When Racial Tensions in the U.S. Were at their Worst: The 16th Street Birmingham Baptist Church Bombings

AP

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was an act of white supremacist terrorism which occurred at the African-American 16 Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963. Four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted fifteen sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the steps on the east side of the church.

Birmingham, at the time, had a reputation for being a violent city and any forms of racial integration were met with resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of Birmingham as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” During a span of eight years before 1963, there had been 21 separate bombings at black properties and churches, although none fatal.

The 16 Street Baptist Church had become a focal point for civil rights activities. The church was used as a meeting-place for civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. On May 2, more than 1,000 students went to the church rather than school and marched to downtown Birmingham in protest of the racial segregation. The demonstration led to the integration of public facilities in the school within 90 days.

Four girls, Addie May Collins, 14, Carol Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were killed in the attack. More than 20 other people were injured in the explosion.

The FBI concluded in 1965 that the bombing was perpetrated by four known Klansmen and segregationists- Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry.

In 1977 Robert Chambliss was tried and convicted of the first-degree murder of 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair. Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison in in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Cash, who died in 1994, was never charged with his involvement in the bombing.

Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14; from left, are shown in these 1963 photos. These are the faces of the lives lost during the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. AP Photo
At 10:22a.m. Sept. 15, 1963, an anonymous caller phoned the church and simply said Three minutes. Bernard Troncale
A state trooper and two plainclothes men stand guard at a roadblock at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 16, 1963. The area was sealed off to all, but officers and the FBI are investigating the bombing which killed four African American children. The blast went off inside the basement door at far right. Associated Press
The 16 Street Baptist Church served as a rallying point during the civil rights movement. It was declared a national historic landmark in 2006. CNN
Firefighters and ambulance attendants remove a body from the church after the explosion. CNN
The children were changing into their choir robes when the bomb went off and ended their lives. Tom Self
The cars, which were parked beside the 16th street Baptist Church, were blown four feet by an explosion which ripped the church during services in Birmingham, Ala. on Sept. 15, 1963. The explosion also blasted windows from buildings within the area. AP Photo
The explosion blew a seven-foot hole in the rear wall of the church and left a five-foot wide crater. Tom Self
In the eight years before the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, there were at least 21 other explosions at black churches and properties although there were no fatalities in these prior attacks. Birmingham News
It blew a passing motorist out of his car and destroyed several other cars parked nearby. Tom Self
All of the stained glass windows in the church were destroyed except one that depicted Jesus, but his face was blown out. Tom Self
Agents of the FBI investigating the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Getty Images
May 3, 1963 – The 16th Street Baptist Church had become a focal point for civil rights activities including the Children’s Crusade in May of 1963 making it a target for the segregationists. JONES
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it at the time as One of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. The explosion killed four young black girls and injured 22 others. Birmingham News
A black youth kneels in prayer, alongside other solemn people, after a Baptist church had been bombed leaving 4 children dead in the blast. Getty Images
An unidentified group sing freedom songs in the street, after funeral services for three young African American girls, victims of a church bombing, Sept. 18, 1963, Birmingham, Ala. An African American man requested them not to demonstrate and they dispersed. Associated Press
A grieving relative of one of bombing victims in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 15, 1963, at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church has led away after telling officers that some of his family was in the section most heavily damaged. The man just in back of him is holding a shoe found in the debris. At least four persons were known to have been killed. AP Photo
Hospitalized bomb blast victim Sarah Jean Collins, 12, blinded by dynamite explosion set off in the basement of the church that killed her sister and three other girls as her Sunday school class was ending. Photo by Frank Dandridge//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images