The Birmingham Church Bombings and How It Affected the Civil Rights Movement
The 1960s are known for the events associated with the Civil Rights Movement- the movement that transformed America and its people forever. We learn in school about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but we rarely learn the actual events that happen, which are just as important as the people who made it possible. One of the key events was the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
Birmingham was a key player in the Civil Rights Movement- it was described as the “most racist town in America” and was heavily racially segregated. In Birmingham, racial tensions were sky-high. Alabama’s Governor, George Wallace, fiercely opposed desegregation, and Birmingham had one of the strongest and most violent chapters of the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The city’s police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor was notorious for his willingness to use brutality in combating radical demonstrators, union members, and blacks. and Martin Luther King Jr. knew he had to focus there. As a result, civil rights activists made Birmingham a major focus of their efforts to desegregate the Deep South.
Birmingham is also known for Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous work “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which I had the pleasure of reading this year. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested in Birmingham while leading supporters of his organization Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in a nonviolent campaign of demonstrations against segregation. During his time in jail, King wrote a letter to local white ministers justifying his decision not to call off the demonstrations in the face of continued bloodshed at the hands of local law enforcement officials. He pleaded for government officials in Alabama to see how their nonviolent protests were hurting nobody, defended his nonviolent tactics, and called for justice in the city. His letter was eventually published in the national press, along with shocking images of police brutality against protesters in Birmingham that helped build widespread support for the civil rights cause from all over the country. Then the Birmingham church bombing happened.
The bombing occurred on September 15, 1963, when a bomb exploded before Sunday morning services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a church with a predominantly black congregation that also served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders. Four young girls, 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair, were killed and many other people injured. Outrage over the incident and the violent clash between protesters and police that followed the bombing helped draw national attention to the hard-fought, dangerous struggle for civil rights for African Americans.
By 1963, homemade bombs set off in Birmingham’s black homes and churches were such common occurrences that the city had earned the nickname “Bombingham.” The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15 was the third bombing in 11 days after a federal court order had come down mandating the integration of Alabama’s school system.
Many of the civil rights protest marches that took place in Birmingham during the 1960s began at the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which had long been a significant religious center for the city’s black population and a routine meeting place for civil rights organizers like King. When it was bombed, you can see the chaos and outrage that exploded from the tragedy.
In the aftermath of the bombing, thousands of angry black protesters gathered at the scene of the bombing. When Governor Wallace sent police and state troopers to break the protests up, violence broke out across the city; a number of protesters were arrested, and two young African American men were killed (one by police) before the National Guard was called in to restore order. King himself later spoke before 8,000 people at the funeral for three of the girls, fueling the building public outrage now mounting across the country.
Though Birmingham’s white supremacists were immediately suspected in the bombing, repeated calls for the perpetrators to be brought to justice went unanswered for more than a decade. It was later revealed that the FBI had information concerning the identity of the bombers by 1965 and did nothing. In 1977, Alabama Attorney General Bob Baxley reopened the investigation and Klan leader Robert E. Chambliss was brought to trial for the bombings and convicted of murder. Continuing to maintain his innocence, Chambliss died in prison in 1985. The case was again reopened in 1980, 1988 and 1997, when two other former Klan members, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were finally brought to trial; Blanton was convicted in 2001 and Cherry in 2002. A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial. To this day, the perpetrators of the bombing still remain a mystery.
Even though the legal system was slow to provide justice, the effect of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was immediate and significant. Outrage over the death of the four young girls helped build increased support behind the continuing struggle to end segregation — support that would help lead to the passage of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In that important sense, the bombing’s impact was exactly the opposite of what its perpetrators had intended.