16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

"Bombingham" / March on Washington
Church Bombing / Rev. James Bevel
In Their Own Words / More Resources

Church BombingKeeping historical events in context is an important part of studying history.  It is not possible to make sense of our past if we think of historical events as disconnected occurrences.  To learn from our past, we need to see patterns and relationships.

Our special Web coverage of the Children's March is meant to share the experience, strength, and hope of youth and highlight the role of young people played in shaping our nation.  Reading about the Children's March, seeing the pictures, reading what the participants have to say, is important.  

We must look at the events that created the need for the march and what the protests accomplished.  We must see how stunned and outraged the rest of the nation and the world were at the developments in Birmingham.  We also must look at how the community and participants were affected. 

Birmingham was one of the most violent cities in America -- the Klu Klux Klan conducted a reign of terror.  The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, on Sunday, September 15, 1963; was the 21st in 8 years.  It was the 4th bombing in 4 weeks and the 3rd bombing since September white uprisings over the desegregation of schools.   

During that decade, none of the bombings were "solved."  No one was held accountable.  Justice was not served.  Police estimated that at least 15 sticks of dynamite must have been used to blow up the Baptist Church.  

The violence directed against the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham was organized.  Many believed that it involved at least the tacit approval of government officials.  Some believed that key law enforcement officials were behind the terror.  The Klu Klux Klan boasted that it had powerful members in high places.   

After the blast, witnesses identified a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Robert Chambliss, as the person who placed the bomb under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He was arrested and had in his possession a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. 

On 8th October, 1963, Chambliss was found not guilty of murder.  He received a hundred-dollar fine and a six-month jail sentence for having the dynamite.  This was "justice" in Birmingham.

The bomb went off in the 16th Street Baptist Church when over 400 African Americans were inside, including 80 children. It was Young Day at the parish.  Dozens were hurt.  The blast destroyed 2 cars and blew the glass out or windows on buildings that were blocks away.  Ironically, after the blast, the only remaining stained glass window in the church showed Christ leading a group of children. The face of Christ was blown out.

At least 20 people were seriously hurt and taken to hospitals.  Dozens were treated for less serious injuries.  When they heard the blast, people came running to see what had happened. 

Birmingham's Mayor, Albert Boutwell, was shocked.  His city could not go on like this.  He asked for help, announcing, "It is a tragic event.  It is just sickening that a few individuals could commit such a horrible atrocity. The occurrence of such a thing has so gravely concerned the public..." 

Mayor Boutwell was so upset that he nearly broke down in tears and could not finish his statement.  Four children were killed:   Denise McNair, 11; Carol Robertson, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14, and Addie Mae Collins, 10.  Click HERE to learn more about the lives of these girls.

Because of his work in the community, friends and families of the victims called Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta.  Dr. King knew he was needed to help keep the peace.  He wired President Kennedy from Atlanta, say that he was going to Birmingham. 

The stricken community needed a leader to encourage the friends and families of the bombing's victims to  "remain non-violent."  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. presided over the funeral for 3 of the children killed and delivered a dramatic eulogy for the martyred children.  

King could not promise to hold the peace.  Racial hatred and violence in "Bombingham" was entrenched.  He warned Kennedy that unless "immediate Federal steps are taken" there would be "in Birmingham and Alabama the worst racial holocaust this Nation has ever seen."

Kennedy, responded by ordered Burke Marshall, his top civil rights aide, to Birmingham.   Bomb experts and 25 FBI agents were rushed in.

The previously that summer, President Kennedy found it necessary to take over the Alabama National guard and desegregate schools in Birmingham, Mobile, and Tuskegee.  Alabama governor and avowed segregationist, George Wallace, had done all he could to impede the integration of Alabama's schools.  A week before the terrible church bombing,  he told the New York Times that Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals" to stop integration.

As events unfolded, Dr. King was extremely critical of Governor Wallace.  He stated to Wallace that "the blood of four little children... is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder."

Shortly after the bombing, police disbanded a rally of white students protesting the desegregation of three Birmingham schools.  There was a motorcade of militant adult segregationists driving through the community.  What, if any, role they played in the crime was never determined.  It was assumed the motorcade was heading white student rally.

Five fires were reported in African American businesses in Birmingham that night.  Police in riot gear patrolled the community.  Over 500 National Guardsmen stood on call in case reinforcements were needed.

Everyone knew that the The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was an important part of the African-American community.  It was where the strategists, organizers and participates planned their action.  It was here that the Children's March was  initiated.  In many ways, it was the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.  

The church was used for rallies, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders frequently spoke at these events.  The church was bombed by segregationist that were using terrorist tactics to disrupt the struggle for civil rights.

While Birmingham had been one of America's most violent cities for African America for years, the situation was becoming more hostile and dangerous.  When the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) became involved in a campaign to register African American to vote in Birmingham, the violence against African American's in the community increased.

The FBI's initial investigation into the bombing determined that Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. had planted the bomb.  The Birmingham FBI office recommended the suspects be prosecuted on federal charges and murder.  However, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover blocked prosecution.  

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Hoover harassed and spied on Dr. King, and would not allow his agency to take action against the perpetrators of this horrific crime.  

In 1971, General Bill Baxley was elected as Alabama Attorney.  He reopened the case and requested the original Federal Bureau of Investigation files.  The FBI actually had accumulated a great deal of evidence against Chambliss, much of it was not used in the original trial.

In 1977, Chambliss was again tried for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.  At age 73, Chambliss was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Chambliss died in an Alabama prison on 29th October, 1985.

In 2000, the FBI announced that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was committed a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, the Cahaba Boys.  They had evidence that four men four men, Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were responsible for the crime. By 2000, Cash had died.  Blanton and Cherry were arrested.  Cherry was already in jail in Texas for raping his stepdaughter in 1971.

On May 2, 2001, Thomas Blanton, avowed racist and former Ku Klux Klan member, was convicted of first- degree murder in the bombing deaths of the four young black girls.

Reasonable people can ask, "was justice served?"

By Bill Breitsprecher
©2006, Breitlinks
All Rights Reserved

"Bombingham" / March on Washington
Church Bombing / Rev. James Bevel
In Their Own Words / More Resources