The Birmingham Bombing in Alabama was a sad day in U.S history. Just 60 years ago, on a sunny Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, services began at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The mainly Black congregation greeted each other with broad smiles like they did any other Sunday. It was also Youth Day and in the basement, 5 young girls, two of them sisters, gathered in the Ladies Room. They wore their best Sunday dresses and excitedly checked themselves in the mirrors. They chatted about the new school year and the roles they would play in the service on Youth Day.
Just before 11:00 o’clock AM, families in the pews settled in and began fanning themselves from the oppressive Southern humidity. The pastor smiled and waved to the congregation as he walked to the podium to begin. But instead of rising to praise God in song, the gathered congregation was shockingly knocked off their feet! A bomb violently exploded under the side steps of the church. The tall windows shattered and red bricks flew through the air like grenades.
“Hit the floor!” someone shouted, and they all scrambled under the pews for shelter.
In the minutes after the explosion, screams, panic and worry filled the smoky air. ‘Is the church on fire? Was that a bomb? Oh Lord, where’s my family?‘ Few believed it was an accident. They knew it had to be another bomb. You see, so many acts of terror had already occurred their city it was known as “Bombingham.” This was the 3rd bombing in just 11 days, after a federal court order had mandated the integration of Alabama schools. The March on Washington had occurred 2 weeks earlier, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
They were right. During the dark of night, the bombers had hidden a stack of dynamite under cinder block steps on the east side of the church, next to the basement, near the girls’ rest room. Most of the dazed and injured parishioners were able to stumble out of the smoke-filled church and into the rubble of the street outside. Where are the girls? Someone shouted. Has anyone seen my girls? A frantic search was begun. The bodies of four young girls were eventually found dead beneath the rubble in the basement.
Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (11).
Addie’s sister, Sarah Collins (12), was rescued by a Deacon and managed to survive, but was permanently blinded in one eye from glass shards. More than 20 others were seriously injured and required hospitalization. The bodies of the four girls were solemnly carried out on covered stretchers.
But why Birmingham? After the Civil War, the city rapidly became the state’s most important industrial center AND America’s most racially segregated. The current Alabama Governor George Wallace was a heated opponent of desegregation, and Birmingham possessed one of the most violent chapters of the KKK. The city’s police was also notorious for using brutality in combating demonstrators, most especially Black ones.
It was no accident that white supremacists in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) chose the 16th Street Baptist Church. 16th Street Baptist was the largest Black church in Birmingham. It was used for all kinds of local and national civil rights meetings, drawing leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.. The large brick church, with its 2 red-domed towers had a basement auditorium that held mass meetings of the civil rights movement. Many of Birmingham’s protest marches began at the broad steps of the church. The KKK routinely called in bomb threats to disrupt civil rights meetings and church services.
It was precisely because of this reputation, that civil rights activists made Birmingham a focal point of their efforts to desegregate the South in the 1960’s. By the time of the Birmingham Bombing, thousands of activists had already been injured during street protests by police fire hoses and attack dogs with many imprisoned.
The protests were working! Due to the Birmingham Campaign, that spring the city finally agreed to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, and drinking fountains, AND to release jailed demonstrators. This infuriated white supremacists who continued a plague of violence against Blacks. On September 9th, President John F. Kennedy took control of the Alabama National Guard to enforce court-ordered desegregation of public schools, which Governor Wallace was vehemently blocking.
After the Birmingham Bombing, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to Governor Wallace saying bluntly:
“The blood of our little children is on YOUR hands.”
The brutal deaths of 4 little girls in a church on a Sunday morning shocked the U.S. and drew international attention to Birmingham. Many whites were outraged and offered services and condolences to the families. Over, 8,000 people attended the solemn funeral service of 3 of the girls. Rev. King himself spoke passionately, fanning the public outrage growing across the country.
In the days following the blast, thousands of angry Black protesters gathered at the church. When Governor Wallace sent police and state troopers to break up the gathering, violence broke out across the city. Protesters were again arrested and 2 young Black men killed before the National Guard was called in to restore order. Outrage over the Birmingham Bombing and the violent clash helped draw national attention to civil rights movement.
Though certain Birmingham white supremacists were immediately suspects in the bombing, repeated calls for the men to be brought to justice went unanswered. How could this happen in America? the people wondered.
‘How could 4 young, black girls be ruthlessly murdered at a church on Sunday, and Birmingham go back to business as usual?’
The FBI office in Birmingham launched an investigation that dragged on for years. In a 1965 memo, agents named four men as their primary suspects – Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, Bobby Cherry, and Herman Cash. All four men were members of Birmingham’s Ku Klux Klan infamous Chapter #13. It was considered one of the most violent in the South and responsible for the 1961 Freedom Riders Attack at the Birmingham bus station.
The investigation ended however, in 1968 after five long years with NO indictments. According to the FBI, although they had identified the four suspects, witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover chose NOT to approve the arrests, stating, “The chance of prosecution in state or federal court is remote.“
It was more than a decade before state authorities took action. In 1971, Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case. He obtained the FBI evidence and convinced reluctant witnesses to testify. The Attorney General charged Klan leader Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss with murder. He was finally convicted in 1977. Chambliss died in jail in 1985, never admitting to the Birmingham Bombing.
38 years after the Birmingham Bombing, Thomas Blanton Jr. was likewise convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2001. A year later, Bobby Frank Cherry, who had bragged about setting the explosives himself, was also found guilty and given life in prison. His ex-wife and son testified against him. He died in 2004 at age 74. The 4th suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 before he could be brought to justice. Tom Blanton is currently over 80, incarcerated at the St. Clair Prison in Springfield, Alabama.
Even though the U.S. legal system was slow providing justice to Birmingham’s Black community, the after-effect of the bombing was immediate and significant. National outrage helped build support in U.S. Congress to finally end segregation. It lead to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. So in that sense, the bombing’s impact was exactly the opposite of the fear that the white supremacists had intended. Plus it planted one of the seeds for the Black Lives Matter movements decades later in 2013.
The fifth little girl, Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost one eye in the bombing, is now 72. She still lives in Alabama with her husband, George, surrounded by pictures of her older sister. Sarah never received any help, financial or medical, from the city or state. She blames Governor Wallace for inciting the Klan violence with his incendiary words. Sarah wrote a book about her experiences since then, The Fifth Little Girl. Today, she occasionally travels the country, talking to school children and churches, and giving TV interviews about the fateful Birmingham Bombing.