16th St Church Bombing: The Death Toll of White Supremacy

Background

US civil rights protestors are largely remembered for their peaceful actions, yet they were the victims of incredible violence. Many confrontations involved nonviolent activists being subjected to harassment, beatings, attack dogs, and the like by angry locals and police officers. African Americans across the nation suffered from terrorist attacks at the hands of white supremacists. The fight for Black rights in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in positive change, but not without consequences. 

Explanation

Birmingham, Alabama was a hotspot for both racial activism and disputes. Historically one of the most segregated and racist cities in America, the city's desegregation became the priority of several civil rights activists, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). During the spring and summer of 1963, protesters convinced the city to integrate public spaces by the coming fall. As the deadline drew closer, however, violence from white supremacists increased. The horrific bombing of the 16th St Baptist Church was one such tragedy caused by these hateful people.

16th St Baptist Church

The 16th St Baptist Church was important for both the African American community in Birmingham and civil rights activism. Because of its large size and central location, the city's Black community used it as a lecture hall, meeting place, and social center. Thus, the church was a regular meeting spot for civil rights discussions and rally departures.

The History

Just before 11 am on September 15, 1963, the 16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was home to a horrific white supremacist attack. The Sunday service had yet to start, but much of the congregation was already present. In the basement ladies’ room, some young girls were changing into their choir robes. Before mass could begin, a bomb under the church steps went off. The people upstairs were able to shield themselves from falling debris and shelter under the pews, but four of the girls in the basement were killed. Their names were Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. Cynthia was eleven years old, and the other three were fourteen. Addie's sister, Susan, was permanently blinded, but she survived. The blast physically injured roughly twenty survivors, and hundreds more were left mentally and emotionally scarred.

Members of the KKK, a white supremacist group, set off a bomb in the church during service hours and murdered children. The twenty-four hours following the bombing were marked by unrest between the Black and white communities. Several businesses and cars were firebombed and stoned, and two more Black youths, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, were shot and killed.

Though white supremacists had hoped to stop the desegregation movement, their horrible attack drew both national and international recognition of Birmingham's violent struggle for Black civil rights. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr famously sent a telegram to the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, that read, "the blood of our little children is on your hands." The tragedy caused many white sympathizers to join the civil rights struggle with fierce seriousness, citing that their complacency and inaction had too high of a cost.  Over 8,000 people attended the children's funeral at 6th Avenue Baptist Church. As the 1960s went on, tension continued to increase between civil rights activists and white supremacists. 

Why Care?

The 16th Street Church bombing came to symbolize the lives lost in the fight for Black civil rights. President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in response to Birmingham's incredible violence and discrimination, but countless lives had to be lost and scarred before such legislation was even drafted. This tragedy is still significant as civil unrest and rampant racism continues in the United States. We need to look only at the handling of the white supremacist bombers responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church tragedy to see this.

Though the FBI uncovered the four men responsible by early October, no federal charges were filed. Instead, Thomas Blanton Jr., Herman Cash, Robert Chambliss, and Bobby Cherry were fined and given a 180-day jail sentence for illegally possessing dynamite. The FBI officially closed the case and refused to disclose any gathered evidence. It took until the late 2000s for these men to be arrested, tried, and convicted for the bombing - excluding Harman Cash, who died in 1994 before being prosecuted.  

The United States may not be segregated by race as it was in the 1960s, but Black Americans still aren't treated equally. Black lives continue to be lost due to police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism. As a society, we must actively pursue change to prevent more tragedies like the 16th St Baptist Church bombing from happening. 

Think Further

  1. Many bombings and murders of Black lives occurred before the 16th St Church tragedy: why do you think this event in particular attracted more attention to the Civil Rights Movement?
  2. What are other examples of white supremacist attacks in the United States? What responses did they provoke from the public?
  3. What were some potential roadblocks in charging the bombers for their crime? Why was it important that they be prosecuted, even if it was decades after the crime took place? 

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  1. U.S. National Park Service. 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (1963). 23 Mar. 2016, www.nps.gov/articles/16thstreetbaptist.htm. 
  2. Carson, Clayborne. “American Civil Rights Movement.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Feb. 2020, www.britannica.com/event/American-civil-rights-movement. 
  3. History.com Editors. “Birmingham Church Bombing.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Jan. 2010, www.history.com/topics/1960s/birmingham-church-bombing. 
  4. Rudolph, Sarah Collins. Interview with Ebony Phillips. “Survivor of 1963 Birmingham church bombing describes the act of terror,” uploaded by 11Alive, 12 February 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwR2wMJUHF4.