Fifty Years Ago Today in American History: The Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963

Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

Last week, we commemorated the individuals who were killed by terrorists on September 11, 2001—a terrible day in the history of our country. Today, I’d like to look back at an infamous day in our country’s history when four young Black girls were killed by terrorists—terrorists who were their own countrymen.

Klan Bombing of Birmingham Church 1963

From The History Channel:

Even as the inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech rang out from the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington in August of 1963, racial relations in the segregated South were marked by continued violence and inequality. On September 15, a bomb exploded before Sunday morning services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama–a church with a predominantly black congregation that served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders. Four young girls were killed and many other people injured; outrage over the incident and the violent clash between protesters and police that followed helped draw national attention to the hard-fought, often dangerous struggle for civil rights for African Americans. 

By 1965, the FBI had four serious suspects who they thought might be responsible for the church bombing—Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. All four were members of the Ku Klux Klan. According to the FBI, witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. The FBI has said that information from their surveillances was not admissible in court at that time. No federal charges were filed against the suspected bombers in the ‘60s.

In the end, justice was served. Chambliss received life in prison in 1977 following a case led by Alabama Attorney General Robert Baxley. And eventually the fear, prejudice, and reticence that kept witnesses from coming forward began to subside. We re-opened our case in the mid-1990s, and Blanton and Cherry were indicted in May 2000. Both were convicted at trial and sentenced to life in prison. The fourth man, Herman Frank Cash, had died in 1994. (A Byte Out of History: The ’63 Baptist Church Bombing)

Birmingham2963

Excerpt from Carole Boston Weatherford’s award-winning book-length poem for children titled Birmingham, 1963:

 
The day I turned ten

Our church was quiet. No meetings, no marches.

Mama left me in Sunday school

With a soft kiss and coins for the offering plate.

 

The teacher read a psalm, told a Bible story,

And led a favorite hymn—

“Jesus Loves the Little Children.”

 

I could hardly wait for church service to begin—

To stand in the pulpit and sing from my heart.

I wiped my clammy palms and took a deep breath.

 

As I waited, four big girls giggled on their way

To the restroom. I would have tagged along

If I thought they’d include me.

 

The day I turned ten

Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite

Under the church steps, then lit the fuse of hate.

Joan Baez – Birmingham Sunday

Survivor: Church bombing ‘is very clear in my mind’

Let us remember the four young girls who were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed on September 15, 1963:

Addie Mae Collins, 14

Carole Roberston, 14

Cynthia Wesley, 14

Denise McNair, 11

An excerpt from Sam Cornish’s poem Birmingham 1963:

They were just
four

little girls
in a church

not old
enough

to know
the Lord

forgave them
for being

born

 

You can read the rest of the poem here.

**********

FURTHER READING

Condoleezza Rice Recalls Birmingham Bombing That Killed Childhood Friend (Huffington Post)

Congress honors 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims (CBS42/AP)

28 thoughts on “Fifty Years Ago Today in American History: The Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963”

  1. For almost all of our history in America the media has treated racial terrorists with kid gloves. The media will never dub them terrorists. When a guy like George Wallace roamed the country and preached: Segregation now! Segregation Tomorrow! Segregation Forever!, he was deemed a bit of an antiquity but not a closet supporter of the Klan terrorists. When you ask a southern punk about his Confederate Flag on his bumper he will usually say something to the effect that “That is my heritage.” If you look into his heritage and learn that he great granddaddy landed in the Colony of Georgia as a convict from England then you truly know his “heritage”.

    When this bombing occurred fifty years ago our lame President, named Johnboy Kennedy, was worried about getting re elected. His response was damn near nil. Brother Bobby was attorney general. He sent in the clowns.

  2. For the sake of accuracy, the evidence that terrorists were behind the events of 9/11 is not credible. Unless your definition includes operatives from military and intelligence agencies – both domestic and foreign.

    Study the facts, not just the Bush fairy tale.

  3. Elaine,
    Great follow up on Bill Baxley. Kudos for him for sticking with it and doing the right thing.

  4. I was sitting in a waiting room in Atlanta in 1980, having moved there the summer of ’79 from another state. I was in my late 20’s. I of course grew up during the Civil Rights era. An ad came on the television for JB Stoner for Governor, on a white supremacy platform. I can still remember the shock I felt, even though, at the time, I wasn’t aware of who he was.

  5. More about Bill Baxley:

    After 14 Years, a Young Attorney General Closes in on the Birmingham Bombings
    By Joyce Leviton
    October 31, 1977
    Vol. 8
    No. 18
    http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20069419,00.html

    Excerpt:
    It was the death rattle of the segregationist Old South, and four young black girls were its victims. The explosion that quiet Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala. shattered the 16th Street Baptist Church where the girls were putting on their choir robes. In the street violence that followed, two more blacks were killed. Police Commissioner Bull Connor turned loose his notorious police dogs that night, and Gov. George Wallace called out the National Guard. Despite a $5,000 reward and a full-dress FBI inquiry, no arrests for the bombing were made.

    “I was getting ready to eat lunch when somebody ran in and told me what had happened,” recalls Bill Baxley, then a 22-year-old student at the University of Alabama Law School. “It was the most shocking thing I’ve ever experienced. I got sick. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what.”

    Since those dark days the New South has risen even to the White House—and Alabama Attorney General William J. Baxley, now 36, has found his own way of expunging the last bitter memories of the Old. In September Baxley won the first indictment in the 14-year-old bombing—and another in the case of an unoccupied Birmingham church dynamited in 1958. “I never put the bombing out of my mind all those years,” Baxley says. “I was haunted by the belief that those responsible ought to be punished.”

    Robert Chambliss, a 73-year-old former Klansman and gas station attendant, has been accused of murder in the 16th Street bombing, while the infamous J.B. Stoner, chairman of the neo-Nazi National States Rights Party, stands indicted for the earlier attack. A letter arrived from Stoner’s office last year telling Baxley to “apologize for your harassment of Alabama patriots.” An answer went off by return mail: “My response to your letter of February 19, 1976 is—Kiss my ass. Sincerely, Bill Baxley, Attorney General.”

    The son of a prosecutor and circuit court judge, Baxley grew up in Dothan, Ala. (pop. 50,000), where he found segregation a nettlesome way of life. “I never remember a time when I felt it was all right,” he says. After law school, a state Supreme Court clerkship and a six-month tour in the Air Force Reserve, Baxley returned to Dothan to practice law. Appointed to fill the unexpired term of the local district attorney, he was elected to the office himself at 25. Four years later, in 1970, he was elected state attorney general, the youngest man ever to fill that office. “Now I could do what I had sworn to do,” he remembers thinking. “Within two months in office I had set one goal for myself: to solve that bombing case.” As a reminder, he wrote the four victims’ names on a card he always carried in his wallet.

  6. felix: racism is racism, and it’s wrong no matter which way it cuts. I don’t think anyone here defending racist acts committed by blacks. Noting the anniversary of an historical event is not meant to belittle criminal acts of violence anymore than 911 memorials are meant to excuse Abu Ghraib.

    Elaine: I really like your posts. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of poetry

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