Tag Archive for 'birmingham'

On This Day: The Bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

On September 15, 1963—49 years ago today—four young girls were killed by the blast of a KKK bomb while attending Sunday school at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist church.

Racial tensions were already high in Birmingham, where only five days earlier federal intervention had forced public schools to finally comply with integration orders. After extensive demonstrations and protests (through, for example, the Birmingham Campaign and the Children’s Crusade), civil rights activists had finally begun to see progress. However, any hope engendered by successful desegregation efforts was crushed after Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were killed.

The largest African American church in the city, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was known as the meeting place for prominent civil rights leaders. A white supremacist placed dynamite under the church; the explosion shortly before the 11 A.M. service injured 20 individuals and killed the four girls, three of whom were fourteen years old, and one of whom was eleven years old.

The murder of these young girls shocked and horrified citizens across the country. More than 8,000 people attended the funeral; Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the eulogy. As grief and anger fueled an increased push against racial discrimination and violence, the four children came to symbolize a painful chapter in America’s history.

The four young girls are remembered as innocent victims whose murder served as a catalyst for much-needed societal changes—changes which they unfortunately did not live to witness. When the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial was formally dedicated last year, young actress Amandla Stenberg gave a speech in remembrance of these four girls, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that, “They didn’t live long lives, but they lived meaningful lives.” (To see Stenberg’s speech, fast-forward to 4:00 in this video.)

Despite public outrage, it would be more than 38 years before a conviction was handed down. Finally, on May 23, 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry was sentenced to life in prison for the murders. His appeal was denied and he died in prison.

To learn more about this horrific event, check out this page from NPR.

To view photographs of the destruction, check out this page from the Birmingham Post-Herald.

The Birmingham Public Library hosts an expansive digital collection focused on the bombing, complete with photographs, newspaper clippings, and other documents.

Carolyn McKinstry, a friend of the four girls and a witness to the bombing, wrote a book about it: While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement (Tyndale House Publishers 2011).

For a photographic account designed for children, check out Larry Dane Brimner’s Birmingham Sunday (Boyd Mills Press 2010).

To read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eulogy, check out this page from the King Center.

To read a collection of New York Times articles regarding the eventual conviction, click here.

For more on Birmingham’s significance in the civil rights struggle, check out Glenn Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (UNC Press 1997) and Horace Huntley and John W. McKerley’s edited oral history volume Foot Soldiers for Democracy: The Men, Women, and Children of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement (University of Illinois Press 2009).

49 Years Ago: Executive Order 11118 and Birmingham’s Integration

On September 10, 1963—49 years ago today—the Birmingham City Schools were integrated after President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 11118, ordering federal assistance in removing “unlawful obstructions of justice in the State of Alabama.”

Nine years after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education struck down segregation in public schools, many areas of the South still resisted integration, forcing the federal government to take action. In Birmingham, federal intervention proved particularly necessary.

Birmingham was no stranger to the civil rights movement. Four months earlier, the Birmingham Campaign had ended in victory after local officials agreed to desegregate downtown stores and release jailed demonstrators. Schoolchildren had taken an active part in the movement, marching in the Children’s Crusade.

But despite the success of the Birmingham Campaign in integrating certain facilities, the city schools were still segregated. The Fifth Circuit Court in mid-1963, deciding that the Board of Education had operated a race-based segregated school system, ordered the School Board to submit a desegregation plan by August 19, 1963—a plan which came to be known as the “Freedom of Choice Plan.” Under the plan, approved immediately by a district court judge, students were supposed to choose which school to attend.

The new plan did not end the desegregation controversy. Violence broke out in the tense atmosphere as white supremacists agitated against integration. Alabama Governor George Wallace, an ardent segregationist, vowed to block integration and swiftly shut down several schools that had been slated for integration, citing the threat of violence.

After Wallace attempted to use the Alabama National Guard to block integration, President Kennedy federalized more than 200 of these Guardsmen, finally putting a stop to Wallace’s maneuvers and allowing African American students to enter previously all-white city schools.

Despite threats and demonstrations, the first day of integrated education went fairly smoothly; the Associated Press on September 11 reported no serious incidents of in-school violence that day. National Guardsmen stood by to break up any potential violence. That said, it was a tense atmosphere, with segregationists demonstrating with signs and confederate flags.

To read the full text of the Executive Order, check out this page from the American Presidency Project.

For more on Birmingham’s significance in the civil rights struggle, check out Glenn Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (UNC Press 1997) and Horace Huntley and John W. McKerley’s edited oral history volume Foot Soldiers for Democracy: The Men, Women, and Children of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement (University of Illinois Press 2009).

To learn more about George Wallace, check out Dan Carter’s The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics (Louisiana State University Press 2000).

Three months before the Birmingham City Schools were integrated, George Wallace had also tried to block the desegregation of another school: the University of Alabama. To learn more, read this post from the LCRM blog and check out E. Culpepper Clark’s The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama (Oxford University Press 1995).

On This Day: Bethel Street Baptist Church

On June 29, 1958—54 years ago today—the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Street Baptist Church (Birmingham, Alabama) fell victim to its second bombing in only a year and a half.

The church, which had been bombed in December 1956, served from 1956 to 1961 as headquarters for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). The ACMHR, a nonviolent direct action organization, is perhaps best known for its participation in the Freedom Rides of 1961; however, members spent many years previous protesting segregation and discrimination.

Around 1:30 a.m. on June 29th, a smoking can of dynamite was found against the building’s wall. Fortunately, an African American man named Will Hall—one of six volunteers who guarded the church each Saturday night after the 1956 bombing—was able to safely deposit the can on the side of the road before the explosion, sparing the building more serious damage. No one was injured, but the church and nearby residences did sustain some damage.

White supremacist J.B. Stoner was finally convicted of the bombing 22 years later, in 1980, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served only three and a half years in prison before being paroled. (Stoner, by the way, served as an appeals attorney for James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr.)

This wasn’t the last time the church would face fire; on December 14, 1962, the church once again fell victim to a bomb. Bombings threatened other churches within Alabama and across the South—most famously the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (also in Birmingham), which killed four young girls. At that time in the South, African Americans were never guaranteed safety—not even in a church.

Today, a historic marker summarizes the history of the church and Rev. Shuttlesworth.

To read news articles published at the time, click here and here.

For a report of the roughly 50 racially motivated bomb attacks in Birmingham from 1947 to 1965, click here.

To learn more about J.B. Stoner’s trials and conviction, click here.

To learn more about the ACMHR, click here.

To learn more about the ACMHR, the Bethel Street Baptist Church, and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, check out Birmingham’s Revolutionaries: The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (Mercer University Press, 2000, ed. Marjorie White and Andrew Manis).

To learn more about the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, check out Andrew Manis’ A Fire You Can’t Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (University of Alabama Press, 1999).

For more on Birmingham’s significance in the civil rights struggle, check out Glenn Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (UNC Press, 1997).

Freedom Riders Faced Stones and Fire

On May 14th, 1961—Mother’s day 51 years ago—a Greyhound bus carrying 9 Freedom Riders and 5 other individuals was stoned and burned outside of Anniston, Alabama.

The violence came only ten days after buses departed Washington, D.C., and headed to the segregated south to deliberately challenge Jim Crow laws, in particular strict prohibitions against integrated bus travel.

On May 14th, the Freedom Riders’ bus was forced to stop due to a flat tire. While the driver changed the tire, white men threw a firebomb through a broken window, forcing the passengers to disembark before the vehicle was consumed by fire.

Another group of Freedom Riders faced violence in Birmingham that very same day—and this was just the beginning of the violence these young civil rights activists would face. In the coming months, African American and white riders would be taunted and beaten. (Click here to read about James Zwerg, one young activist who fell victim to an angry white mob).

In the face of hostility, discrimination, and mob violence—in Anniston, in Birmingham, and during later protests—the freedom riders pushed on, determined to bring an end to segregation and inequality. Sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Freedom Rides would ultimately involve more than 400 African American and white individuals, who would prevail in the face of adversity. By the time the rides ended in November 1961 (following the Interstate Commerce Commission’s order to end segregation on interstate transportation), the participants had made a lasting impact on America.

To learn more about the May 14th violence and Anniston’s racial history, check out Phil Noble’s Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town (New South Books, 2003).

For a photograph of the burning bus at Anniston, as well as additional information, click here.

For more information on the Freedom Riders, and for additional resources, click here.

To see a timeline of the movement, click here.

The National Geographic’s children’s book, Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement, outlines the convergent paths of two young men who braved the journey.

To learn more about protests against transportation discrimination, check out Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (UNC Press 2010).

Remembering the Birmingham Campaign

On May 10, 1963, the Birmingham Campaign came to an end (after intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice), when local officials agreed to desegregate downtown stores and release jailed demonstrators following the end of the protest.

The movement, which began in April, utilized massive direct action to attack Birmingham’s strongly engrained system of segregation (see the Birmingham Manifesto). Encompassing mass meetings, sit-ins, marches, and more, the campaign was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and attracted increasingly large numbers of protesters each day.

Less than two weeks after the campaign began, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, both of whom were instrumental in planning and executing the movement, were arrested. Activists pressed on, though, and King’s subsequent “Letter from Birmingham Jail” further mobilized the protest.

The campaign gained momentum in early May during the Children’s Crusade, when more than a thousand African American students marched downtown, facing police lines and arrest.

Trained in the strategies of nonviolent direct action by the SCLC and the ACMHR, hundreds of the initial protesters were arrested and taken to jail, but hundreds more joined in the following day. After public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor instructed police to use force against the demonstrators, television and newspaper coverage of children facing beatings, high-pressure fire hoses, and dog attacks spread quickly across the nation and world.

This protest was exactly what the Birmingham Campaign needed to inspire action: the Birmingham Campaign ended on May 10th with an agreement between civil rights activists and local officials.

Racial hostility and unrest continued—seen, for instance, in the board of education’s announcement that it would suspend or expel all students who had participated in the crusade, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ reversal of this decision and, later, in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. However, the Children’s Crusade and the Birmingham Campaign as a whole further energized the civil rights movement and highlighted the need for reforms that would soon be seen in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Countless other individuals and groups were inspired to continue the fight for equality and justice.

For the Encyclopedia of Alabama’s entry on the Birmingham Campaign, click here.

For more on Birmingham’s significance in the civil rights struggle, check out Glenn Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (UNC Press, 1997).

Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle for the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon and Schuster, 2002) chronicles Birmingham’s events of 1963.

For more information about the Children’s Crusade, click here, and also check out Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers, 2012).

For more about children’s involvement in the civil rights movement, check out Rebecca de Schweinitz’s If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality (UNC Press, 2009).

Remembering the Children’s Crusade

On May 2nd, 1963—49 years ago today—more than a thousand African American students gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham to begin an unprecedented march downtown, facing police lines and arrest.

Trained in the strategies of nonviolent direct action by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), thousands of students on May 2ndseveral weeks after Martin Luther King, Jr., had been arrested in Birmingham—launched the Children’s Crusade, an initiative of the Birmingham Campaign.

Hundreds of the initial protesters were arrested and taken to jail, but hundreds more joined in the following day. After public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor instructed police to use force against the demonstrators, television and newspaper coverage of children facing beatings, high-pressure fire hoses, and dog attacks spread quickly across the nation and world.

Ultimately, the Children’s Crusade proved much more expedient and successful than previous civil rights protests in the city: the Birmingham Campaign ended on May 10th  (after intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice), when local officials agreed to desegregate downtown stores and release jailed demonstrators following the end of the protest.

That wasn’t the end of the protesters’ struggle, though. Soon after the campaign ended, the city’s board of education announced that it would suspend or expel all students who had participated in the crusade. The local federal district court upheld the ruling, but, on the same day, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, condemning the board of education’s decision and ordering the schools to reinstate the students.

The young protesters’ success—as well as strong national outrage over the violence against schoolchildren—further energized the civil rights movement and highlighted the need for reforms that would soon be seen in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The children’s courage inspired countless other individuals and groups to continue the fight for equality and justice.

For more information, click here.

For the Encyclopedia of Alabama’s entry on the Birmingham Campaign, click here.

For more on Birmingham’s significance in the civil rights struggle, check out Glenn Eskew’s But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (UNC Press 1997).

For more about the crusade, check out Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, from Peachtree Publishers.

For more about children’s involvement in the civil rights movement, check out Rebecca de Schweinitz’s If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality (UNC Press 2009).

Remembering Four Young Victims of the KKK

On this day 48 years ago, four young girls were killed by the blast of a KKK bomb. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were attending Sunday school at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church when the explosion rocked a church formerly known as the meeting place for prominent civil rights leaders.

Although the four were certainly not the first victims of the KKK’s violence, the murder of girls so young and innocent (and in a Church, no less) engendered shock and horror across the country, a fact illustrated by the crowd of mourners—8,000 people strong—who attended the funeral.

Grief and anger fueled an increased push against racial discrimination and violence. The four children came to symbolize a painful chapter in America’s history, and are remembered to this day as innocent victims whose murder served as a catalyst for much-needed societal changes—changes which they unfortunately did not live to witness.

The Birmingham Public Library hosts an expansive digital collection, complete with photographs, newspaper clippings, and other documents.

Rising, Falling, Redemption, and Clemency

From the New York Times:

CHRIS McNAIR, symbol of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., reported to federal prison last month, bereft of the media respect that has been his companion for most of his 85 years. In 1963, Mr. McNair’s 11-year-old daughter, Denise, died along with three other black Sunday school girls in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Mr. McNair, then a school-teacher turned photographer, transcended his anguish to become an agent of community healing, a popular politician whom white people appreciated for his policy of not bringing up his child’s martyrdom.”

McNair was convicted of bribery and conspiracy, and without a pardon from another African American avatar of racial healing, Barack Obama, he may spend his waning years in federal prison. McNair’s fall from grace rudely interrupts a redemption narrative fond to many Americans, or so writes Diane McWhorter. McWhorter suggests that McNair, after years of repressing the belief that the city of Birmingham owed him something for the loss of his daughter; after years of exhausting himself on behalf of racial healing; after feeling used time and time again by Birmingham’s white power structure as a symbol of the city’s new beginning, finally put a price on his cooperation, to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars in cash.

Whatever McNair’s motivation, it seems unlikely that Obama will pardon him. If he misses this opportunity to walk in McNair’s footsteps and forgive a man his sins–as so far he has missed the opportunity to pardon extraordinary boxer Jack Johnson, persecuted by the law for his dalliances with white women–the “post-racial” president, so eager to demonstrate that he earned his success despite being a “skinny kid a funny name” (note how this line from his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address brushes by his racial identity as it slips past it), risks striding forth into a color-blind country and stumbling over a tangle of race and memory that will not go away for being ignored.

Civil Rights Photography

Twelve photographers who covered the civil rights movement for the Birmingham News in the 1950s and 1960s were recognized recently by the Anti-Defamation League. The Birmingham News has the story, including a link to a 2006 online exhibit of previously unpublished (!!) photographs from demonstrations. Worth a look.

Civil Rights Roundup

Recent civil rights news…

  • Peter Funt of the Boston Globe complains that profiling isn’t just racial, and while he makes some points that diminish the fact that the racial profiling of African Americans is bound up in a long history that begins with kidnap and enslavement (“I know a successful golf pro who insists he can profile a player’s handicap index within three points, just by watching him take his clubs from his car and walk to the driving range.”), his column highlights the fact that in our ever-diversifying nation, tolerance does not always advance hand in hand with diversity.
  • The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has hired Matt Nosanchuk to act as liaison to the gay community. Nosanchuk will handle a portfolio of cases and spend “the remainder of his time reaching out to … the LGBT community.”
  • In other news along those lines, the New York Times did some reporting on Ted Olsen’s challenge to California’s same-sex marriage ban, an unlikely position for someone who, in successfully arguing Bush v. Gore on behalf of George W. Bush, probably did a good deal to undermine the kind of freedoms he now advocates. A bunch of people talk more about Olsen and same-sex marriage here.
  • The first stop of the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail has opened. Also in Birmingham, the mayor has pardoned those arrested and convicted during the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The move has wide support, but some worry that accepting a pardon means accepting that they committed a crime …
  • And in health-care-is-a-right-not-a-privilege news, Desiree Evans of Facing South contemplates whether it’s too late to reframe the health care debate.