On This Day

16th Street Baptist Church, birmingham church bombing
John Morse
16th Street Baptist Church

On This Day: Four Girls Killed in Birmingham Church Bombing

September 15, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb set by KKK members killed four young black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

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The 16th Street Baptist Church was known as a gathering place for civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shutterworth. It was therefore a target for segregationists.

On the Sunday morning of Sept. 15, 1963, at 10:22 a.m., a bomb went off near the basement of the church, where children were gathering before the 11:00 a.m. sermon. “The bomb apparently went off in an unoccupied basement room and blew down the wall, sending stone and debris flying like shrapnel into a room where children were assembling,” described UPI.

Four girls  (11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley) were killed and at least 20 others were injured. The Rev. John H. Cross recalled in 1977, “We started digging to see what was under the debris, digging a foot and a half, someone said, ‘I feel something soft,’ and we began to use a little more caution at that point and discovered that it was a body, and pulled that one out, and dug a little deeper, and there was a second one, and third one, and finally a fourth one. They were all found almost within the same location, as if they had been thrown on top of each other.”

The bomb also caused damage to main floor of the church. “The only stained glass window in the church that remained in its frame showed Christ leading a group of little children,” reported UPI. “The face of Christ was blown out.”

The bombing sparked violence in the city. “Furious Blacks throw stones at the cops, and also at whites driving through the Black neighborhoods,” according to the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. “Roving bands of white vigilantes attack Blacks on the streets. Armed with shotguns and rifles, the troopers ally with the racist whites.”

Two black boys were killed: a 16-year-old was shot in the back by police after he “hurled stones at white youths driving through the area in cars flying Confederate battle flags,” reported The New York Times, while a 13-year-old uninvolved in the violence was killed by white youths.

Background: Racial Violence in Birmingham

Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, was one of the most segregated cities in the South and one of the most violently resistant to integration. Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who took office in January 1963 declaring, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and city police commissioner “Bull” Connor were known for their brutality in defending segregation.

In the spring of 1963, King, Abernathy and other civil rights leaders led a desegregation campaign in Birmingham that included lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts and marches. King was arrested and in prison wrote an open letter, known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” to local white clergymen defending his use of public demonstrations.

In May, the city agreed to desegregate public facilities such as bathrooms, water fountains and lunch counters, and increase the number of blacks in public jobs. The compromise angered many whites in the city and led to a series of violent attacks on black or integrated institutions, adding to “Bombingham’s” reputation for racial violence.

In September, under federal pressure, the city integrated several schools, which increased racial violence. A week before the church bombing, after the killing of a black man, Gov. Wallace told a New York Times reporter, “What this country needs is a few first-class funerals, and some political funerals too.”

The 16th Street Church was a clear target for segregationists. The Rev. Cross said that the church had received six bomb threats since May 1963. “It was just a matter of when,” he said after the bombing. “We’ve been expecting this all along, waiting for it, knowing it would come, wondering when.”

Historical Context: Civil Rights Movement

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to the Civil Rights Movement features links to the best primary and secondary sources on the movement.
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