Written by: Farinaz Khan
Fifty years ago, two and a half weeks after the March on Washington, four little girls were killed in a bombing that shook the nation. By 1963, Birmingham had been labeled “Bombingham” due to the frequent occurrences of homemade bombs being set off in the black homes of the city. At the time, Birmingham was one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States.
During the 1960s, many of the civil rights protests that took place in Birmingham started at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The church had long been a meeting place for civil rights organizers and an important spiritual center for the city’s black population. KKK followers regularly called in bomb threats at the center to disturb the meetings and services.
On the morning of September 15, 1963, over 200 adherents were inside the church when the bomb set off on the building’s east side before the start of the 11 am service. As the brick and mortars caved in the interior wall and smoke filled the building, most of the worshipers were able to escape.
However, the bodies of four little girls were found beneath all of the rubble. Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collin, 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were discovered in the basement restroom. Sarah Collins, 10, was also in the restroom during the explosion and lost her right eye. The girls had been at church for Sunday school, where the day’s lesson was “A Love That Forgives.” More than 20 other people were injured.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was the fourth bombing in Birmingham in less than a month, triggered by a federal court mandating integration of Alabama’s public schools. In the aftermath of the bombing, thousands of black protestors poured into the streets. When Alabama Governor George Wallace sent in police to break up the demonstrations, chaos broke out throughout the city. Fistfights broke out, and some demonstrators struck police with stones. Protesters were arrested, and two young black men were killed.
Johnny Robinson, 16, was shot and killed by a policeman for hurling stones and Virgil Wade, 13, was killed while riding his motorcycle. 500 National Guardsmen and 300 state troopers were brought in to restore order. Martin Luther King Jr. later spoke at the funeral for three of the girls, intensifying the public outcry throughout the country.
Even though there were suspects, calls to bring the perpetrators to justice remained unanswered for over a decade. KKK leader Robert E. Chambliss was taken to trial after witnesses reported seeing him at the church, but he was only charged for possession of dynamite and given a $100 fine and six month jail sentence. He would not be convicted for the bombings until 1977, after it was revealed that the FBI knew the identities of the bombers by 1965, but did not pursue them. Two other former Klan members, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, were brought to trial and finally convicted in 2001 and 2002.
Although the legal system was slow to respond, the aftermath of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was instant and substantial. Public outcry over the death of the four little girls rallied support behind the fight to end segregation, which culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.