Four Black schoolgirls killed in Birmingham church bombing

Four Black schoolgirls killed in Birmingham church bombing

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On September 15, 1963, a bomb explodes during Sunday morning services in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls: Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11).

With its large African American congregation, the 16th Street Baptist Church served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who once called Birmingham a “symbol of hardcore resistance to integration.” Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, made preserving racial segregation one of the central goals of his administration, and Birmingham had one of the most violent and lawless chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.

The church bombing was the third in Birmingham in 11 days after a federal order came down to integrate Alabama’s school system. Fifteen sticks of dynamite were planted in the church basement, underneath what turned out to be the girls’ restroom. The bomb detonated at 10:19 a.m., killing Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins—all 14 years old—and 11-year-old Denise McNair. Immediately after the blast, church members wandered dazed and bloodied, covered with white powder and broken stained glass, before starting to dig in the rubble to search for survivors. More than 20 other members of the congregation were injured in the blast.

When thousands of Black protesters assembled at the crime scene, Wallace sent hundreds of police and state troopers to the area to break up the crowd. Two young Black men were killed that night, one by police and another by racist thugs. Meanwhile, public outrage over the bombing continued to grow, drawing international attention to Birmingham. At a funeral for three of the girls (one’s family preferred a separate, private service), King addressed more than 8,000 mourners.

A well-known Klan member, Robert Chambliss, was charged with murder and with buying 122 sticks of dynamite. In October 1963, Chambliss was cleared of the murder charge and received a six-month jail sentence and a $100 fine for the dynamite. Although a subsequent FBI investigation identified three other men—Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr.—as having helped Chambliss commit the crime, it was later revealed that FBI chairman J. Edgar Hoover blocked their prosecution and shut down the investigation without filing charges in 1968. After Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison.

Efforts to prosecute the other three men believed responsible for the bombing continued for decades. Though Cash died in 1994, Cherry and Blanton were arrested and charged with four counts of murder in 2000. Blanton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Cherry’s trial was delayed after judges ruled he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. This decision was later reversed. On May 22, 2002, Cherry was convicted and sentenced to life, bringing a long-awaited victory to the friends and families of the four young victims.

READ MORE: Birmingham Church Bombing

Four Black schoolgirls killed in Birmingham church bombing - HISTORY

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Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 15--A bomb severely damaged a Negro church today during Sunday school services, killing four Negro girls and setting off racial rioting and other violence in which two Negro boys were shot to death.

Fourteen Negroes were injured in the explosion. One Negro and five whites were hurt in the disorders that followed.

Some 500 National Guardsmen in battle dress stood by at armories here tonight, on orders of Gov. George C. Wallace. And 300 state troopers joined the Birmingham police, Jefferson County sheriff&aposs deputies and other law-enforcement units in efforts to restore peace.

Governor Wallace sent the guardsmen and the troopers in response to requests from local authorities.

Sporadic gunfire sounded in Negro neighborhoods tonight, and small bands of residents roamed the streets. Aside from the patrols that cruised the city armed with riot guns, carbines and shotguns, few whites were seen.

At one point, three fires burned simultaneously in Negro sections, one at a broom and mop factory, one at a roofing company and a third in another building. An incendiary bomb was tossed into a supermarket, but the flames were extinguished swiftly. Fire marshals investigated blazes at two vacant houses to see if arson was involved.

Mayor Albert Boutwell and other city officials and civic leaders appeared on television station WAPI late tonight and urged residents to cooperate in ending "this senseless reign of terror."

Sheriff Melvin Bailey referred to the day as "the most distressing in the history of Birmingham."

The explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church this morning brought hundreds of angry Negroes pouring into the streets. Some attacked the police with stones. The police dispersed them by firing shotguns over their heads.

Johnny Robinson, a 16-year-old Negro, was shot in the back and killed by a policeman with a shotgun this afternoon. Officers said the victim was among a group that had hurled stones at white youths driving through the area in cars flying Confederate battle flags.

When the police arrived, the youths fled, and one policeman said he had fired low but that some of the shot had struck the Robinson youth in the back.

Virgil Wade, a 13-year-old Negro, was shot and killed just outside Birmingham while riding a bicycle. The Jefferson County sheriff&aposs office said "there apparently was no reason at all" for the killing, but indicated that it was related to the general racial disorders.

Another Negro youth and a white youth were shot but not seriously wounded in separate incidents. Four whites, including a honeymooning couple from Chicago, were injured by stones while driving through the neighborhood of the bombing.

The bombing, the fourth such incident in less than a month, resulted in heavy damage to the church, to a two-story office building across the street and to a home.

Wallace Offers Reward

Governor Wallace, at the request of city officials, offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the bombers.

None of the 50 bombings of Negro property here since World War II have been solved.

Mayor Boutwell and Chief of Police Jamie Moore expressed fear that the bombing, coming on top of tension aroused by desegregation of three schools last week, would bring further violence.

George G. Seibels Jr., chairman of the City Council&aposs police committee, broadcast frequent appeals tonight to white parents, urging them to restrain their children from staging demonstrations tomorrow. He said a repetition of the segregationist motorcades that raced through the streets last Thursday and Friday "could provoke serious trouble, resulting in possible death or injury."

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived tonight by plane from Atlanta. He had led Negroes, who make up almost one-third of Birmingham&aposs population, in a five-week campaign last spring that brought some lunch-counter desegregation and improved job opportunities. The bombed church had been used as the staging point by Negro demonstrators.

Col. Albert J. Lingo, State director of Public Safety and commander of the troopers, met with Mayor Boutwell and the City Council in emergency session. They discussed imposition of a curfew, but decided against it.

The bombing came five days after the desegregation of three previously all-white schools in Birmingham. The way had been cleared for the desegregation when President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and the Federal courts issued a sweeping order against Governor Wallace, thus ending his defiance toward the integration step.

The four girls killed in the blast had just heard Mrs. Ella C. Demand, their teacher, complete the Sunday school lesson for the day. The subject was "The Love That Forgives."

During the period between the class and an assembly in the main auditorium, they went to the women&aposs lounge in the basement, at the northeast corner of the church.

The blast occurred at about 10:25 A.M. (12:25 P.M. New York time).

Church members said they found the girls huddled together beneath a pile of masonry debris.

Parents of 3 Are Teachers

Both parents of each of three of the victims teach in the city&aposs schools. The dead were identified by University Hospital officials as:

Cynthia Wesley, 14, the only child of Claude A. Wesley, principal of the Lewis Elementary School, and Mrs. Wesley, a teacher there.

Denise McNair, 11, also an only child, whose parents are teachers.

Carol Robertson, 14, whose parents are teachers and whose grandmother, Mrs. Sallie Anderson, is one of the Negro members of a biracial committee established by Mayor Boutwell to deal with racial problems.

Addie Mae Collins, 14, about whom no information was immediately available.

The blast blew gaping holes through walls in the church basement. Floors of offices in the rear of the sanctuary appeared near collapse. Stairways were blocked by splintered window frames, glass and timbers.

Chief Police Inspector W. J. Haley said the impact of the blast indicated that at least 15 sticks of dynamite might have caused it. He said the police had talked to two witnesses who reported having seen a car drive by the church, slow down and then speed away before the blast.

Four Girls Forever Lost: 57 years ago, 16th Street Baptist Church bombing awakened nation to deadly consequences of hate

Addie Mae Collins was an outgoing, artistic girl who – as a Black teenager in 1963 – happily went door to door in the white neighborhoods of Birmingham, Alabama, to sell aprons and potholders that her mother had stitched together to make ends meet.

Denise McNair performed in plays, dance routines and poetry readings to raise money for muscular dystrophy research. She befriended Condoleezza Rice, a fellow elementary school student who later became U.S. secretary of state.

Carole Robertson was a good student who loved reading and dancing. She sang in her elementary school chorus, played the clarinet, and was a member of Jack and Jill of America, a civic-minded youth and family organization.

Cynthia Wesley was raised by a single mother but stayed with her adoptive parents so she could attend a better school, where she excelled in math, reading and band.

The lives of all four girls intertwined and tragically ended at 10:21 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, when a bomb planted by Klansmen outside the ladies’ lounge at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham exploded, instantly killing them and injuring 20 others.

In the moments just before the murders, the girls chatted nervously and straightened their fancy white dresses in preparation for Youth Day. Addie Mae, 14, and Denise, 11, were preparing to sing in the church choir. Carole and Cynthia – both 14 – were going to be ushers. Addie Mae was helping Denise tie the sash on her dress. But before she could finish, the bomb went off.

The murders sparked nationwide outrage and energized the civil rights movement. Ten months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which legally ended more than 70 years of Jim Crow segregation.

Seven years later, the Southern Poverty Law Center was created and began enforcing the Act in civil rights lawsuits.

Addie Mae Collins, 14, was preparing to sing in the choir for Sunday services at the 16th Street Baptist Church when a bomb took her life and that of three other girls. Her sister, Sarah, then 12, survived but lost one of her eyes and her dream of becoming a nurse.

Cynthia Wesley, 14, was born Cynthia Morris and raised by a single mother, but she spent weekdays with adoptive parents in Birmingham to attend a better school, where she excelled in math, reading and band.

Denise McNair, 11, staged plays, dance routines and poetry readings in her family’s carport to raise money for muscular dystrophy research. She also played baseball and was a member of the Brownies. Condoleezza Rice, who would later become U.S. secretary of state, was among her elementary school friends.

Carole Robertson, 14, was a high-achieving student who played the clarinet, sang in elementary school choirs and was a member of her high school’s marching band. She also participated in Saturday dance lessons and the science club.

With the force of 19 pieces of dynamite hidden under the stairs, the blast from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham left a large crater at the base of the church and blew out the windows of the building on the other side of the street. Photo by AP Images.

An overflow crowd attends memorial services at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 18, 1963, for three of the four Black girls killed in the bombing. The murders sparked nationwide outrage and energized the civil rights movement. Photo by AP Images.

Civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is followed by Revs. Fred Shuttlesworth, left, and Ralph Abernathy as they attend funeral services at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church for three of the four Black girls killed in the church bombing. Photo by AP Images.

The family of Carole Robertson attend funeral services for her on Sept. 17, 1963, in Birmingham. Seated left to right: Carole’s sister, Dianne, and parents, Alvin Robertson Sr. and Alpha Robertson. Photo by Horace Cort/AP Images.

Maxine and Chris McNair hold a picture of their daughter, Denise, the day after she was killed in the bombing. Maxine McNair was an educator. Chris McNair was an accomplished photographer and one of the first Black members of the Alabama Legislature. Photo by AP Images.

Funeral services are held at Woodlawn Cemetery in Birmingham for Cynthia Wesley. Moments later, services were held at a nearby grave for Addie Mae Collins, another victim of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images.

Marchers at a civil rights demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22, 1963, hold posters reading “No More Birminghams,” in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Ten months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images.

A memorial statue to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – the four girls killed in the attack – now stands in Kelly Ingram Park, across from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Photo by The Washington Post Photo/Hal Yeager/Getty Images.

To honor the girls’ sacrifice and the powerful impact it had on the civil rights movement, their names were inscribed on the circular black granite table of the Civil Rights Memorial across the street from the SPLC’s headquarters in Montgomery. The Memorial, commissioned by the SPLC, records the names of 40 civil rights martyrs and chronicles their deaths and other major events of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock.

As director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, also operated by the SPLC, I honor the girls’ spirits every day by making sure that the world never forgets their names – names that should be remembered just like those of other unarmed Black people who have been killed recently, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, Yassin Mohamed, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and too many more.

Just as the deaths of the four girls in Birmingham led to public outrage and a renewed commitment to civil rights, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality this year have ushered in a renewed sense of hope that our nation may one day find a meaningful way to address systemic anti-Black racism – not only in law enforcement, but also in all of our institutions and society at large.

In September 1963 – when legal segregation was dying – white supremacists responded with violence to America’s reckoning on racial injustice. The Klansmen who planted the bomb wanted to terrorize the Black community when they targeted the church the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders used as a meeting place, training ground and rallying point for the Birmingham Children’s Crusade and other direct actions for civil rights.

Today, we’re seeing heavily armed militia-like formations of white supremacists and other far-right extremists take to the streets to confront peaceful anti-racist marches in cities across the country.

The SPLC identified white nationalists and neo-Nazis at Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Knoxville, Tennessee Washington, D.C. and Dallas just days after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Tragically, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, two men protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake were shot to death in late August by a gunman who joined with a contingent of militia to conduct armed patrols during the protests. At least one man who says he marched with the accused gunman before the shooting was immersed in white supremacist propaganda, an SPLC investigation has found. The 17-year-old charged in the incident, which also left a person wounded by an AR-15 assault-style rifle, has claimed self-defense.

Fear and resentment of our nation’s growing diversity are at the heart of the hate that has been swelling across America for years. And we’ve watched with horror as a wave of deadly violence takes the lives of innocent people time and time again – in Charleston, South Carolina in Charlottesville, Virginia in Poway, California in El Paso, Texas and in Pittsburgh.

In 1963, many civil rights activists, including King, blamed Alabama Gov. George Wallace for creating the toxic climate that led to the church bombing. “The blood of four little children … is on your hands,” he wrote in a telegraph to Wallace. “Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.” A few days before the bombing, Wallace had said the nation needed “a few first class funerals” to resolve its race issues.

Today, we have a president who doesn’t bother to disguise his embrace of white nationalists. So it should come as no surprise that we’ve seen this dangerous and inherently violent ideology once again become part of the mainstream political realm.

To counter this hate, we must all work vigilantly together against white supremacy to bring the hope, equity and inclusion that will lead to true justice for all. And we must hold our leaders accountable for their words – because those words inspire others to act, sometimes with deadly consequences.

This is how we can honor Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and the countless others who have lost their lives to the hands of hate.

2 Charged in 1963 Church Blast That Killed 4 Birmingham Girls

Nearly 37 years after a bombing that horrified the nation, the authorities here charged two longtime suspects with murder today in the deaths of four black girls in the explosion at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church.

Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, both of whom were affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and have been considered suspects for decades in the 1963 bombing, turned themselves in this morning after being indicted by a state grand jury on Tuesday. They are being held in the Jefferson County jail here without bond.

Only one man, Robert Chambliss, has ever been tried in the case, and that was not until 1977, 14 years after the bombing. He was convicted of murder, sentenced to life and died in prison in 1985. Herman Cash, another man named as a suspect in early Federal Bureau of Investigation case files, died in 1994 without ever being charged.

Federal authorities reopened their investigation of the bombing in 1996, but they declined today to discuss the evidence they have gathered against Mr. Blanton, 61, of Birmingham, and Mr. Cherry, 69, of Mabank, Tex.

Several of Mr. Cherry's relatives, including an ex-wife and a granddaughter, have said they told grand jurors that Mr. Cherry had boasted of taking part in the bombing. But there is little information about what additional new evidence, if any, investigators may have found to implicate either Mr. Cherry or Mr. Blanton, whose indictment came as more of a surprise.

Asked about the evidence at a news conference today, Doug Jones, the United States attorney here, would only say, ''We expect the evidence today to be a good bit different than it would have been 36 years ago.''

Though some witnesses have died and there have been no reports of new physical evidence, prosecutors said today that they were optimistic about their chances to win convictions in the Birmingham case. ''The witnesses that we have, we believe, are sufficient to sustain the charge,'' Mr. Jones said.

The prosecutions of Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry are the latest in a series of dusty civil rights cases that have been reopened in recent years as a new breed of Southern prosecutors have come to power, as new witnesses have come forward to relieve guilty consciences, and as changing times and demographics have made it easier to impanel jurors willing to convict whites for the murders of blacks.

The most notable case was the 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, a prominent organizer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in Mississippi. But there have been numerous others in several states, and Mississippi officials are now delving again into the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers -- Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.

The Birmingham bombing holds a special place in civil rights history because of the randomness of its violence, the sacredness of its target and the innocence of its victims. The four girls -- Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 -- died in a dressing room in the church basement when the bomb detonated at 10:19 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963. About 20 other people were injured. The bomb, apparently hidden under the church steps the night before, blew the face of Jesus out of a stained glass window. The bodies of the girls, who were dressed in white for an annual youth service, were found beneath the rubble.

The church had been a center of civil rights activity in Birmingham, a city that experienced some of the most violent resistance of the day. Perhaps as much as any single act, the bombing aroused public sentiment against Southern segregationists and emboldened civil rights leaders to redouble their efforts. More recently, the incident was the subject of Spike Lee's acclaimed documentary, 'ɿour Little Girls.''

In an unusual circumstance, the cases brought today will be tried in the state courts here even though the Federal Bureau of Investigation and federal prosecutors have led the reexamination of the bombing. Mr. Jones said his ability to prosecute the case in the federal courts was hindered by jurisdictional issues and by the statute of limitations.

He declined to address comments made by one of Mr. Cherry's lawyers in published reports that he had offered Mr. Cherry a light sentence in exchange for a guilty plea on federal charges of interstate transportation of dynamite. In cases where the dynamite causes a death, that charge is not subject to the statute of limitations.

There is no statute of limitations for murder. If the case goes to trial, Mr. Jones and one of his assistants will be deputized as special state prosecutors and will join a deputy district attorney in the courtroom.

Both Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry were charged today with eight counts of first-degree murder -- four for intentional murder and four for murder with universal malice. The two sets of charges essentially will give jurors a choice, said David Barber, the district attorney.

Mr. Barber said he would not pursue the death penalty against Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry. He said they would have to be tried under the death penalty statute that existed in 1963, a statute that has since been changed because of constitutional concerns.

Neither Mr. Blanton nor Mr. Cherry made any public comment today as they were brought to jail by their lawyers. Mr. Blanton arrived first, at about 7:30 a.m., and Mr. Cherry showed up shortly before noon, chauffeured by his lawyers in a silver Lexus bearing the license tag N OCENT.

Lawyers for both men said their clients would plead not guilty.

''He has maintained his innocence for 37 years,'' said David S. Luker, Mr. Blanton's lawyer. ''You just wonder what information they possess now that they didn't possess for the last 37 years. People's memories don't get better with time, just worse.''

Mickey Johnson, one of Mr. Cherry's lawyers, said he was trying to soothe his client, who has suffered two heart attacks. ''We're trying to keep him somewhat positive in his outlook,'' he said. ''He's an old man.''

Unlike Mr. Blanton, who has made few comments about the bombing over the years, Mr. Cherry has proclaimed his innocence in frequent interviews and news conferences. While he has acknowledged his past membership in the Klan, he has maintained that he was at his Birmingham home watching wrestling on television the night the bomb was planted. A recent report in The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., disclosed that there were no wrestling programs on television in Birmingham that night.

Mr. Cherry has been in Alabama since May 4, when he was extradited from Texas on charges that he sexually abused his former stepdaughter when she was a child. That charge emerged as the stepdaughter and other relatives were called to testify before a grand jury about the bombing case.

Maxine McNair, the only parent of a victim who could be reached today, said that she and her husband, a longtime county commissioner here, had decided not to comment about the indictments. ''It's an interesting day, I'll put it that way,'' she said.

But many Birmingham residents and others with stark memories of the bombing clearly saw the day's events as an important step in this city's efforts to salve its racial wounds. Several said they were gratified to see the federal government leading the way. The government's role in the case had been questioned because of the disclosure two decades ago that J. Edgar Hoover, the former F.B.I. director, had shelved the investigation in the 1960's despite the optimism of his subordinates in Birmingham that it could be successfully prosecuted.

''This was a tragedy of just absolute monumental proportions,'' Mr. Jones said. ''It has scarred the city of Birmingham for almost 37 years. There needs to be some kind of closure, one way or another.''

The Rev. John H. Cross, the pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church at the time of the bombing, recalled Sept. 15, 1963, as 'ɺ terrible day, a day that never ended.'' Today's indictments, he said, ''will help to ease the temper of the city.''

When Racial Tensions in the U.S. Were at their Worst: The 16th Street Birmingham Baptist Church Bombings

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was an act of white supremacist terrorism which occurred at the African-American 16 Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963. Four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted fifteen sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the steps on the east side of the church.

Birmingham, at the time, had a reputation for being a violent city and any forms of racial integration were met with resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of Birmingham as &ldquoprobably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.&rdquo During a span of eight years before 1963, there had been 21 separate bombings at black properties and churches, although none fatal.

The 16 Street Baptist Church had become a focal point for civil rights activities. The church was used as a meeting place for civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. On May 2, more than 1,000 students went to the church rather than school and marched to downtown Birmingham in protest of the racial segregation. The demonstration led to the integration of public facilities in the school within 90 days.

Four girls, Addie May Collins, 14, Carol Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were killed in the attack. More than 20 other people were injured in the explosion.

The FBI concluded in 1965 that the bombing was perpetrated by four known Klansmen and segregationists- Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry.

In 1977 Robert Chambliss was tried and convicted of the first-degree murder of 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair. Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Cash, who died in 1994, was never charged with his involvement in the bombing.

Denise McNair, 11 Carole Robertson, 14 Addie Mae Collins, 14 and Cynthia Wesley, 14 from left, are shown in these 1963 photos. These are the faces of the lives lost during the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. AP Photo At 10:22a.m. Sept. 15, 1963, an anonymous caller phoned the church and simply said Three minutes. Bernard Troncale A state trooper and two plainclothes men stand guard at a roadblock at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 16, 1963. The area was sealed off to all, but officers and the FBI are investigating the bombing which killed four African American children. The blast went off inside the basement door at far right. Associated Press The 16 Street Baptist Church served as a rallying point during the civil rights movement. It was declared a national historic landmark in 2006. CNN Firefighters and ambulance attendants remove a body from the church after the explosion. CNN The children were changing into their choir robes when the bomb went off and ended their lives. Tom Self The cars, which were parked beside the 16th street Baptist Church, were blown four feet by an explosion which ripped the church during services in Birmingham, Ala. on Sept. 15, 1963. The explosion also blasted windows from buildings within the area. AP Photo The explosion blew a seven-foot hole in the rear wall of the church and left a five-foot wide crater. Tom Self In the eight years before the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, there were at least 21 other explosions at black churches and properties although there were no fatalities in these prior attacks. Birmingham News It blew a passing motorist out of his car and destroyed several other cars parked nearby. Tom Self All of the stained glass windows in the church were destroyed except one that depicted Jesus, but his face was blown out. Tom Self Agents of the FBI investigating the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Getty Images May 3, 1963 &ndash The 16th Street Baptist Church had become a focal point for civil rights activities including the Children&rsquos Crusade in May of 1963 making it a target for the segregationists. JONES Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it at the time as One of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. The explosion killed four young black girls and injured 22 others. Birmingham News A black youth kneels in prayer, alongside other solemn people, after a Baptist church had been bombed leaving 4 children dead in the blast. Getty Images An unidentified group sing freedom songs in the street, after funeral services for three young African American girls, victims of a church bombing, Sept. 18, 1963, Birmingham, Ala. An African American man requested them not to demonstrate and they dispersed. Associated Press A grieving relative of one of bombing victims in Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 15, 1963, at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church has led away after telling officers that some of his family was in the section most heavily damaged. The man just in back of him is holding a shoe found in the debris. At least four persons were known to have been killed. AP Photo Hospitalized bomb blast victim Sarah Jean Collins, 12, blinded by dynamite explosion set off in the basement of the church that killed her sister and three other girls as her Sunday school class was ending. Photo by Frank Dandridge//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Condoleezza Rice recalls racial blast that killed childhood friend

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - When a church bombing killed four young black girls on a quiet Sunday morning in 1963, life for a young Condoleezza Rice changed forever.

The racial attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church, in the former secretary of state’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, rocked the nation and led to sweeping changes in laws governing civil rights.

But for Rice, just 8 years old at the time, the tragedy meant the death of a little girl she used to play dolls with, and the loss of her own youthful sense of security.

“As an 8-year-old, you don’t think about terror of this kind,” said Rice, who recounted on Friday her memory of the bombing and its aftermath in remarks to a gathering of civic leaders in Birmingham as part of several days of events leading up to the 50th anniversary of the bombing on September 15.

Rice’s hometown had become a place too dangerous for black children to leave their own neighborhoods, or go downtown and visit Santa Claus, or go out of the house after dark.

“There was no sanctuary. There was no place really safe,” she said.

Rice’s friend, 11-year-old Denise McNair, died in the blast along with 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley. Their deaths at the hands of Ku Klux Klan members garnered national support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Events for the 50th anniversary of the bombing will include a screening of filmmaker Spike Lee’s new documentary, “Four Little Girls,” and a memorial service on Sunday scheduled to include U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Rice has a treasured photo of her friend accepting a kindergarten certificate from Rice’s father, who was a pastor at another church. McNair had gone to preschool there. McNair’s father was the community photographer, documenting birthday parties and weddings in happier times.

“Everyone in the black community knew one of those girls,” Rice said.

Her father told her the bombing had been done by “hateful men,” she said, but it was an act that later uncovered something ultimately good.

“Out of great tragedy, people began to recognize our humanity, and it brought people together,” said Rice.

The bombing left its mark on her even as an adult, when as U.S. Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, she used the experience to understand the plight of Palestinian and Israeli victims of bombs and attacks during peace negotiations.

“I told them I know what it is like for a Palestinian mother, who has to tell her child they can’t go somewhere,” Rice said, “and how it is for an Israeli mother, who puts her child to bed and wonders if the child will be alive in the morning.”

But with all of the progress made in civil rights during the 50 years since the blast, Rice cites education as the biggest impediment to equality in modern times.

She expressed dismay at racial disparities in the quality of education for minorities and criticized the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in a system she said challenges black students less than others.

“Even racism can’t be an excuse for not educating our kids,” she said. “If a kid cannot read, that kid is done. A child in a bad school doesn’t have time for racism to be eradicated. They have to learn today.”

(This story is corrected with spelling of Condoleezza in headline and first paragraph)

Johnny's Death: The Untold Tragedy In Birmingham

Forty-seven years ago this week, on Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The blast killed four little girls and became a tragic marker in civil rights history.

Racial violence broke out on the streets there that afternoon, leading to another, less well-known killing that day. For decades, the circumstances surrounding 16-year-old Johnny Robinson's death remained a mystery.

Johnny Robinson, who was 16 when he was killed during the unrest following the infamous church bombing in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963. Courtesy of Diane Robinson Samuels hide caption

The family didn't talk about what happened to Johnny just a few hours after the explosion at the Baptist church.

"Back in those days parents didn't discuss that," says Leon Robinson, 60, Johnny's brother. "They didn't set down and talk to us like we talking now. Kept everything inside, you know. So we just had to deal with it ourselves. That's what we did."

Johnny's sister, Diane Robinson Samuels, remembers arriving at the hospital late in the afternoon on that awful day.

"My mama was coming out the door, and she said, 'Your brother dead, your brother dead,' " Samuels, now 62, recalls. "I think it was about four, five cops was there. And she was just beating on them. With her fists, just beating, ''Y'all killed my son, y'all killed my son.' "

Her older brother Johnny was dead, shot in the back by a white police officer. Today, FBI files in the archives of a Birmingham library offer more detail about what happened that afternoon.

First, Slurs And Soda Bottles

Johnny was hanging around with a few other black teenagers near a gas station on 26th Street. It was a tense scene. White kids drove by, waving Confederate flags and tossing soda pop bottles out car windows. They exchanged racial slurs with Robinson and his group.

FBI agent Dana Gillis works on civil rights cases in the South. "There was a lot of back and forth that you might expect between individuals that were sympathetic to the death of the girls and their families as opposed to those individuals who had no feelings whatsoever for what was being done," Gillis says.

Witnesses told the FBI in 1963 that Johnny was with a group of boys who threw rocks at a car draped with a Confederate flag. The rocks missed their target and hit another vehicle instead. That's when a police car arrived.

Officer Jack Parker, a member of the all-white police force for almost a dozen years, was sitting in the back seat with a shotgun pointed out the window. The police car blocked the alley.

Gillis describes what happened next.

"The crowd was running away and Mr. Robinson had his back [turned] as he was running away," Gillis says. "And the shot hit him in the back."

Other police officers in the car offered differing explanations for the shooting.

One said it could have been an accident because the driver slammed on the brakes -- jostling Parker, who mistakenly fired the gun. Another officer said the car might have hit a bump in the road.

But other witnesses with no ties to the police said they heard two shots and no advance warnings. Some news reports at the time concluded, mistakenly, that the kids had been tossing rocks at the police.

A local grand jury reviewed the evidence back in 1963 but declined to move forward with any criminal prosecution against the white police officer. A federal grand jury reached the same conclusion a year later, in 1964.

Doug Jones prosecuted two of the men responsible for the bombing when he was the U.S. attorney in Birmingham during the Clinton administration. Jones is white, and a lifelong resident of the area. He says he's not surprised the Johnny Robinson case went nowhere.

"Those cases involving the excessive force or discretion of a police officer are very, very difficult to make even in today's world much less in 1963 where you would most likely have an all-white, probably all-male jury who was going to side with that police officer by and large," Jones says.

No Attention Paid

The four little girls who died in the church basement attracted worldwide attention. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy at a joint funeral service for three of them.

But Johnny Robinson's death, six hours later, mostly went unrecognized.

Leon Robinson and Diane Robinson Samuels say that for years their family didn't talk about what happened to their brother Johnny the day he was killed. Carrie Johnson/NPR hide caption

The Justice Department and the White House asked about the Johnny Robinson case at the time.

But a Birmingham civil rights leader, the Rev. C. Herbert Oliver, called Washington to say the government wasn't protecting black children. Instead, Oliver said, law enforcement seemed to be more interested in shooting them.

Leon Robinson, Johnny’s little brother, might agree with that. "I was just so thankful I wasn't with him that day," Robinson says. "I probably would have wound up getting killed too."

He says the family never heard concern from anyone at the White House or even the Birmingham police. "No, no, no, no," he says. "That wasn't going to happen. Not here in Alabama. That ain't going to happen here."

Then a few years ago, the FBI reopened the investigation as part of its effort to figure out whether it could prosecute old civil rights cold cases from the 1960s.

It wasn't until the FBI's Gillis came to the family's neighborhood a few months ago that the Robinsons got a real picture of what happened to their 16-year-old brother.

Mixed Emotions

On a recent day, Samuels sat at her kitchen table in a tan brick house, touching a plastic bag filled with mementos -- like her brother's funeral program and some autopsy photos from a book that show the fatal wound in his back.

"We didn't hear nothing else about what was going on, whatever til that FBI came here, we didn't even know it was no cold case or nothing," Samuels said. "Then he came to our house and sit down to tell us what had happened. Me and my brother now. They didn't tell us while my mama was living my mama died in 1991."

The family says Johnny was a good kid. But the Robinsons had troubles. Their father died in a fight with a neighborhood man a few years before Johnny's death. The younger kids went to live with an aunt.

In the years after Johnny's shooting, their mother didn't want to discuss it. She ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a while. Robinson said the family never really talked about what happened. In fact, he says, he and his sister went to school the next day.

At the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, photos of the four girls killed in the infamous Sept. 15, 1963 bombing. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

That reluctance to talk about it is one reason Johnny's death didn't get much notice until recently. There are other reasons as well.

The police were plenty busy around that time. They were fighting, among other things, a proposal to integrate the force by bringing in black officers.

Jack Parker, the officer who shot Johnny, was head of a Fraternal Order of Police lodge. He signed an ad in the newspaper that fall arguing against integration of the police force.

The FBI and the Justice Department told the Robinsons they couldn't move forward with a possible case of excessive force or hate crimes against a dead man.

Johnny's previous brushes with the law also may have been a factor. They made his story just a little less shocking than the little girls' tragic end. Johnny had a juvenile record and had served time in detention. He'd been picked up by the Birmingham police in 1960, when he was 13 years old, on suspicion of burglary and grand larceny.

In the past few years, the Robinsons have started to get some local recognition. The city of Birmingham proclaimed Johnny Robinson a foot soldier in the civil rights movement.

Gillis of the FBI says he's sorry it took so long for the family to get information about their brother's death. "When you look at the history of that day and age, that was just the loss of a life," Gillis says. "And it may not have been a life that had value on the part of the institutions that were in place at that time."

Tom Perez, leader of the Justice Department’s civil rights unit, says that while telling the story of Johnny's death most likely won't bring a legal conclusion to the story, it may help bring another kind of resolution.

"People have died, memories have faded, evidence has disappeared or is no longer available," Perez said. "The measure of our success is . our ability to uncover the the truth in all of these cases. And as a result of uncovering the truth, I think we are bringing closure and understanding to this dark chapter in our nation’s history."

But Samuels says she has mixed emotions about revisiting the past. She says her heart's still heavy. And she's had several heart attacks. But she also feels the death of someone like Johnny -- a kid who may have had some problems but didn't deserve to die -- belongs in the annals of civil rights history.

"They shouldn't have just focused on them little girls," she says of the attention paid to the bombing victims by those who mourned the violence of Sept. 15, 1963. "You know. The big wheels. I guess you had to be in the big league. But in my heart, me, I am a big wheel. And that was my brother."

From the archive, 16 September 1963: Black church bombed in Birmingham, Alabama

At least fifteen sticks of dynamite exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church as Sunday school classes were being held here today, killing four Negro schoolgirls and injuring 23 other Negroes, some seriously. Later, police shot dead a Negro youth after he threw stones at passing cars. Another Negro boy, aged 13, was shot dead while riding a bicycle.

The church was the starting point in the summer for marches by Negroes in protest against segregation. Today the inside of the building was a complete chaos. The church clock stopped at 10.25 a.m. The pulpit was shattered. A damaged cross lay among the rubble. Glass, some of it bloodstained, covered the pews and the choir stalls.

The force of the explosion was such that concrete blocks were torn loose and hurled outwards, windows were blown out of shops and houses nearby, and several cars parked outside were destroyed.

In the unfinished Sunday school lesson this morning the children were reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “But I say unto you, love your enemies.” Tonight only one stained glass window in the church remained unbroken: it showed Christ leading a group of little children.

One witness said he saw about sixty people stream out of the shattered church, some bleeding. Others emerged from a hole in the wall. Across the street a Negro woman stood weeping. She clasped a little girl’s shoe. “Her daughter was killed,” a bystander said. Two of the dead schoolgirls were aged 14 and another aged 11. One of the children was so badly mutilated that she could only be identified by clothing and a ring.

Mr. M. W. Pippen stood outside his damaged dry cleaning shop opposite the church. “My grand baby was one of those killed,” he said. “Eleven years old. I helped pull the rubble off her… I feel like blowing up the whole town.”

Other people had lucky escapes. Miss Effie McCaw, a 75-year-old Sunday school teacher, said she was taking a class of five children in the basement when the explosion occurred. “I told them to lie down on the floor,” she said. “None of us was hurt.”

Guardian, 16 September 1963. Photograph: Guardian

One Negro man, Robert Green, aged 24, said he was driving past the church when the explosion occurred:

“I was only about thirty feet from the church. I didn’t notice anyone around the church, but I wasn’t paying particular attention. There was a big boom and I was knocked out. Glass was flying everywhere. When I came to, my car had stopped and I saw people coming out in front of the church. A woman came out from the hole in the wall. There was blood on her face.”

State troopers and Birmingham police were alerted to stop a car with two men seen near the church at the time of the explosion. The Governor of Alabama, Mr George Wallace, who is against integration, offered a $5,000 reward for the capture of those who caused the explosion, and the Department of Justice called in detectives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Soon after the explosion a white man with a Confederate flag flying on his car drove into the area. Police quickly took him into custody.

All available Negro ambulances were sent to the church, and as police and firemen pulled at the rubble in search of more bodies, crowds of angry, weeping Negroes gathered near by. They began throwing stones at police, who sent for riot equipment.

The Rev. John Cross, pastor at the church, took a police megaphone and walked to and fro, urging the Negroes to leave the area. “The police are doing everything they can. Please go home,” he pleaded.

Later Governor Wallace ordered 150 State troopers into the area at the request of the police chief, Mr Jamie Moore, who said he feared reprisals by Negroes. Units of the National Guard which have not been federalised were also alerted.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, the Negro leader, said in Atlanta, Georgia, “Our whole country should enter into a day of prayer and repentance for this terrible crime.” In a telegram to President Kennedy he said he would go to Birmingham to plead with Negroes to refrain from violence.

He added that unless the Federal Government took immediate steps there would be in Birmingham and Alabama “the worst racial holocaust this nation has ever seen.”

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was a pivotal moment for the American civil rights movement. The FBI identified four suspects, all Ku Klux Klan members, but no charges were brought at the time, though one, Robert Chambliss, was sentenced for holding the dynamite without a permit. Chambliss was convicted when the case was revived in 1977, Thomas Blanton in 2001 and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002. Herman Frank Cash, the fourth suspect, died in 1994.

Marking 50th anniversary of Alabama church bombing

"It is a sad story, but there is a joy that came out of it," said Sarah Collins Rudolph, who survived the Sept. 15, 1963 blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Her 14-year-old sister, Addie Mae Collins, was among the victims of the bomb planted by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

On Sunday, at 10:22 a.m. CT, the time of the blast, the church's bell tolled in remembrance of Collins, 11-year-old Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, both 14.

The church service, which included the exhortation to "love your enemies" — the same verses read 50 years ago, started a day of activities throughout the city, both remembering the tragedy and celebrating the civil-rights laws that resulted from it.

"What would you do if you could get your hands on that Blanton dude who bombed the church?" asked Pastor Arthur Price at the church's Sunday school class. The Christian answer, he said, is to practice "the love that forgives."

The 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender also brought an end to the Jim Crow laws that had enforced rigid segregation practices across much of the southeastern United States.

The Klansmen involved in the church bombing were convicted years later. One remains imprisoned.

Scores of songs, plays and odes have been penned since the bombing in honor of the four girls. Lauded musicians Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen have mentioned the bombing in their music. In 1997, director Spike Lee made the documentary film 4 Little Girls about the murder. The film was nominated for an academy award.

Less than a month after his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reacted to the murders and cast blame on the complacent.

“What murdered these four young girls was the negro business and professional individual who’s more concerned about his job than he’s concerned about freedom and justice,” he said.

Celebrated as martyrs in the history of civil rights, the four bombing victims were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed on civilians, after President Barack Obama signed into law H.R. 360 in May to posthumously recognize the sacrifice of the four girls.

On Thursday, the families were given replicas of the medal, which pictures the four girls, the church and their names. In the center the medal states, "Pivotal in the struggle for equality," said Rosie Rios, who as treasurer of the United States oversees the U.S. Mint, which minted the medals.

Saturday's events will conclude with a concert by American Idol season four winner and Birmingham native Taylor Hicks and fireworks at Railroad Park in Birmingham.


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