In 1963, during a civil rights campaign in Birmingham AL, Klansmen blew up a church and killed four little girls. It was a defining event in the civil rights era.
In 1950s America, most of the South was living under a legally-sanctioned system of racial apartheid known as “Jim Crow”. Its goal was “segregation”—to keep African-Americans marginalized and separate from white society, powerless, poor, and easily exploited. A series of laws and regulations prevented Black Americans from voting, from attending white schools, from living in white parts of town, and even drinking from the same water fountains.
Segregation had existed in the former Confederacy since the 1870s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the African-American community began to become strong enough to mount an effective challenge to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine. The Great Depression had shaken the very roots of American society, and the New Deal had introduced socially-progressive ideas and programs from the very top of government. Race-based ideological dictatorships in Europe made Americans take a hard look at the effects of their own notions of Aryan superiority, and at the same time the growing population of African-Americans in many cities led to an increase in political and social influence. During the Second World War, many Black Americans served with the armed forces, and, although the US military was segregated, the countries of Britain and France where they served were not. Exposed for the first time to racial equality and social justice, African-American troops returned home determined to win the same things here. In addition, as the Cold War was raging in the 1950s, America’s system of racial segregation had become a political embarrassment: both the Soviet Union and the various anti-colonial movements around the world pointed to Jim Crow as a glaring example of American hypocrisy. The time was right for change.
In 1954, the civil rights movement won one of its most important victories, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. The ruling was a landmark for democracy and social justice, and it quickly opened the gates for efforts to desegregate transportation and other public facilities across the South as well as measures to protect the voting rights of Black Americans and to prevent race-based gerrymandering. Civil rights groups including the NAACP, the Congress Of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, launched campaigns to desegregate the transportation systems and to register African-Americans to vote.
They faced massive and violent opposition from conservative whites. Extremists screeched that racial integration was “Communist!” and yelled for Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren’s impeachment. In Alabama, Governor George Wallace defiantly proclaimed “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” In Birmingham, the local chapter of the white nationalist Ku Klux Klan terrorist group was one of the largest and most violent in the country, and, often working together with police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor, attacked peaceful civil rights protesters. Over the years there were so many explosions and firebombings in Black neighborhoods that the city gained the grim nickname “Bombingham”. (One neighborhood, populated mostly by middle-class African-Americans, was bombed so often that it became known as “Dynamite Hill”.)
So when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its national leader, Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, were invited in 1963 by local pastors to come to Birmingham and help desegregate the city, everyone knew there would be trouble. Within weeks, after leading a number of nonviolent marches, King was served with a court injunction against any further demonstrations. He ignored the court order and was arrested. From his prison cell, King wrote a pamphlet that was published under the title “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”. It became one of the most famous documents from the civil rights years. In August, King once again electrified the movement with his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington DC. In Birmingham, meanwhile, there were more marches, and television viewers across the nation were shocked to see images of Bull Connor’s police force beating unarmed demonstrators, turning powerful firehoses onto marching children, and setting attack dogs on defenseless adults.
Then came the event that would change the way a nation looked at itself. In the first week in September 1963, the Federal courts had ordered the immediate desegregation of all the public schools in Alabama. Within two weeks there were three more explosions in “Bombingham”, and on September 15, there was yet another, this time at the 16th Street Baptist Church. A home-made bomb containing at least 15 sticks of dynamite was detonated under the front steps of the church. Four little girls, 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and 11-year-old Cynthia Wesley, were killed, and 23 others (including Addie’s sister Susan), were wounded. The blast had been so powerful that an injured motorist driving past the church at the moment of detonation had been blown out the side door of his car.
The images from Birmingham, of peaceful marchers being attacked by police and of bombed bodies being removed from a shattered church, provoked a massive wave of sympathy for the protesters. Over 8000 people, white and Black, attended funeral services for the little girls. One of those who was moved to act was President John F Kennedy, who now ordered that the entire might of the Federal Government be directed towards the goal of desegregation. Two months later Kennedy himself would be dead, the victim of an assassin, and now-President Lyndon Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964 and then the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Across the South, National Guard troops with bayonets protected African-American students as they arrived at newly-integrated schools. Within a few years, the entire legal system of Jim Crow apartheid would be dismantled.
Within days of the Birmingham church bombing, the FBI already knew who had done it. The FBI, under the paranoid leadership of J Edgar Hoover, had become convinced that the American civil rights movement was actually a Communist conspiracy launched from Moscow to weaken the US during the Cold War, and Federal agents had been illegally spying on civil rights organizations and leaders, including King, and attempting to disrupt them. But the FBI had also infiltrated most of the KKK chapters across the US, and was able to quickly determine that the church bombing had been carried out by four members of the local Klan which called themselves “The Cahaba Boys”, who Hoover’s agents identified as Thomas Blanton, Herman Cash, Robert Chambliss, and Bobby Cherry. The Cahaba group, with about 30 active participants, had already come under the watch of the FBI as suspects in violent attacks on “Freedom Rider” buses in 1961. When Chambliss was arrested on suspicion of the church bombing, he was found to be in possession of a case of dynamite and detonators.
Most of the information that the FBI had about the bombing, however, had been obtained through unauthorized electronic bugs and wiretaps. Not only did this mean that it was inadmissible in court, but Hoover also did not want anyone to know about his illegal “counter-intelligence programs” directed at American citizens (including prominent civil rights activists). So although the FBI was supposed to be cooperating with state prosecutors, only a portion of the information they had was actually shared with Alabama officials. As a result, prosecutors decided that they did not have enough evidence to charge any of the four with the bombing: they succeeded only in convicting Chambliss and two of his fellow Klan members on the explosives charges, for which they paid a fine and received a six-month suspended jail sentence.
It wasn’t until almost ten years later that the FBI, at the request of a new state attorney general, finally turned over its files on the Cahaba Boys to prosecutors. Chambliss was at last charged with the murders in 1977, at the age of 73. He was convicted, sentenced to life in prison, and died in 1985 of cancer. Cash died in 1994 before he could be charged, but Blanton and Cherry were both convicted in 2000 and 2001. Cherry died in prison at age 74 in 2004. Blanton, at age 81, still remains in prison. Much of the testimony against all of them came from their own relatives and friends, who they had bragged to over the years.
Today, the 16th Street Baptist Church is still operating, although it did not reopen after the bombing until 1964. The church is not open to the public, but it will arrange guided tours for groups by appointment. Across the street is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which commemorates the history of the struggle to end segregation and win racial equality. On another nearby street corner is a bronze statue of little children, commemorating those who were killed and wounded that day. And Kelly Ingram Park, a gathering place for civil rights demonstrators, displays a number of of statues and memorials.
Some photos from a visit.