Friday, September 14, 2012

49th Anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

The NEFolk calendar reminds us that tomorrow, September 15, is the 49th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a cowardly and despicable act of terrorism and racism perpetrated by Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash, and Robert Chambliss, members of United Klans of America, a Ku Klux Klan group.
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.

Barnes Newbury, host of "My Back Pages" on WMVY, Martha's Vineyard, posted this today on his Facebook personal page

Tomorrow on My Back Pages we will hear a set dedicated to four little girls in what has now become known as Birmingham Sunday. On the 15th of September, 1963, four young Sunday school girls were murdered in Birmingham, Alabama when a bomb blew up in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church, allegedly by the KKK. Terrorism, pure and simple. This horrific event would play a huge role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964...Please join us at 8 am

From wiki

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 with demonstrators and started to integrate public places, not everyone agreed with ending segregation. Bombings and other acts of violence followed the settlement, and the church had become an inviting 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 African-American leaders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to integrate public facilities in the country.
In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, Bobby Frank CherryThomas BlantonHerman 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.[1] 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.[2]


On the morning of the bombing, a white man was seen getting out of a white and turquoise Chevrolet car and placing a box under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Soon afterwards, at 10:22 a.m., the bomb exploded, killing Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Cynthia Wesley (14). The four girls had been attending Sunday school classes at the church. Twenty-two other people were also hurt by the blast.
Civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, for the killings. Nicknamed “Bombingham”, the city has had more than 40 bombings since World War I.[3] 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 and charged with murder and possessing a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. On October 8, 1963, Chambliss was found not guilty of murder and received a hundred-dollar fine and a six-month jail sentence for having the dynamite.
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 organization had accumulated a great deal of evidence against Chambliss that had not been used in the original trial.
In November 1977, Chambliss was tried once again for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. Now aged 73, Chambliss was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Chambliss died in an Alabama prison 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 have since been tried and convicted.[citation needed]

[edit]Reactions and aftermath

The explosions increased anger and tension, which was 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, including 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware, who were shot at about the same time. 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"[4] as he and his brother rode their bicycles in a residential suburb, 15 miles north of the city; UPI reported: "Two white youths seen riding a motorcycle in the area were sought by police."[5][6]
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.[7]
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.”[8]
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."[2]
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.[9] 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.

[edit]Later prosecutions

FBI investigations gathered evidence pointing to four suspects: Robert Chambliss, Thomas E. Blanton Jr, Herman Cash, and Bobby Frank Cherry. According to a later report from the Bureau, “By 1965, we had serious suspects—namely, Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., all KKK members—but witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. Also, at that time, information from our surveillances was not admissible in court. As a result, no federal charges were filed in the ’60s.”[10] Although Chambliss was convicted on an explosives charge, no convictions were obtained in the 1960s for the killings.
Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened the investigation after he took office in 1971, requesting evidence from the FBI and building trust with key witnesses who had been reluctant to testify in the first trial. The prosecutor had been a student at the University of Alabama when he heard about the bombing in 1963. “I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what.”[11]
In 1977 former Ku Klux Klansman Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was indicted in the murder of all four girls, tried and convicted of the first-degree murder of Denise McNair, and sentenced to life in prison. He died eight years later in prison.[12]
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.[13]
Herman Cash died in 1994 without having been charged. 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.”[14] He was later convicted in 2002, sentenced to life in prison, and died in 2004.[15]


The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 2005

[edit]In film

[edit]In literature


[edit]Prose and plays

  • Four Spirits (2003), a novel by Sena Jeter Naslund, was adapted as a play (2006) by her and Elaine Hughes. The world premiere of the play was on February 7, 2008 at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
  • The novel Song of Solomon (1977), by Toni Morrison, contains an allusion to this incident.
  • The novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 (1995), by Christopher Paul Curtis, conveys the events of the bombing.
  • Carlyn Maull McKinstry's memoir, While the World Watched (2011), provides an eyewitness account of the bombing, the events leading up to it (e.g., the anonymous phone calls made to the church, some of which warned that a bomb would go off, and when), and the climate and life at that time in Birmingham, specifically, and in the Jim Crow South, more generally, as the publisher describes: "from the bombings, riots and assassinations to the historic marches and triumphs that characterized the Civil Rights movement."[16]

[edit]In music

[edit]In other works

Stained glass window donated by the people ofWales after the 1963 bombing of the church. The south-facing window was designed by Welsh artist John Petts and depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched. The right hand symbolizes oppression, his left is asking for forgiveness. The words "You do it to me" refer to Christ's parable ofthe sheep and the goats.
  • The "Welsh Window" in the church, itself, was sculpted by John Petts, who also initiated a campaign in Wales to raise money to help rebuild the church. The stained glass window depicts a black man, arms outstretched, reminiscent of the Crucifixion of Jesus, and is inscribed: "Given by The People of Wales".[18]

[edit]See also


  1. ^ "16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: Forty Years Later, Birmingham Still Struggles with Violent Past". 2003-09-15. Retrieved 22 November 2010.
  2. a b "Six Dead After Church Bombing"Washington Post. 1963-0-16. Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  3. ^ "New Bomb Blast Hits Birmingham". The Miami News. 1963-09-25.
  4. ^ William O. Bryant (September 11, 1963). "Six Negro Children Killed in Alabama"The Times News (United Press International). Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  5. ^ William O. Bryant (September 11, 1963). "Six Negro Children Killed in Alabama"The Times News (United Press International). Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  6. ^ "Six Dead After Church Bombing Blast Kills Four Children; Riots Follow; Two Youths Slain; State Reinforces Birmingham Police"The Washington Post (United Press International). September 16, 1963. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  7. ^ "Six Negro Children Killed in Alabama Sunday"The Times-News, Hendersonville, NC. 1963-09-11. Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  8. ^ "Nation’s Shame"The Milwaukee Sentinel. 1963-09-16. Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  9. ^ "We Shall Overcome Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement"National Public Radio. Archived from the original on 17 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-19.
  10. ^ "FBI: A Byte Out of History: The ’63 Baptist Church Bombing".Federal Bureau of Investigation. Archived from the original on 13 October 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  11. ^ Jenkins, Ray (1977-11-21). "Birmingham Church Bombing Conviction Ended an Obsession of the Prosecutor"The Day (New London, Connecticut). Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  12. ^ "Klansman Guilty in Death"The Pittsburgh Press. 1977-11-19. Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  13. ^ "Former Klansman faces prison in 1963 Killings"The Vindicator. 2001-05-02. Retrieved 2011-04-18.
  14. ^ Sack, Kevin (2001-04-25). "As Church Bombing Trial Begins in Birmingham, the City's Past Is Very Much Present"The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-21.
  15. ^ O'Donnell, Michelle (2004-11-19). "Bobby Frank Cherry, 74, Klansman in Bombing, Dies"The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-05.
  16. ^ While the World Watched. Tyndale House Publishers. 2/1/2011.
  17. ^ Joan Baez sings "Birmingham Sunday>" link includes lyrics.]
  18. ^ Gary Younge. "The Wales Window of Alabama". Nicola 

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