It was Youth Sunday at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The preacher had prepared a sermon especially for the children. The youth choir would lead the congregation in music, and children would serve as ushers.
For the youngsters, many of whom had marched proudly with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it was another in a series of momentous events that year. That spring, their own church had been the center of a campaign against segregation. The long struggle was won mainly because children were brave enough to march into the overpowering water hoses and vicious dogs of Police Commissioner Bull Connor. After television news cameras revealed the brutal force unleashed on the children, city officials were forced to reform their harsh segregation laws.
Now lunch counters were no longer closed to blacks, and a federal court had just ordered white schools in the city to admit black children. The whole world had watched in awe as the children in Birmingham made history. Before this day was over, the whole world would mourn.
THE SACRIFICE OF CHILDREN
In the basement ladies’ lounge of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, four girls were chatting nervously and straightening their fancy white dresses. In a few minutes, the worship service would begin. Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were in the choir. Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, both 14, had been chosen to serve as ushers.
Only a few feet away, beneath a stone staircase along the outside wall of the church, a dynamite bomb had been planted eight hours earlier. At 10:22, it exploded. The whole church shook. Plaster and debris fell around the people in Sunday School upstairs. The four girls in the ladies’ lounge were killed instantly.
For a few minutes, there was only screaming and chaos. Then people began to search through the rubble for victims. In the end, more than 20 people were hospitalized with injuries. One of them was Addie Mae Collins’ sister Sarah, who was blinded in one eye.
There had been many bombings in Birmingham designed to stop the black struggle for equality. Ministers’ homes, a black-owned hotel, and other churches had been wrecked. But there had been nothing so evil as the dynamiting of children during Sunday School. The news spread quickly, and it sickened people of all races and all political allegiances throughout the world.
Civil rights leaders tried to channel the grief and rage that spread through the black community, but there was little comfort in their efforts. Gangs of black and white youths battled in the street, and businesses went up in flames.
Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to the largest civil rights march in history only 18 days earlier. Now he spoke quietly to a crowd of 8,000 at a joint funeral for three of the bomb victims.
“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil,” he told the mourners. “The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. … Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”
‘WE ALL DID IT’
The FBI immediately investigated the bombing, and discovered it was planned by Klansmen in response to the new school desegregation order. An eyewitness saw four white men plant the bomb. Unexplainably, no one was charged with the crime.
Then, 14 years later, Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened the case. A 73-year-old Klansman named Robert Chambliss was charged with first-degree murder, and the jury found him guilty. Chambliss was sent to prison, where he died. No one else has ever been tried for the Sixteenth Street bombing.
September 15, 1963 was remembered as a day of victory for the Klan. Shortly after the church bombing, white supremacist leader Connie Lynch told a group of Klansmen that those responsible for the bombing deserved “medals.” Lynch said the four young girls who died there “weren’t children. Children are little people, little human beings, and that means white people. … They’re just little niggers … and if there’s four less niggers tonight, then I say, ‘Good for whoever planted the bomb!’”
The Sixteenth Street bombing, perhaps more than any other event of the period, brought national attention to the evil of racism. The tragedy sparked a surge of support for federal civil rights legislation, and it led to an intensive voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama.
But more importantly, it made the pain of racism felt among whites who would never experience it themselves. The day after the bombing, a white lawyer named Charles Morgan gave a speech in Birmingham. He asked his audience: “Who did it?” and gave his own anguished answer: “We all did it … every person in this community who has in any way contributed … to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty … as the demented fool who threw that bomb.”