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).