees) and thought it was current at the time. Some was and some was old footage. I was always upset by it and remember the effects of watching the violence against people who weren’t doing anything bad— just walking or sitting at counters— and it doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then. It’s senseless violence that still hasn’t given an account of itself.

    It seems our national memory used to be longer and that we weren’t so desensitized to terrorist violence and the murder of children.

  • http://www.politicalruminations.com/ nicole

    Thank you for this, Brink.

    We need to be reminded. Not because we don’t remember, but because the civil rights struggle goes on today.

    The things that Dr. King and so many others fought for are under attack in many states with their voter discrimination legislation, the GOP thugs going after primarily black communities (such as
    Detroit
    which now has an Emergency Financial Manager who cut the power to the city during a major heatwave on Sept. 11 in order to “teach them a lesson”) in efforts to destroy them, and the best damn president of my lifetime under constant attack from both the left and the right.

    Bombing churches full of people, using truncheons and fire hoses on not only adults, but young children……………make no mistake, this is what the GOP of today would do if they thought they could get away with it. They are dirty rotten authoritarian thugs. That is all.

  • missliberties

    I live in Colorado and am sick of all this rain and might be filled with a tinge and a twitch of cynicism due to circumstances, but I just can’t shake the horrid feeling that if this happened in these new times….. people would just shrug. :(

    • The Panic Man

      Oh, no, no, people wouldn’t just shrug.

      Within minutes, we’d hear from the “news” media how a swarthy person, probably a furriner, was seen fleeing, before that would be retracted quietly in a way many people wouldn’t even catch wind of.

      We’d hear about how it was clearly a liberal atheist secularist attack on Christian Real Amurka, since it happened to a church, even after that was shown to be untrue.

      The Joneser and Paulite shitbags wouldn’t even stop for breath before declaring it AN OBVIOUS FLASE FLAG BY TEH GUMMINT TO TAKE AWAY OUR RIGHTS AND DECLAR MARSHUL LAW!!!!!!!!11111

      We’d hear that it was the fault of video games, music, TV, movies, books, the Internet, secularism, liberalism, non-Christian religions, and especially those Not-Like-Us folks, and no one but the usual few who see through all this would ever breach the racism angle, lest they be accused of playing the Race Card.

      Fred Phelps would rev up the hate wagon to picket the funerals, with huge gaudy signs and shouted epithets of “God Loves Dead Children”.

      And the Internet would be making sick, hateful, disgusting, humorless “jokes” about it before the bodies were even cold.

      No, missliberties, people wouldn’t “just shrug”.

      And that’s what worries the fuck out of me.

      • missliberties

        Yeah. It’s pretty ugly out there. It worries me that the media, imho has been so irresponsible.

      • drspittle

        And of course the MainSlime Media would blame Obama. And I’m not joking. They woud blame Obama.

        • The Panic Man

          My bad, I forgot that one.

  • muselet

    “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” –William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

    If the social science research is to be believed, most kids today hardly think about race at all, and that’s a very good thing. However, the philosophical offspring of Bull Connor and Robert Chambliss and Bobby Cherry and all the rest who fought like cornered wolverines against equality, they think about race a lot and they don’t like what they see one little bit, and that’s a very bad thing.

    Racism, violence, intimidation, stubborn resistance to social change, attacking children, these things aren’t gone, aren’t dead and buried, aren’t consigned to the history books. They’re here and they’re now and they’re just as noxious and as dangerous as they ever were. People have just gotten a little better at hiding them between uses. We forget that at our peril.

    Thanks for posting this, Brink.

    –alopecia

    • mrbrink

      Very well said. You never disappoint.

  • Nefercat

    I just finished “While the World Watched” by Carolyn Maull McKinstry , one of the survivors of the bombing (Kindle version is free). It is a stunning reminder of how far we have come and how far we have to go. So much of the hate and anger and bigotry described in the book is rising to the surface again, having only been tamped down a bit in all these years. I learned so much that I had not known before. I highly recommend it.

  • mdblanche
  • drspittle

    Thank you, Mr.Brink, for your powerful testament to their courage.