Birmingham Baptist Church Bombing
Birmingham Baptist Church Bombing
During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama , served as an organizing center for rallies and marches for racial desegregation, the process of ending the enforced separation of blacks and whites in public places. Many renowned civil rights leaders, such as Fred L. Shuttlesworth (1922–), Dick Gregory (1932–), Ralph Abernathy (1926–1990), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), used the church as their headquarters at one time or another.
Birmingham was a seat of white resistance to desegregation. The city's public safety commissioner, T. Eugene “Bull” Connor (1897–1973), was extremely hostile to the civil rights movement and scorned federal orders to integrate his city. Governor George Wallace (1919–1998) of Alabama was a strong segregationist as well and had vowed to disobey federal court orders to desegregate the schools. The Ku Klux Klan , a national white supremacy organization known for its use of violence, intimidation, and terrorism, was very strong in Birmingham.
On September 15, 1963, four hundred African Americans gathered to worship at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Just a few days earlier, the courts had ordered the Birmingham schools to be desegregated, and tensions between white segregationists and blacks were high. (See Desegregation of Public Schools .) Four girls—Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, each of them age fourteen, and Denise McNair, age eleven—were in the basement of the church when a bomb exploded, killing them instantly. Others in the church were seriously injured. That same day, two white Eagle Scouts shot at two black boys on a bicycle, killing the thirteen-year-old riding on the handlebars. Worried about black reprisals for the bombing, Governor Wallace ordered three hundred state troopers to patrol Birmingham. That evening, an officer shot and killed a fleeing black man.
King spoke at a joint funeral for three of the girls, urging African Americans to keep up their struggle for equality despite the murders. Eight thousand people gathered for the funeral, some of whom were white. No Birmingham city officials attended.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) quickly began to examine four suspects in the bombing, Robert Chambliss (1904–1985), Bobby Frank Cherry (1930–2004), Thomas Blanton, and Herman Cash. All were white supremacists (people who believe that white people are superior to other races). Cherry was an expert with explosives and had been seen placing the bomb in the church. Chambliss was charged with murder and possessing dynamite without a permit. He was found not guilty of murder and received a six-month jail sentence for having the dynamite. The FBI did not bother to provide the prosecution with the ample evidence it had uncovered of the four men's connection to the bombing. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), explained that he did not believe it was a worthwhile pursuit because a local jury would never convict these men of murder. The FBI dropped its own investigation.
The case was reopened in the 1970s. Using the evidence on hand, Chambliss, at the age of seventy-three, was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in the bombing. He went to prison in 1977 and died there in 1985. Another of the suspects, Cash, died in 1994. In 2000, thirty-seven years after the bombing, Blanton and Cherry were finally brought to trial for their part in the murders. Cherry had been bragging about it for years. Both men were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Cherry died in prison in 2004.