The Birmingham Church Bombing
Even as the inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr. ’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech rang out from the Lincoln Memorial during the historic march on Washington in August of 1963; racial relations in the segregated South were marked by continued acts of violence and inequality. On September 15th a bomb exploded before Sunday Morning services at the 16th street Baptist in Burmington, Alabama- a church with a predominantly black congregation that served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders.
Four young girls, aged 11 to 14, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins were killed and many others were injured. People outraged over the incident and the violent clash between protesters and police that followed. This helped draw national attention to the hard-fought and often dangerous struggles for civil rights for African Americans. The explosions increased anger and tension, which were already high in Birmingham. Birmingham’s Mayor Albert Boutwell wept and said, “It is just sickening that a few individuals could commit such a horrible atrocity.
Two more blacks were shot to death approximately seven hours following the Sunday morning bombing. This included 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware, who were shot at about the same time. Robinson was shot by police, reportedly after they caught him throwing rocks at cars and he ignored orders to halt as he fled down an alley. Ware was “shot from ambush” as he and his brother rode their bicycles in a residential suburb, 15 miles north of the city; UPI reported: “Two white youths seen riding a motorcycle in the area were sought by police. In spite of everything, the newly-integrated schools continued to meet. Schools had been integrated the previous Tuesday with black and white children in the same classrooms for the first time in that city.
As the news story about the four girls reached the national and international press, many felt that they had not taken the Civil Rights struggle seriously enough. A Milwaukee Sentinel editorial opined, “For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths…in a sense are on the hands of each of us. The city of Birmingham initially offered a $52,000 reward for the arrest of the bombers. Governor George Wallace, an outspoken segregationist, offered an additional $5,000. However, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wired 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. ” Following the tragic event, white strangers visited the grieving families to express their sorrow.
At the funeral for three of the girls (one family preferred a separate, private funeral), Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about life being “as hard as crucible steel. ” More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of all races, attended the service. No city officials attended. The bombing continued to increase worldwide sympathy for the civil rights cause. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring equal rights of African Americans before the law.
FBI investigations gathered evidence pointing to four suspects: Robert Chambliss, Thomas E. Blanton Jr, Herman Cash, and Bobby Frank Cherry. According to a later report from the Bureau, “By 1965, we had serious suspects—namely, Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. , all KKK members—but witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. Also, at that time, information from our surveillances was not admissible in court. As a result, no federal charges were filed in the ’60s. ” Although Chambliss was convicted on an explosives charge, no convictions were obtained in the 1960s for the killings.
Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened the investigation after he took office in 1971, requesting evidence from the FBI and building trust with key witnesses who had been reluctant to testify in the first trial. The prosecutor had been a student at the University of Alabama when he heard about the bombing in 1963. “I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what. ” In 1977 former Ku Klux Klansman Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was indicted in the murder of all four girls, tried and convicted of the first-degree murder of Denise McNair, and sentenced to life in prison.
He died eight years later in prison. Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. was tried in 2001 and found guilty at age 62 of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Herman Cash died in 1994 without having been charged. Bobby Frank Cherry, also a former Klansman, was indicted [in 2001] along with Blanton. Judge James Garrett of Jefferson County Circuit Court ruled “that Mr. Cherry’s trial would be delayed indefinitely because a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation concluded that he was mentally incompetent. ” He was later convicted in 2002, sentenced to life in prison, and died in 2004.