"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

"The blood of our little children is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder." ~ Martin Luther King Jr. in a telegram to Alabama Governor George Wallace

On September 15, 1963 at 10:22 AM an explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama killed four young girls in a basement ladies' room while they were preparing to take part in a special youth service. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were fourteen years old; Denise McNair was eleven. Twenty-three others were injured. Klansman Robert Chambliss was identified as having placed a box under the steps of the church earlier that morning. A month later Chambliss was found not guilty of murder, and fined $100 for having dynamite in his possession.

Johnny Robinson, 16, was shot and killed by police later that day after throwing rocks at a car driven by whites waving the Confederate battle flag. Virgil Ware, 13, died after being shot by white teenagers while riding his bike.

The bombing drastically increased support of the civil rights movement, both nationally and abroad as the public could no longer accept the violence shown by opponents of the movement. Less than a year later on July 2, 1964 President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

In the 1970's Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, and found evidence in FBI files not presented at the original trial. In November 1977 Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder at age 73 and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 1985. In 2000 the FBI announced that other suspects were Thomas Blanton, Bobby Cherry and Herman Cash. Blanton and Cherry were both convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Cash had died in 1994.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, 2005
The church was often a meeting place for civil rights organizations, such as CORE and SNCC which met there earlier in the year to plan and train for integration efforts and voter registration. After demonstrators had been met with fire hoses and police dogs, and two thousand including Dr. King were jailed, an agreement with city leaders had been reached in May to begin integration of public places.

The Children Who Died

Johnny Robinson, age 16
Shot in the back by police officer Jack Parker firing from a squad car. Others in the car said the driver going over a bump or hitting his brakes could have caused Parker to fire. Other witnesses heard two shots. Robinson's family never talked about his death, and his brother and sister went to school the next day. "They shouldn't have just focused on them little girls," said Robinson's sister, Diane Robinson Samuels.

No photograph or information is available for Virgil Ware, age 13

Addie Mae Collins (4/18/1949 - 9/15/1963)

She and her sisters sold their mother's handmade aprons and potholders door-to-door after school. Liked playing hopscotch, singing in the church choir, drawing portraits and wearing bright colors. The youth center at an Ishkooda Road church in Birmingham is named for her.

Denise McNair (11/17/1951 - 9/15/1963)

Held tea parties, was in the Brownies, and liked to play baseball. Organized a neighborhood talent show in her garage every year to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy. Always smiled in pictures even when she lost her baby teeth.

Carole Robertson 4/24/1949 - 9/15/1963

Took tap, ballet and jazz dancing lessons on Saturday mornings. Avid reader and made straight A's. Member of Jack and Jill, Girl Scouts, marching band, science club. Wanted to be a history teacher when she grew up.

Cynthia Wesley (4/30/1949 - 9/15/1963)

Wore a size two and her mother made all her clothes. Liked to have parties in her back yard. She had invited a friend, Ricky Powell, to the youth service. He had agreed to come but instead had to attend a funeral with his family.

Information about the girls is from a Birmingham News article by Chanda Temple. Click here for the entire article, along with background on the bombing and Dr. King's eulogy for them.

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