The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was constructed in 1911 and, for generations of African Americans, it was the focal point of the community. In the 1950s and 60s, the church became an epicenter for the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy.
During the spring and summer of 1963, tensions had been mounting in Birmingham with the arrest of King in April and the Children’s Crusade in May, as civil rights organizations worked on African American voter registration and school desegregation. There had been several bombings of African American property in the previous months earning the city the nickname “Bombingham.” Alabama Governor George Wallace had recently stoked tensions with inflammatory rhetoric in a statement printed in The New York Times declaring that a sure way to stop integration in Alabama was through a “few first-class funerals.”
On the morning of September 15, 1963, a white man was seen placing a box at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Worshipers were finding their seats for the eleven o’clock service and five young girls — Addie Mae Collins, Sarah Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — were in the downstairs restroom putting on their choir robes. At exactly 10:22 a.m., a bomb ripped through the church blowing out all but one of the stained glass windows and several walls in the basement. As people fled the smoke-filled church, several rushed to the blast site. There they found the mangled bodies of four girls. Only 10-year-old Collins was alive, but she would lose her right eye.
Hours after the blast, the city was rocked with riots in several neighborhoods. Businesses were firebombed and looted. Governor Wallace sent 500 hundred National Guardsmen and 300 state troopers to Birmingham. A number of protesters were arrested and two more African American youths were killed in separate incidents. The next week, eight thousand mourners attended the funeral of three of the girls (the fourth girl’s family held a private service) and an entire country grieved the loss.
Birmingham’s white supremacist community was immediately suspected in the bombing. Quickly, the investigation centered around four men, Thomas Blanton, Jr., Herman Cash, Robert Chambliss and Bobby Cherry, all members of a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan. Chambliss was arrested and charged with murder and possession of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. On October 8, 1963, he was found not guilty in state court of murder and received a fine of $100 and a six-month suspended sentence for having the dynamite. In 1971, the case was reopened and Chambliss was convicted of murder in federal court and died in prison in 1985. The case was reopened several times more and in 1997, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were convicted and sentenced to prison. Cherry died in 2004. The fourth bombing suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial.
Even though justice came slowly for the four girls killed in the church bombing, the effect was immediate and significant. Outrage over the deaths helped pass both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The impact of the bombing proved to be the exact opposite of what the perpetrators intended.