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.
In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton,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. 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. 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, and more than 20 additional people were injured, one of whom was Addie Mae Collins' younger sister, Sarah. 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.
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. Only a week before the bombing Wallace had told The New York Times that to stop integration, Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals."
Investigation and legal proceedings
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. At the time, no federal charges were filed against Chambliss.
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.
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. Chambliss died in Lloyd Noland Hospital and Health Center on October 29, 1985.
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. Cash was dead but Blanton and Cherry were arrested, and both have since been tried and convicted.
Reactions and aftermath
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" 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."
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.
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.”
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."
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. 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.
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.” 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.”
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.
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.” He was later convicted in 2002, sentenced to life in prison, and died in 2004.
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
Angels of Change, a 1993 documentary by Birmingham TV station WVTM-TV about the bombing, its lead-up and aftermath, and the efforts to apprehend and prosecute those responsible; the program received a Peabody Award
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, a 2013 TV movie based on the book The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. There is a scene in the movie of the church bombing and in the credits the movie is dedicated to the victims of the bombing.
The novel Stir It Up: The CIA Targets Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Progressive Manley Government (2012), by David Dusty Cupples, summarizes the events of the bombing.
The play, The Stick Wife (1987), by Darrah Cloud, is a fictional account behind the scenes of the bombing, focusing on the wives of the men involved. The play premiered at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in January, 1987.
The novel Bombingham (2001), by Anthony Grooms, set in Birmingham in 1963, contains among other things a fictional account of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the shootings later that day.
Carolyn Maull McKinstry's memoir, While the World Watched (2011), provides an eyewitness account of the bombing, the events leading up to it (e.g., the anonymous phone calls made to the church, some of which warned that a bomb would go off, and when), and the climate and life at that time in Birmingham, specifically, and in the Jim Crow South, more generally, as the publisher describes: "from the bombings, riots and assassinations to the historic marches and triumphs that characterized the Civil Rights movement."
The play, Countdown to Boom (2013), written and directed by Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, co-directed and choreographed by Kariamu Welsh, is a fictional account of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama. The play premiered at the Temple Performing Arts Center in April, 2013.
The "Welsh Window" in the church, itself, was sculpted by John Petts, who also initiated a campaign in Wales to raise money to help rebuild the church. The stained glass window depicts a black man, arms outstretched, reminiscent of the Crucifixion of Jesus, and is inscribed: "Given by The People of Wales".
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was 8 years old at the time of the bombing and a classmate of Denise McNair. During the bombing, Rice was at her father's church a few blocks away. She commented on the bombing in 2004:
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.
^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. ISBN9781414353036.