The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: 55 Years Later

Inside the church, a teacher screamed, “Lie on the floor! Lie on the floor!” Rafters collapsed, a skylight fell on the pulpit. Part of a stained glass window shattered, obliterating the face of Christ. A man cried: “Everybody out! Everybody out!” A stream of sobbing Negroes stumbled through the litter — past twisted metal folding chairs, past splintered wooden benches, past shredded songbooks and Bibles. – TIME Magazine, September 27th, 1963

Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14; from left, are shown in these 1963 photos. (AP Photo)

September 15th, 1963, was a cool and overcast morning in Birmingham, Alabama. At the 16th Street Baptist Church, the city’s largest Black congregation, it seemed to be a Sunday like any other. Congregants were at the church, preparing for the day’s sermon, entitled ‘A Love that Forgives.’ Children were milling about the basement of the church, dressing in their choir robes, playing, and preparing for Sunday School. But it wasn’t a Sunday like any other: unknown to the congregants, there were already 15 sticks of dynamite planted under the steps to the church.

At dawn that morning, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry – all members of the Ku Klux Klan – had planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite under the steps. At 10:22 AM, a call was placed to the church. 14-year-old Carolyn Maull answered. The caller said: “3 minutes,” and then hung up. In less than 60 seconds, the dynamite exploded. A survivor later said that the entire building shook. The explosion was so powerful that a man passing by in a vehicle was blown out, and windows as far as two blocks away were damaged.

Four girls were murdered: Addie Mae Collins (14), Carol Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14). If they were alive today, none would be older than 70.

‘Bombingham’

Birmingham, Alabama was, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” White supremacy was brutally upheld through both law and culture; even the most tentative attempts at racial integration had been met with ugly, violent backlash. In 1963, the city didn’t have a single Black man or woman on their police force, and very few Black people were registered to vote. Racially motivated bombings were not uncommon: in the 8 years preceding the Baptist Church bombing, there had been at least 21 explosions at Black churches or homes. Though there had been no fatalities, the cost – both financially and emotionally – was tremendous. These acts of racial terror were so common by 1963 that the city had earned the dubious distinction of being nicknamed “Bombingham.”

The three-story red brick church on 16th Street had long been a refuge and rallying place for civil rights activists. In the spring of 1963, it served as the training location for students who would eventually be arrested during the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, and it housed trainings by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was a regular meeting place for leaders in the movement, like Martin Luther King Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph David Abernathy.

1963 was a particularly tumultuous year for the city of Birmingham. When the Children’s Crusade successfully convinced the city to desegregate schools in May of that year, they were given 90 days to do so. September 4th had been the first day of integrated public education at three schools in the city.

‘The blood of four little children…is on your hands.”

Many placed blame for the bombing on then-Alabama Governor George Wallace, an outspoken and unabashed racist and segregationist. In a telegram to Governor Wallace, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “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.”

Though the hours – and days – following the bombing were filled with violent unrest (including the murders of two other Black children, who were shot by a police officer and a white teenager, respectively) the horrific murders of the 4 girls served as something of a catalyst for the nation. An editorial in a Milwaukee paper encapsulated what many white Americans had been feeling: “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.”

The horrific murders of the girls, followed just two months later by the assassination of President Kennedy, opened a nationwide torrent of mourning and anger, a surge of emotional momentum that historians believe helped ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year.

“I will never stop crying thinking about it,” Barbara Cross, now 68, told TIME. Her father, John Cross, was the pastor at the church. On the day of the bombing, Cross, then 13, was in the basement with the other children. Though it’s taken her some time, Cross now speaks about her horrific experience to students today. “Some kids weren’t taught like I was taught, so I want them to hear about the lesson we learned that day about forgiveness,” she told TIME. “It might be painful, but I could have been underneath that rubble, and I think that’s why I still share through the tears.”

Robert Chambliss was not tried and convicted until 1977. Thomas Edwin Blanton was tried and convicted in 2001 and Bobby Frank Cherry was tried and convicted in 2002. Herman Cash, who died in 1994, was never charged with his alleged involvement in the bombing.

In memory of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and all other victims of racial terror.

‘I Don’t Want Her Death in that Jail to be in Vain’: The Barbaric Conditions for Mentally Ill Women at South Fulton Jail

When the phone call came from the South Fulton Jail in April of 2017, Willie Ruth Myrick blacked out. The chaplain informed her that her 44-year-old daughter, Kesha Brownlee, was dead. Though the details would not be clear for weeks, Ms. Brownlee’s autopsy eventually revealed that she had ingested a plastic spoon, and the head of a toothbrush. This had resulted in a perforated pharynx, which caused her death. She had been found in a cell littered with trash, blood, food, and dirty clothes earlier that day, with a large gash on her head. “I can’t tell you the pain of it,” Ms. Myrick said. “It’s unlike everything else. I lost my parents, my grannies – but this? To lose a child, it’s unlike any other death. It’s almost to the point where you can’t bear it.”

Ms. Myrick with the ashes of her daughter, Kesha Brownlee. Photo by Tabia Lisenbee-Parker.

Ms. Brownlee, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, suffered from severe mental illness for the better part of 25 years. At the time of her death in April 2017, she was being held on a probation warrant at the jail.  Her solitary confinement cell was filthy.

“Kesha was very mentally ill,” Ms. Myrick said.  “She was first diagnosed when she turned 20. She had been in and out of jail and mental institutions for years. It was a vicious cycle with no end.”

“We cannot allow conditions like these to become normalized in our criminal legal culture,” said Southern Center for Human Rights managing attorney Sarah Geraghty.  “For the memory of Ms. Brownlee, for her family, and for other women in the system, we have to do better than warehousing people with mental illness in jail cells.”

Warehousing Persons with Mental Illness

The South Fulton Jail houses women with serious mental illness in three “mental health pods.” Most such women  are housed alone because they are deemed too ill to share space. Some are kept in their cells, around the clock, for weeks or months at a time. They are subjected to more extreme isolation than convicted people in Georgia’s most restrictive prison solitary confinement unit.

Ms. Myrick acknowledges the difficulty of managing people with severe mental illnesses. “I know it’s got to be hard,” she said. “These mentally ill people do mentally ill stuff. You put them in there with guards who are not capable of dealing with this. Then this is what you get, right here. Someone will wind up dead.”

Many of the women who appear to be most in need of psychiatric care are being detained for petty offenses. Some are languishing in isolation cells simply because they cannot pay bond amounts as low as $200. Many of the offenses for which these women have been jailed are a result of the symptoms of their mental illnesses: on visits to the jail, the Southern Center for Human Rights legal team has noted multiple women charged with offenses of “public indecency,” such as sitting, partially clothed, on a curb, or walking down a street without pants. Other offenses include shouting boisterously at a shopping mall or refusing to leave a McDonald’s.

One woman had been held in the jail from May 8, 2018 to August 9, 2018, awaiting trial for being partially unclothed at a MARTA bus stop. Because she couldn’t afford her $500 bond, she had been held in her isolation cell 24 hours a day, removed only for court dates. Numerous other detainees had expressed concern to the SCHR legal team that she had not bathed, or left her cell, for months.

Another woman had been arrested for making loud, boisterous comments at a mall where police noted that she “appeared to be mentally ill.” She had been incarcerated in solitary confinement for over 225 days at the jail. She showed signs of profound mental illness, and had been deemed incompetent to stand trial. She had been ordered to Georgia Regional Hospital in March 2018, yet still remains in the jail.

Solitary confinement poses a grave risk to people with mental illness. Groups like the American Psychiatric Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care have warned against any use of isolated confinement for this population.

A Call for Change

In a letter to Sheriff Ted Jackson, Chief Jailer Colonel Mark Adger, and Chief State Court Judge Diane Bessen, the Southern Center for Human Rights is calling on government officials to address the unconstitutional conditions and lengthy detention for women with mental illness awaiting trial in the South Fulton Jail.

In response to the letter, Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts called SCHR’s allegations “simply appalling” and said he will be talking to the sheriff to address the concerns raised by SCHR. “At a minimum, the recommendations suggested by the Southern Center for Human Rights should be implemented immediately,” Pitts said.

“Disabled women who cannot afford to pay their way out of jail are experiencing our criminal court system at its worst,” said SCHR attorney Atteeyah Hollie.  “We must equip correctional and court staff so they can protect poor and disabled women from the lengthy jail stays and inhumane treatment we’ve seen to date.”

Ms. Myrick and her son, Maurice, with a collage of photos of Kesha. Photo by Tabia Lisenbee-Parker.

“This won’t just disappear,” said Ms. Myrick. “You can’t sweep these problems under the rug. My daughter was a human being, and she had family that loved her. She was a mother. She has 3 sons left here. I don’t want her death in that jail to be in vain. I don’t want another parent to go through what I’ve gone through.”