4 Little Girls: The Church Bombing We Will Never Forget

(Photo credit: History.org)

Say their names:
Addie Mae Collins, 14
Denise McNair, 11
Carole Robertson, 14
Cynthia Wesley, 14

On this day in 1963, a bomb explodes during Sunday morning services in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls.

With its large African-American congregation, the 16th Street Baptist Church served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who once called Birmingham a “symbol of hardcore resistance to integration.” Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, made preserving racial segregation one of the central goals of his administration, and Birmingham had one of the most violent and lawless chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.

The church bombing was the third in Birmingham in 11 days after a federal order came down to integrate Alabama’s school system. Fifteen sticks of dynamite were planted in the church basement, underneath what turned out to be the girls’ restroom. The bomb detonated at 10:19 a.m., killing Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins–all 14 years old–and 11-year-old Denise McNair. Immediately after the blast, church members wandered dazed and bloodied, covered with white powder and broken stained glass, before starting to dig in the rubble to search for survivors. More than 20 other members of the congregation were injured in the blast.

When thousands of angry black protesters assembled at the crime scene, Wallace sent hundreds of police and state troopers to the area to break up the crowd. Two young black men were killed that night, one by police and another by racist thugs. Meanwhile, public outrage over the bombing continued to grow, drawing international attention to Birmingham. At a funeral for three of the girls (one’s family preferred a separate, private service), King addressed more than 8,000 mourners.

A well-known Klan member, Robert Chambliss, was charged with murder and with buying 122 sticks of dynamite. In October 1963, Chambliss was cleared of the murder charge and received a six-month jail sentence and a $100 fine for the dynamite. Although a subsequent FBI investigation identified three other men–Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr.–as having helped Chambliss commit the crime, it was later revealed that FBI chairman J. Edgar Hoover blocked their prosecution and shut down the investigation without filing charges in 1968. After Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison.

Here’s a timeline of all the events surrounding the bombing:
September 15, 1963 – Four girls are killed and 14 injured in a bomb blast at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
– Riots break out, and two African-American boys, Virgil Ware, 13, and Johnny Robinson, 16, are also killed. In all, at least 20 people are injured from the initial bombing and the ensuing riots.
– Alabama Governor George Wallace sends 500 National Guardsmen and 300 state troopers to the city. The next day, they are joined by 500 police officers and 150 sheriffs’ deputies.
September 16, 1963 – President John F. Kennedy responds by saying, “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.”
September 16, 1963 – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holds a press conference in Birmingham, saying that the US Army “ought to come to Birmingham and take over this city and run it.”
1965 – Suspects emerge: Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss and Herman Frank Cash, all Ku Klux Klan members. Witnesses are reluctant to talk and physical evidence is lacking, so charges are not filed.
1976 – Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopens the case.

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