The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963 as an act of racially motivated terrorism. The explosion at the African-American church, which killed four girls, marked a turning point in the U.S. 1960s Civil Rights Movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Although city leaders had reached a settlement in May w…ith demonstrators and started to integrate public places, not everyone agreed with ending racial segregation. Bombings and other acts of violence followed the settlement, and the church had become an obvious target. The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963, and was where the students who were arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign’s Children’s Crusade were trained. The church was used as a meeting-place for civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. Tensions were escalated when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) became involved in a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham.
Still, the campaign was successful. The demonstrations led to an agreement in May between the city’s business leaders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to integrate public facilities in the city.
In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash, and Robert Chambliss, members of United Klans of America, a Ku Klux Klan group, planted a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, near the basement. At about 10:22 a.m., twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for the sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives,” when the bomb exploded. Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack, and 22 additional people were injured, one of whom was Addie Mae Collins’ younger sister, Sarah. The explosion blew a hole in the church’s rear wall, destroyed the back steps and all but one stained-glass window, which showed Christ leading a group of little children.
The explosions increased anger and tension, which were already high in Birmingham. Birmingham’s Mayor Albert Boutwell wept and said, “It is just sickening that a few individuals could commit such a horrible atrocity.” Two more black people were shot to death approximately seven hours following the Sunday morning bombing, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware. Robinson was shot by police, reportedly after they caught him throwing rocks at cars and he ignored orders to halt as he fled down an alley. Ware was “shot from ambush” as he and his brother rode their bicycles in a residential suburb, 15 miles north of the city.
In spite of everything, the newly integrated schools continued to meet. Schools had been integrated the previous Tuesday with black and white children in the same classrooms for the first time in that city.
As the news story about the four girls reached the national and international press, many felt that they had not taken the Civil Rights struggle seriously enough. A Milwaukee Sentinel editorial opined, “For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths…in a sense are on the hands of each of us.”
The city of Birmingham initially offered a $52,000 reward for the arrest of the bombers. Governor George Wallace, an outspoken segregationalist, offered an additional $5,000. However, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wired Wallace that “the blood of four little children … is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”
Following the tragic event, white strangers visited the grieving families to express their sorrow. At the funeral for three of the girls (one family preferred a separate, private funeral), Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about life being “as hard as crucible steel.” More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of all races, attended the service. No city officials attended. The bombing continued to increase worldwide sympathy for the civil rights cause.
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring equal rights of African Americans before the law.
Civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, for the killings. Birmingham was a violent city and was nicknamed “Bombingham”, because the city had experienced more than 50 bombings in black institutions and homes since World War I. Only a week before the bombing Wallace had told The New York Times that to stop integration Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals.”
A witness identified Robert Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as the man who placed the bomb under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He was arrested but only charged with possessing a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. On October 8, 1963, Chambliss received a hundred-dollar fine and a six-month jail sentence for having the dynamite. At the time, no federal charges were filed on Chambliss.
The case was unsolved until Bill Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama. He requested the original Federal Bureau of Investigation files on the case and discovered that the FBI had accumulated evidence against the named suspects that had not been revealed to the prosecutors by order of J. Edgar Hoover. The files were used to reopen the case in 1971.
In November 1977, the seemingly forgotten case of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was brought to Court, where Chambliss, now aged 73, was tried once again and was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Chambliss died in Lloyd Noland Hospital and Health Center on October 29, 1985.
On May 18, 2000, the FBI announced that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing had been carried out by the Ku Klux Klan splinter group the Cahaba Boys. It was claimed that four men, Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry had been responsible for the crime. Cash was dead but Blanton and Cherry were arrested, and both were tried and convicted. Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. was tried in 2001 and found guilty at age 62 of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Bobby Frank Cherry, also a former Klansman, was indicted in 2001 along with Blanton. Judge James Garrett of Jefferson County Circuit Court ruled “that Mr. Cherry’s trial would be delayed indefinitely because a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation concluded that he was mentally incompetent.” He was later convicted in 2002, sentenced to life in prison, and died in 2004.