Throughout Birmingham, Alabama, church bells and the trumpeting of the shofar will sound in unison this Friday (CBS 42). They will toll four times in remembrance of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Morris Wesley. Sixty years ago this week, the four girls were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, or Birmingham church bombing. Racial violence was a regular occurrence during the Civil Rights Movement. It’s still used today to stop racial progress.
Before the Civil Rights Movement, white supremacists cloaked and protected by the badge carried out campaigns of terror against Black families who dared to move into predominantly white neighborhoods (NPR). To intimidate Black homeowners, white residents would light front doors on fire or fire shots or bombs at houses. Bombings were later directed against civil rights activists fighting for desegregation. This was especially true in Alabama, the scene for some of the movement’s most pivotal moments, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, and the Selma to Montgomery March.
• Join local events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing.
• Learn more about the civil rights movement in Birmingham from those on the ground at the time.
• Support community organizing in Alabama like the Free Alabama Movement, Be A Blessing Birmingham, Faith & Works Collective, ¡HICA!, Knights and Orchids Society, and Alabama Love.
Birmingham, then the nation’s most segregated city, became the focus of an extensive direct action campaign led by Rev. Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (History). The city was frequently bombed, receiving the nickname “Bombingham,” with one of the city’s neighborhoods known as “Dynamite Hill.” There were more than 40 unsolved bombings of Black homes, churches, and businesses from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.
In May 1963, following children’s marches, retail boycotts, and lunch counter sit-ins, city officials, white business owners, and civil rights leaders negotiated an end to the protests and the desegregation of the city (National Park Service). The next day, the negotiation site was bombed. More recently, a black church in Massachusetts was burned in a “racially motivated” arson following the 2008 election of Barack Obama (New York Times). One of the oldest Black churches in the U.S. and a meeting point for civil rights organizing was the target of the 2015 mass shooting that took the lives of nine Black churchgoers by a white supremacist (The Atlantic). There have been countless other acts of violence and arson against Black churches, synagogues, or mosques by white supremacists.
In early September 1963, less than two weeks into the start of the school year, Birmingham was hit with three bombings in response to integrating Black students into all-white schools (Washington Post). The third was the deadly Birmingham church bombing on September 15.
Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Morris Wesley, 14, died as they got ready for Sunday School. Twenty-two others, including Sarah Collins (the younger sister of Addie Mae), were injured in the explosion. The 16th Street Baptist Church was likely targeted since it was a gathering spot for organizing and meetings for the movement. That same day, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware were murdered following the church bombing and subsequent protests (AL.com). Though the boys’ names are largely forgotten, their deaths speak to the racial violence of the period.
It would take 14 years and another 24 years before three of the four Klansmen who carried out the bombings were held responsible.
The Birmingham church bombing helped shift the country’s sentiments, propelling the movement forward less than a month after the March on Washington. Nationwide outrage helped garner support and the eventual passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, legally ending segregation.
“The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city,” said Martin Luther King Jr. during the funeral of three of the bomb victims. “Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”
“Who did it?” asked Charles Morgan, a white lawyer in his speech following the bombing. “We all did it … every person in this community who has in any way contributed … to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty … as the demented fool who threw that bomb” (SPLC).
Though they are immortalized as martyrs of the civil rights movement, it’s important to remember that Addie Mae, Denise, Carole, Cynthia, Johnny, and Virgil were children lost to racist hatred and violence, just like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and countless others in recent years. Their deaths are a reminder of what’s at stake when we choose to be bystanders to injustice and intolerance.
• The Birmingham Church Bombing was one of numerous acts of terror carried out by white supremacists disinterested in racial justice and equality.
• It was the fourth bombing in four weeks in Birmingham and the third since the school system was desegregated.
• The murders of four Black girls sparked nationwide outrage, galvanizing the civil rights movement.