16th Street Baptist Church bombing

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16th Street Baptist Church bombing
16th Street Baptist Church bombing girls.jpg
The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair)
Location16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama
Coordinates33°31′0″N 86°48′54″W / 33.51667°N 86.81500°W / 33.51667; -86.81500Coordinates: 33°31′0″N 86°48′54″W / 33.51667°N 86.81500°W / 33.51667; -86.81500
DateSeptember 15, 1963
10:22 a.m. (UTC-5)
Attack type
Church bombing, mass murder, hate crime, white supremacist terrorism
Non-fatal injuries
AssailantsRobert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry
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16th Street Baptist Church bombing
16th Street Baptist Church bombing girls.jpg
The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair)
Location16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama
Coordinates33°31′0″N 86°48′54″W / 33.51667°N 86.81500°W / 33.51667; -86.81500Coordinates: 33°31′0″N 86°48′54″W / 33.51667°N 86.81500°W / 33.51667; -86.81500
DateSeptember 15, 1963
10:22 a.m. (UTC-5)
Attack type
Church bombing, mass murder, hate crime, white supremacist terrorism
Non-fatal injuries
AssailantsRobert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963 as an act of white supremacist terrorism. The explosion at the African-American church, which killed four girls, marked a turning point in the United States 1960s Civil Rights Movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Although city leaders had reached a settlement in May with demonstrators and started to integrate public places, not everyone agreed with ending racial segregation. Bombings and other acts of violence followed the settlement, and the church had become an obvious target. The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963, and was where the students who were arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign's Children's Crusade were organized and trained by SCLC Director of Direct Action James Bevel. The church was used as a meeting-place for other civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. Tensions were escalated when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) became involved in a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham.

The Birmingham campaign and its Children's Crusade were successful. The demonstrations led to an agreement in May between the city's business leaders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to integrate public facilities in the city.

The bombing[edit]

In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton,[1] Herman Frank Cash, and Robert Chambliss, members of United Klans of America, a Ku Klux Klan group, planted a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, near the basement.[2] At about 10:22 a.m., twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for the sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives,” when the bomb exploded.[3][4] Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack,[5] and more than 20 additional people were injured, one of whom was Addie Mae Collins' younger sister, Sarah.[6] The explosion blew a hole in the church's rear wall, destroyed the back steps and all but one stained-glass window, which showed Christ leading a group of little children.[7]

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 2005

Some civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, for creating the climate that led to the killings. Birmingham was a violent city and was nicknamed “Bombingham”, because the city had experienced more than 50 bombings in black institutions and homes since World War I.[8] Only a week before the bombing Wallace had told The New York Times that to stop integration, Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals."[9]

Investigation and legal proceedings[edit]

A witness identified Robert Edward Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as the man who placed the bomb under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He was arrested but only charged with possessing a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. On October 8, 1963, Chambliss received a hundred-dollar fine and a six-month jail sentence for having the dynamite.[10] At the time, no federal charges were filed against Chambliss.[11]

The case was unsolved until Bill Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama. He requested the original Federal Bureau of Investigation files on the case and discovered that the FBI had accumulated evidence against the named suspects that had not been revealed to the prosecutors by order of J. Edgar Hoover. The files were used to reopen the case in 1971.[12]

In November 1977, the seemingly forgotten case of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was brought to Court, where Chambliss, now aged 73, was tried once again and was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.[13] Chambliss died in Lloyd Noland Hospital and Health Center on October 29, 1985.[14]

On May 18, 2000, the FBI announced that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing had been carried out by the Ku Klux Klan splinter group the Cahaba Boys. It was claimed that four men, the aforementioned Robert Edward Chambliss, Herman Frank Cash, Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry had been responsible for the crime.[15] Cash was dead but Blanton and Cherry were arrested, and both have since been tried and convicted.[16]

Reactions and aftermath[edit]

The explosions increased anger and tension, which were already high in Birmingham. The Mayor of Birmingham, Albert Boutwell, said: “It is just sickening that a few individuals could commit such a horrible atrocity.” Two more black children were shot to death approximately seven hours following the Sunday morning bombing, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware. Robinson was shot by police, reportedly after they caught him throwing rocks at cars and he ignored orders to halt as he fled down an alley. Ware was "shot from ambush"[17] as he and his brother rode their bicycles in a residential suburb, 15 miles north of the city; UPI reported: "Two white youths seen riding a motorcycle in the area were sought by police."[17][18]

In spite of everything, the newly integrated schools continued to meet. Schools had been integrated the previous Tuesday with black and white children in the same classrooms for the first time in that city.[19]

As the news story about the four girls reached the national and international press, many felt that they had not taken the Civil Rights struggle seriously enough. A Milwaukee Sentinel editorial opined, “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.”[20]

The city of Birmingham initially offered a $52,000 reward for the arrest of the bombers. Governor George Wallace, an outspoken segregationalist, offered an additional $5,000. However, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wired Wallace that "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."[7]

At the funeral for three of the girls (one family preferred a separate, private funeral), Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about life being "as hard as crucible steel." More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of all races, attended the service. No city officials attended.[21] The bombing continued to increase worldwide sympathy for the civil rights cause. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring equal rights of African Americans before the law.

Later prosecutions[edit]

FBI investigations gathered evidence pointing to four suspects: Robert Chambliss, Thomas E. Blanton Jr, Herman Cash, and Bobby Frank Cherry. According to a later report from the Bureau, “By 1965, we had serious suspects—namely, Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., all KKK members—but witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. Also, at that time, information from our surveillances was not admissible in court. As a result, no federal charges were filed in the ’60s.”[11] Although Chambliss was convicted on an explosives charge, no convictions were obtained in the 1960s for the killings.

Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened the investigation after he took office in 1971, requesting evidence from the FBI and building trust with key witnesses who had been reluctant to testify in the first trial. The prosecutor had been a student at the University of Alabama when he heard about the bombing in 1963. “I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what.”[22]

In 1977 former Ku Klux Klansman Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was indicted in the murder of all four girls, tried and convicted of the first-degree murder of Denise McNair, and sentenced to life in prison. He died eight years later in prison.[23]

Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr. was tried in 2001 and found guilty at age 62 of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison.[24]

Herman Frank Cash died in 1994 without having been charged. Bobby Frank Cherry, also a former Klansman, was indicted in 2001 along with Blanton. Judge James Garrett of Jefferson County Circuit Court ruled "that Mr. Cherry's trial would be delayed indefinitely because a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation concluded that he was mentally incompetent.”[25] He was later convicted in 2002, sentenced to life in prison, and died in 2004.[26]

Stained glass window donated by the people of Wales after the 1963 bombing of the church. The window was designed by artist John Petts and depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched. The right hand symbolizes oppression; his left is asking for forgiveness.


In film and television[edit]

In sculpture[edit]


Prose and plays[edit]

In music[edit]

In other works[edit]

The 16th Street Baptist Church section of the Milestone exhibition gallery in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, in Birmingham, Alabama

I remembered the bombing of that Sunday school at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father's church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate Denise McNair. The crime was calculated, not random. It was meant to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations, and ensure that old fears would be propelled forward into the next generation.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Factiva". Global.factiva.com. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  2. ^ Bilal R. Muhammad (2011). The African American Odyssey. books.google.com. ISBN 978-1467035132. 
  3. ^ University of California, Los Angeles. "BIRMINGHAM CHURCH BOMBED". ucla.edu. Retrieved 2013-06-28. 
  4. ^ "Father Recalls Deadly Blast At Ala. Baptist Church". npr.org. September 15, 2008. 
  5. ^ United States House of Representatives (April 24, 2013). "AWARDING CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL TO ADDIE MAE COLLINS, DENISE McNAIR, CAROLE ROBERTSON, AND CYNTHIA WESLEY". beta.congress.gov. 
  6. ^ "16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: Forty Years Later, Birmingham Still Struggles with Violent Past". National Public Radio: All Things Considered. 2003-09-15. Retrieved 22 November 2010. 
  7. ^ a b "Six Dead After Church Bombing". Washington Post. 1963-09-16. Retrieved 2010-11-21. 
  8. ^ "New Bomb Blast Hits Birmingham". The Miami News. 1963-09-25. 
  9. ^ "Columns: Drawn back to Birmingham". 
  10. ^ By JOHN HERBERS Special to the New York Times (1963-10-09). "N.Y. Times Oct. 9, 1963". Select.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  11. ^ a b "FBI: A Byte Out of History: The ’63 Baptist Church Bombing". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Archived from the original on 13 October 2010. Retrieved 2010-11-21. 
  12. ^ Clary, Mike (2001-04-14). "Birmingham's Painful Past Reopened". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-02-17. 
  13. ^ Anderson, S. Willoughby, "The Past on Trial: Birmingham, the Bombing, and Restorative Justice," California Law Review, 96/2, (April 2008):482.
  14. ^ "Robert E. Chambliss, Figure in '63 Bombing." The New York Times. Dated October 30, 1985. Retrieved August 29, 2013. "Robert Edward Chambliss... who was convicted of murder in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church... died yesterday in a hospital in Birmingham."
  15. ^ "The ghosts of Alabama". CNN. 2000-05-22. 
  16. ^ Leith, Sam (2002-05-23). "Klansman convicted of killing black girls". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  17. ^ a b William O. Bryant (September 11, 1963). "Six Negro Children Killed in Alabama". The Times News (United Press International). Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
  18. ^ "Six Dead After Church Bombing Blast Kills Four Children; Riots Follow; Two Youths Slain; State Reinforces Birmingham Police". The Washington Post (United Press International). September 16, 1963. Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
  19. ^ "Six Negro Children Killed in Alabama Sunday". The Times-News, Hendersonville, NC. 1963-09-11. Retrieved 2010-11-21. 
  20. ^ "Nation’s Shame". The Milwaukee Sentinel. 1963-09-16. Retrieved 2010-11-21. 
  21. ^ "We Shall Overcome Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement". National Public Radio. Archived from the original on 17 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-19. 
  22. ^ Jenkins, Ray (1977-11-21). "Birmingham Church Bombing Conviction Ended an Obsession of the Prosecutor". The Day (New London, Connecticut). Retrieved 2010-11-21. 
  23. ^ "Klansman Guilty in Death". The Pittsburgh Press. 1977-11-19. Retrieved 2010-11-21. 
  24. ^ "Former Klansman faces prison in 1963 Killings". The Vindicator. 2001-05-02. Retrieved 2011-04-18. 
  25. ^ Sack, Kevin (2001-04-25). "As Church Bombing Trial Begins in Birmingham, the City's Past Is Very Much Present". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-21. 
  26. ^ O'Donnell, Michelle (2004-11-19). "Bobby Frank Cherry, 74, Klansman in Bombing, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  27. ^ "That which might have been". Artbyjohnwaddell.com. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  28. ^ Dan Sullivan - Times Theater Critic (January 17, 1987). "Stage Review : 'Wife's' Tale Of Brides And Gloom - Los Angeles Times". Articles.latimes.com. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  29. ^ Carolyn Maull McKinstry, with Denise George (February 1, 2011). While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement. Tyndale House Publishers. ISBN 9781414353036. 
  30. ^ "Countdown to "BOOM" We All Fall Down". Temple Performing Arts Center. 2013-04-27. Retrieved 2013-09-16. 
  31. ^ Joan Baez sings "Birmingham Sunday>" link includes lyrics.
  32. ^ Gary Younge. "The Wales Window of Alabama". BBC4 radio. Nicola Swords. 
  33. ^ Scott W Johnson. "Birmingham's New Legacy". The Weekly Standard. 
  34. ^ a b "H.R. 360 - Summary". United States Congress. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

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