On Sunday September 15th 1963 the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls:
- Addie Mae Collins, age 14 (1949-1963)
- Cynthia Wesley, age 14 (1949-1963)
- Denise McNair, age 11 (1951-1963)
- Carole Robertson, age 14 (1949-1963)
Martin Luther King, Jr:
These children – unoffending, innocent and beautiful – were the victims of one of the most vicious, heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.
Two other black children, Virgil Ware, 13, and Johnny Robinson, 16, were killed by whites in Birmingham later that day.
The bombing came just 18 days after King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. They were killed not for the content of their character but for the colour of their skin.
The Klan was trying to stop racial integration, particularly of schools. In Birmingham they had used bombings as an instrument of terror against blacks for so long that the city became known as “Bombingham”.
When the bomb went off everyone knew what it was and knew it was probably the Klan. But what shocked them was that the Klan would bomb a church.
The four girls were in the basement restroom. They had just come from a Sunday school lesson on Matthew 5: “The Love That Forgives”. They were dressed all in white from head to toe: white robes, white shoes and so on: it was Youth Day . They would be helping to run the 11 o’clock service. They were talking, combing their hair, getting ready. There was a fifth girl there, Collins’s 12-year-old sister Sarah. She lived but lost an eye to the flying glass. Nineteen others were injured.
The bomb blew out all the stained glass windows on the east wall except for one: the one of White Jesus, where it blew out his face. James Baldwin:
The absence of the face is something of an achievement since we have been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was the largest black church in Birmingham. W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson had appeared there. It was the city’s largest social space controlled by blacks. That made it a natural staging ground for civil rights protests. Those pictures you see of black protesters being attacked by dogs and sprayed by fire hoses – those were in Birmingham earlier that year and were staged from this church.
After the bombing the mayor wept on television. Yet he did not go to their funerals, nor did he send anyone to represent the city. Dr King:
No white official attended. No white faces could be seen save for a pathetically few courageous ministers. More than children were buried that day; honour and decency were also interred.
The FBI knew who did it but covered it up. The four white terrorists seen by eyewitnesses were not brought to justice till years later: Bob Chambliss in 1977, Thomas Blanton in 2001, Bobby Cherry in 2002 and Herman Cash never: he passed a lie detector test and died in 1994.