Sankofa Studies

Five Little Girls – The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing and Beyond

September 15, 2020

On September 15, 1963, at 10:22am, dynamite left under the stairs of the 16th Street Baptist Church exploded. It was Youth Day at the church and there was excitement in the air. In the basement of the church, five young girls, two of them sisters, gathered in the ladies room in their best dresses. After the explosion, only one of them would be found alive.

When you talk about or read about the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, in Birmingham, AL, it is likely that the article or conversation will reference the “four little girls.” I get it. Four little girls died in the church that day. One little girl survived, and she is never really mentioned. I wanted to take this opportunity to say their names and to also recognize the trauma that the bombing left behind for all of the children gathered at 16th Street Baptist that day.

Fourteen year olds, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and eleven year old Cynthia Wesley, were killed. Addie’s sister Sarah Collins, survived, but was permanently blinded. We need to say their names. You know who else we need to be talking about? All of the children who were in and around the church at the time of the bombing. Can you imagine the trauma? Honestly, it was something I had not considered until I read While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement by Carolyn McKinstry. Some survivors said they went to school the next day. Most never received any counseling. They tried to go on and continue the fight. Many had and still have a hard time talking about that day, but believe that sharing their stories serves a greater purpose. In addition to the lost lives because of the bombing, there were two more deaths that day. Immediately after the bombing, violence surged throughout the city as police clashed with enraged members of the Black community. Johnny Robinson, 16, was killed by a police officer’s shotgun in North Birmingham that afternoon. An hour or so later, Virgil Ware, 13, was gunned down by a white teenager on a road in Jefferson County. However, it was the bombing at the church took precedence in the news that day.

So, what happened? And, why?

The choice of 16th Street Baptist Church for the bombing was no coincidence. 16th Street was prominent and a symbol of the civil rights movement. It had become the meeting place for civil rights leaders, the departure point for demonstrations and the place for rallies. On May 2, 1963, the Children’s Crusade happened and the march began at 16th Street Baptist. It was the perfect target for the Ku Klux Klan. The movement was heating up in Birmingham and the most recent marches and tactics were successful.

On May 11th, a bomb destroyed the Gaston Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been staying and another damaged the house of King’s brother, A. D. King. NAACP attorney Arthur Shores’ house was fire bombed on August 20th and September 4th in retaliation for his attempts to help integrate the Birmingham public schools. On September 9th, President John F. Kennedy took control of the Alabama National Guard, which Governor Wallace was using to block court-ordered desegregation of public schools in Birmingham. Around that time Robert Chambliss, who would later be named as a suspect in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, foreshadowed the violence to come when he told his niece, “Just wait until Sunday morning and they’ll beg us to let them segregate.”

And so, a box was placed under the stairs at 16th Street Baptist Church by white supremacist. It was the bomb that was heard throughout the country, and one of the major flashpoint of the movement. Upon learning of the bombing at the Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to Alabama Governor George Wallace, stating bluntly: ‘The blood of our little children is on your hands.” The brutal attack and the deaths of the four little girls shocked the nation and drew international attention to the violent struggle for civil rights in Birmingham. Many whites were as outraged by the incident as blacks and offered services and condolences to the families. Over, 8,000 people attended the girls’ funeral service. The deaths of the four girls was followed two months later by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, causing an outpouring of national grief, galvanizing the civil rights movement and ensuring the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

Justice delayed is justice denied. The FBI office in Birmingham launched an immediate investigation. In a 1965 memo to J. Edgar Hoover, FBI agents named four men as primary suspects for the bombing – Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, and Herman Cash. All four men were members of Birmingham’s Cahaba River Group, a splinter group of the Eastview Klavern #13 chapter of the KKK. The investigation ended in 1968 with no indictments. According to the FBI, although they had identified the four suspects, witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. In addition, information from FBI surveillances was not admissible in court. Hoover chose not to approve arrests, stating, “The chance of prosecution in state or federal court is remote.” Although Chambliss was convicted on an explosives charge, no charges were filed in the 1960s for the bombing of the church.

In 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, requesting evidence from the FBI and building trust with witnesses who had been reluctant to testify. Investigators discovered that, while the FBI had accumulated evidence against the bombers, under orders from Hoover they had not disclosed the evidence to county prosecutors. Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder on November 14, 1977; however, it would be decades before the other suspects were tried for their crimes. In 2000, the FBI assisted Alabama state authorities in bringing charges against the remaining suspects. On May 1, 2001, Thomas Blanton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted as well. His boasts that he was the one who planted the bomb next to the church wall helped send Cherry to prison for life. Herman Cash died in 1994 having never been prosecuted for the murders of the four girls.

Sources and Additional Resources:

https://time.com/5394093/16th-street-baptist-church-bombing-anniversary/

https://www.nps.gov/articles/16thstreetbaptist.htm

https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/03/06/sarah-collins-rudolph-birmingham-church-bombing-fifth-girl/?arc404=true

https://www.al.com/spotnews/2013/09/virgil_ware_and_johnny_robinso.html

https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/sep/15

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