When one scrolls through the pages of history, one will find that no one has carried out acts of terrorism on humans more than the Caucasian man. He has spent thousands of years matching round the earth killing, maiming, brutalizing, stealing, and terrorizing various indigenous populations.
When bombing of churches are mentioned, what comes to mind are some angry Muslims from Arabia planting bombs in churches. But that is not the case here. In this account, we see grown white men who planted bombs in a church where African-American children and adults convened, just because white-America wanted to uphold their segregation and continuous bullying of Black people.
Located downtown, just blocks from Birmingham’s commercial district and City Hall, the 16th Street Baptist was a large and prominent church.
On September 15, 1963, just before 11 o’clock, instead of rising to begin prayers the congregation was knocked to the ground. They sought safety under the pews and shielded each other from falling debris as a bomb exploded under the steps of the church.
The congregation of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama greeted each other before the start of Sunday service on September 15, 1963.
Five young girls were in the basement of the church, two of them sisters, they were gathered in the ladies room wearing their best dresses and happily chatting about the first days of the new school year. It was Youth Day and excitement filled the air as usual, they were excited because they were going to take part in the Sunday adult service.
However, instead of rising to begin prayers, Just before 11 o’clock, the congregation was knocked to the ground. A bomb exploded under the steps of the church while they sought safety under the pews and shielded each other from falling debris.
The four little girls in the basement, 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Cynthia Wesley were killed. Susan, Addie’s sister survived, but was permanently blinded.
Many questions hung in air in the moments after the explosion, – ‘Where is my loved one?’ ‘Are they ok?’ ‘How much longer can this violence last?’ Thestunned congregation did not ask if this was an accident, they knew that this was a bomb that had exploded as it had dozens of times before in “Bombingham.”
When he learnt about the bombing at the Church, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to Alabama Governor George Wallace who was a staunch and vocal segregationist. The letter stated bluntly: ‘The blood of our little children is on your hands.”
The vicious attack and the deaths of the four little girls shocked the country and brought international attention to the violent struggle for civil rights in Birmingham. Many whites were as outraged by the incident as blacks and offered services and condolences to the families.
The funeral of the girls held at Reverend John Porter’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church was attended by over 8,000 people. Two months later, the deaths of the four girls were followed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy causing an outpouring of national grief, galvanizing the civil rights movement, and ensuring the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Why This Church?
16th Street Baptist was a prominent church. It was large church located downtown, just blocks from Birmingham’s commercial district and City Hall. The church had served as the centerpiece of the city’s African American community since its construction in 1911 and functioned as a meeting place, social center, and lecture hall. The church served as headquarters for civil rights mass meetings and rallies in the early 1960s due to its size, location, and importance to the community.
Birmingham was the most segregated city in the United States. In April 1963, after an invitation by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth to come help desegregate Birmingham, the city became the focus of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The desegregation campaign conceived by Shuttleworth was known as “Project C” and was to be a series of nonviolent protests and boycotts.
Notwithstanding firm resistance from some of the church’s leadership and members of the congregation, the 16th Street Baptist Church joined the SCLC in their campaign. The church became the departure point for many of the demonstrations that took place in the city. On May 2, 1963, many students ranging in age from eight to eighteen gathered at the church to march downtown.
Their plan was to talk to the new mayor about segregation. After they left the church they were met by police and many of them were jailed. By the time the “Children’s Crusade” and the ensuing demonstrations ended on May 10th, thousands of children and adults had been injured by fire hoses and attack dogs and jailed by order of the Commissioner of Public Safety, “Bull” Connor.
The church became viewed by many as a symbol and a rallying place for civil rights activists. It also became the focal point for racial tensions and white hostility towards the civil rights movement in Birmingham.
As a result of the success of the Birmingham Campaign, on May 10, 1963, the city agreed to desegregate lunch counters, drinking fountains, restrooms, and fitting rooms. It also agreed to hire African Americans in stores as salesmen and clerks and to release the jailed demonstrators. White segregationists opposed desegregation, however, and violence continued to plague the city.
On May 11th, a bomb destroyed the Gaston Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been staying and another damaged the house of King’s brother, A. D. King. The house of Arthur Shores, NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) attorney was firebombed on August 20th and September 4th. This was in retaliation for his attempts to help integrate the Birmingham public schools.
President John F. Kennedy took control of the Alabama National Guard on September 9th, a national guard that Governor Wallace was using to block court-ordered desegregation of public schools in Birmingham. Within that time, Robert Chambliss foreshadowed the violence to come when he told his niece, “Just wait until Sunday morning and they’ll beg us to let them segregate.” He would later be named as a suspect in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
An investigation was immediately launched by the FBI office in Birmingham. FBI agents sent a memo in 1965 to FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover naming four men as primary suspects for the bombing – Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, and Herman Cash.
All four men were members of Birmingham’s Cahaba River Group, a splinter group of the Eastview Klavern #13 chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Eastview Klavern #13 was considered one of the most violent groups in the South and was responsible for the 1961 attacks on the Freedom Riders at the Trailways bus station in Birmingham.
The investigation ended in 1968 with no indictments. The FBI stated that although they had identified the four suspects, the witnesses were reluctant to talk and they lacked physical evidence. In addition, information from FBI surveillances was not admissible in court. Hoover decided not to approve arrests, stating, “The chance of prosecution in state or federal court is remote.” No charges were filed in the 1960s for the bombing of the church although Chambliss was convicted on an explosives charge.
In 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, requesting evidence from the FBI and building trust with witnesses who had been reluctant to testify.
Investigators revealed that, while the FBI had accumulated evidence against the bombers, they had not disclosed the evidence to county prosecutors because of orders from Hoover.
Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder on November 14, 1977; however, it would be decades before the other suspects were tried for their crimes. The FBI assisted Alabama state authorities in bringing charges against the remaining suspects in 2000. On May 1, 2001, Thomas Blanton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry was also convicted. Cherry’s boasts of being the one who planted the bomb next to the church wall helped send him to prison for life. In 1994, Herman Cash died having never been prosecuted for the murders of the four girls.
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