Sunday, September 15, 1963: 16th Street Baptist Church bombing

Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley

     Sunday morning, Sept. 15, was cool and overcast in Birmingham. Sunday school classes were just ending in the basement of the yellow brick 16th Street Baptist Church, the city's largest Negro church and the scene of several recent civil rights rallies. The morning's lesson was "The Love That Forgives," from the fifth chapter of Matthew.* Four girls -- Carole Robertson, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Denise McNair, 11 -- left the classroom to go to the bathroom.
     At 10:22 the bomb exploded, with the force of ten to 15 sticks of dynamite. It had been planted under the steps behind the 50-year-old building.
     Great chunks of stone shot like artillery shells through parked cars. The blast shattered the windshield of a passing car, knocking the driver unconscious. A metal railing, torn from its concrete bed, lanced across the street into the window of the Social Dry Cleaning store. Next door, customers at the Silver Springs Restaurant were knocked to the floor. In nearby Kelly Ingram Park, pieces of brick nipped the leaves off trees 200 ft. from the blast.
     Beneath the Robe. Inside the church, a teacher screamed, "Lie on the floor! Lie on the floor!" Rafters collapsed, a skylight fell on the pulpit. Part of a stained glass window shattered, obliterating the face of Christ. A man cried: "Everybody out! Everybody out!" A stream of sobbing Negroes stumbled through the litter -- past twisted metal folding chairs, past splintered wooden benches, past shredded songbooks and Bibles. A Negro woman staggered out of the Social Dry Cleaning store shrieking "Let me at 'em! I'll kill 'em!" and fainted. White plaster dust fell gently for a block around.
     Police cars poured in the block -- and even as the cops plunged into the church, some enraged Negroes began throwing rocks at them. Rescue workers found a seven-foot pyramid of bricks where once the girls' bathroom stood. On top was a child's white lace choir robe. A civil defense captain lifted the hem of the robe. "Oh, my God," he cried. "Don't look!" Beneath lay the mangled body of a Negro girl.
     Bare-handed, the workers dug deeper into the rubble -- until four bodies had been uncovered. The head and shoulder of one child had been completely blown off. The remains were covered with shrouds and carried out to waiting ambulances. A youth rushed forward, lifted a sheet and wailed: "This is my sister! My God -- she's dead!"
     The church's pastor, the Rev. John Cross, hurried up and down the sidewalk, urging the milling crowd to go home. "Please go home!" he said. "The Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want." Another Negro minister added his pleas. "Go home and pray for the men who did this evil deed," he said. "We must have love in our hearts for these men." But a Negro boy screamed, "We give love -- and we get this!" And another youth yelled: "Love 'em? Love 'em? We hate 'em!" A man wept: "My grandbaby was one of those killed! Eleven years old! I helped pull the rocks off here! You know how I feel? I fell like blowing the whole town up!"
     The Birmingham police department's six-wheeled riot tank thumped onto the scene and cops began firing shotguns over the heads of the crowd while Negroes pelted them with rocks. Later, Negro youths began stoning passing white cars. The police ordered them to stop. One boy, Johnny Robinson, 16, ran, and a cop killed him with a blast of buckshot. That made five dead and 17 injured in the bomb blast.
     "I Can't." Several miles away, on the worn-out coal-field fringe of Birmingham, two young Negro brothers, James and Virgil Ware, were riding a bicycle. Virgil, 13, was sitting on the handle bars. A motor scooter with two 16-year-old white boys aboard approached from the opposite direction. James Ware, 16, told what happened then. "This boy on the front of the bike turns and says something to the boy behind him, and the other reaches in his pocket and he says Pow! Pow! with a gun twice. Virgil fell and I said, get up Virgil, and he said, I can't, I'm shot."
     And so six died on a Sunday in Birmingham.

* Verses 43-44: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them with despitefully use you, and persecute you.

-- "The Sunday School Bombing," Time magazine, September 27
-- Photos of bomb damage and stained-glass window by Tom Self, Birmingham News

     The bombers were identified as Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Herman Cash. Chambliss was convicted in 1977; Blanton in 2001; and Cherry in 2002. Cash died in 1994 without being charged.

* Summary from Encyclopedia of Alabama: @
* Summary from Alabama Department of Archives and History: @
* "About the 1963 Birmingham Bombing" (from Modern American Poetry): @
* New York Times front page and story (September 16): @
* Washington Post story (from UPI): @
* Miami News front page: @
* Milwaukee Sentinel front page: @
* "A Flower for the Graves" (Eugene Patterson, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 16): @
* "Birmingham: An Alabaman's Great Speech Lays the Blame" (portion of speech by Charles Morgan Jr., Life magazine, September 27, Page 44B): @
* Full text of Morgan's speech (from "American Heritage Book of Great American Speeches for Young People" (2001): @ 
* Reading of Morgan's speech (from Teaching Tolerance): @
* Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: @
* Birmingham History Center: @
* "16th Street Bombing Trial" (Birmingham News, 2002): @
* "Unseen. Unforgotten." (civil rights photos from Birmingham News): @
* "While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement" (Carolyn Maull McKinstry, 2011): @
* Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Movement" (Dianne McWhorter, 2001): @
* "Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers" (T.K. Thorne, 2013): @
* Resources from Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections (photographs, newspapers, documents): @
* Resources from Civil Rights Digital Library: @
* 16th Street Baptist Church website: @
* FBI files: @
* Earlier post on Birmingham (May 1963): @

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