The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama not only served as a house of worship for its predominately black congregation, it also was a frequent meeting place for organizers of the Civil Rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many of the 1960s Civil Rights marches in Birmingham began at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan, those nice Christian fellows who hate everyone who isn’t white, had a habit of calling in bomb threats to the church during civil rights meetings and church services. On September 15, 1963 at 10: 22 a.m., they made good on their threat.
Most of the 200 parishioners were able to escape when a bomb detonated on the building’s east side, except for four young girls. Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson, all 14 years old, and 11-year-old Denise McNair were found buried in the rubble of the church’s basement. More than twenty other church-goers were also injured during the explosion.
This bombing was the third one in 11 days in response to a federal court order to integrate Alabama’s schools. When black protesters arrived at the scene after the incident, the state’s governor George Wallace (who vehemently opposed desegregation, until he didn’t)sent in police and state troopers to end the demonstrations. Violence erupted in Birmingham, and some protestors were arrested. Two young black men were killed, one by the police, before the National Guard was called in.
All because black people wanted to be treated like human beings, and enjoy the same rights and protections their(white) fellow American citizens just took for granted.
It took a truly disgusting length of time before anyone was brought to justice for this despicable crime, even though everyone in Birmingham had a pretty good idea of who was holding the smoking gun. (Hint: he always had a shit-ton of white sheets on hand.)
Alabama Attorney General Bob Baxley reopened the case in 1977, which resulted in former Klan leader Robert E. Chambliss facing trial and being convicted of four counts of first-degree murder.
According to his niece Elizabeth Cobb, Chambliss told her before the bombing that he had “enough stuff put away to flatten half of Birmingham.” Apparently someone needed a hug and a hobby. He died in prison in 1985.
In May 2001, Thomas Blanton was found guilty of first-degree murder and received four life-term sentences. The following year, Bobby Frank Cherry received the same sentence, and died in prison two years later.
Herman Frank Cash, a fourth suspect, died in 1994 before he could face trial.
Too little too late? Definitely, but at the very least the outrage from the Birmingham church bombing and its aftermath helped provide that extra push that would bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
President John F. Kennedy weighed in on the situation the day after the bombing:
“If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and state — if they can only awaken this entire nation to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost.”
Wise words. But over half a century later, we still haven’t heeded them.