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
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.
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.