16th Street Baptist Church Bombing Victims Granted Congressional Gold Medals

13 Sep
Clockwise from top left: Cynthia Wesley (14), Carol Robertson (14), Denise McNair (11) and Addie Mae Collins (14) were the four innocent little girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963, (Photo byThePeoplesChampion.me)

Clockwise from top left: Cynthia Wesley (14), Carol Robertson (14), Denise McNair (11) and Addie Mae Collins (14) the four young girls killed by a bomb planted by the Klan at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963, (Photo byThePeoplesChampion.me)

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. That event, coming so soon after the triumphant March on Washington, was a traumatic event of racially motivated domestic terrorism which took the lives of four young girls, Cynthia Wesley, Carl Robertson, Denise McNair, and Addie Mae Collins. Several other people were injured, including Addie Mae Collins’ sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph. As part of the ceremonies marking this somber anniversary, the four girls have been granted Congressional Gold Medals, the highest honor a civilian can receive.

Although one of the most shocking and deadly attacks of the civil rights movement this was not the first bomb to go off in Birmingham, known as “Bombingham,” in the African American community. From 1947 to 1965 Birmingham was the site of over fifty racially motivated bombings or attacks, and many of these were directed at civil rights leaders and their supporters whose houses and businesses were the targets. The list of these attacks leading up to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing include explosions at A. G. Gaston’s motel, and at the homes of Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Dr. Martin Luther King, among many others.

Still the city was shocked when on September 15, 1963 a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and killed the four young girls. This event was a pivotal turning point in the civil rights movement, and was discussed in many of the interviews conducted for Eyes on the Prize. After the event, the city existed in a precarious position for days, amidst riots and violent clashes. Burke Marshall, who was  the head of the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice described the situation in his interview:

There was a feeling of real bitter outrage at the killing of those four little girls—church bombing and of course there was an enormous reaction in Birmingham. The president asked me to go down there and I went down there immediately. When I got to Birmingham I found—I thought I was in a city under siege. There—the black community had set up guards to prevent people from coming into it. They were afraid. They didn’t know what would happen, they were afraid the Klan had gone wild. And that they would come in with other violence. So that you had to go through a cordon, in order to get into the black community. When I got there, I called Martin King immediately, who was there, and arranged to meet him. He was in a house in the black community. The Bureau didn’t want to take me there, because there were no black Bureau agents, and driving white, cop-looking people, driving into the black neighborhood at that time, [was] sort of like an act of war. So that Martin King, or somebody, Arthur Shores, somebody there, arranged for some black civil defense workers, who were acting as sort of guard, to come get me, at my hotel, and I they gave me a white helmet, and sort of shoveled me down in the back seat, so that my face couldn’t be seen, and drove me into the neighborhood, into the house where, I think it was John Drew’s house, where Martin was staying, and then we had a long meeting about what to do. The president had choices to make, that were important choices, should he do something militarily? The city might explode, and it would be possible to do something militarily. Martin King, I think, favored that notion at first. I was against it, because I knew that it the military came in, they would declare martial law. And blacks, as well as whites, would be confined to their houses, nobody would be able to protest anything. And having the military run a civil rights movement is a terrible step to take, if it can be avoided. The president did move some troops down near Birmingham, as sort of a symbolic gesture, of federal force, if the state authorities didn’t behave themselves.

Interview with Burke Marshall,  conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 4, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

A. G. Gaston, an African American businessman who was active in the Birmingham movement and a supporter of Martin Luther King, described negotiations he attended with Martin Luther King and President Kennedy,

Well, that was when I-the time that the black was just about ready to do some fighting back, ’cause they had bombs, they had dynamite stuff stored up around. Some of it was around our place, there. And I could see, with dynamite in the hands of blacks who were very upset at that period, and the Klan, who was prepared, for those two coming together.

Interview with A. G. Gaston,  conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 1, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Diane Nash, a civil rights activist and member of SNCC, described her reaction to the event in her interview,

Well, on the Sunday when the girls had been killed in the bombing in church, in Birmingham, my former husband and I, Jim Bevel, were sitting in Golden Frank’s living room. There was a voter registration campaign going on currently, that we were involved in, and we were crying, because in many ways we, we felt like our own children had been killed. We knew that the activity of the civil rights movement had been involved in generating a kind of energy that brought out this kind of hostility. And we decided that we would do something about it, and we said that we had two options. The first one was, we felt confident that if we tried, we could find out who had done it, and we could make sure they got killed. And we considered that as a real option. And the second option was, that we felt that if blacks in Alabama had the right to vote, that they could protect black children. And we deliberately made a choice, and chose the second option. And, at that time, promised ourselves and each other, that if it took twenty years, or as long as it took, we weren’t going to stop working on it and trying, until Alabama blacks had the right to vote.

Interview with Diane Nash,  conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 12, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Despite the great amount of tension, there was no violent retaliation against the bombers. Early on, one of the main suspects of the bombing, Robert Chambliss, a Klan member was identified as the one who placed the bomb under the steps of the church. He was arrested but only charged with possession of a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. He received a short sentence and fine for this at the time, but then the case was dropped.

David Vann, a local attorney, described seeing Chambliss at the scene of the bombing on September 15, 1963,

Well, I first learned of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church just about five minutes to noon, when I was leaving my church on the south side, Hallowed Methodist, and someone was there…said that there had been this bombing at the church. I got in my car, and I immediately drove down to see what had happened, and they had it blocked off, all roads blocked off a block away, so you couldn’t get within a block. I remember I was driving south on 19th Street, which was two blocks from the church, and there on the corner, stood Mr. Chambliss, a known Klansman, watching all of the commotion, and excitement and fire trucks and things that were coming and going. I remember then, thinking that he looked like a fire bug watching his fire. And of course, several years later he was convicted of being a participant in the bombing.

Interview with David Vann, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 1, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

The reasons it took so long to get a conviction are many. One was the tendency of local law enforcement to not aggressively pursue cases where the victims were African American. The other involved the a disinclination of the FBI to release information they had to local or federal officials looking into the case. Reluctance of local witnesses to testify was also a factor in the case.

David Vann, who was the mayor of Birmingham when the case was reopened in the 1970s, addressed the case in his interview,

Well, one of the main reasons it was a long time before he was brought to trial is the FBI was called in by the city to do the initial investigation, and there was such a degree of distrust between the Birmingham Police Department and the FBI, that the FBI and the Justice Department would never give any of the records to to either the State of Alabama or the City of Birmingham…I know the policy of protecting informants had a great deal to [do] with the FBI policy in those days. But it wasn’t until after Jimmy Carter became President, the Attorney General of the state, Bill Baxley, and myself, put all the pressure we could on the new Attorney General and they did agree to allow a review of those records, by the state Attorney General’s office, and within about six months prosecution was begun of Mr. Chambliss. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the FBI at least claimed that they had lost a lot of their records, and most of the physical evidence that the FBI collected at the scene that day, was nowhere to be found.

Interview with David Vann, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 1, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Burke Marshall also commented on the case and the political climate of that time,

Now the Bureau, I think, knew who did that bombing. It certainly turned out in the end that they knew who did that bombing. They, they never gave us the Civil Rights Division, they never gave the Department of Justice a case to prosecute, or identified to the Civil Rights Division the person that, that did the bombing. He was eventually prosecuted by state authorities. That was a terrible event, a terrible event, because of its cruelty, its futility, its senselessness, and everybody in the administration felt that, just the same way that everybody, at least every sensitive person, civilized person, in Birmingham, white as well as black, thought. It was horrifying event.

Interview with Burke Marshall,  conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 4, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

In the end, three other men were identified as having participated in the bombing, Thomas E. Blanton, Jr, Herman Cash, and Bobby Frank Cherry. Over the course of many years and trials, two of the other suspects, Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were convicted and sentenced to life in jail. Herman Cash died in 1994 without being convicted.

The event and location are now recognized as a major turning point in the fight for civil rights. The event has been the subject of numerous books and films including Spike Lee’s acclaimed documentary, Four Little Girls, and in 2006, the 16th Street Baptist Church is declared a national historic landmark, With the recognition of the Congressional Gold Medal for the four girls, they can be fully recognized and honored fifty years after this tragic event.

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