Bombing Blacks in the South: The 16th Street Massacre

Bombing Blacks in the South: The 16th Street Massacre

The four youth killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.
The four youth killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.

One of the most tragic acts of U.S. terrorism occurred September 15th, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. The murderous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church is a story that very often goes untold. The lives of four little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley—were unmercifully snatched away by the Ku Klux Klan just after their Sunday school lesson had come to a close. The four girls (ages eleven to fourteen) were located in the church basement, when twelve sticks of dynamite were ignited and unleashed upon unarmed churchgoers. Offices in the church’s rear wing were completely destroyed. A gaping hole was blown into the church’s northeastern corner frame. Records indicate that up to 23 people were injured in the melee. Surviving church members found the girls beneath a pile of fragmented cement, shattered glass and brick debris. The notion that African Americans are ‘less than’ is what sparked that bomb. Bigotry is what allowed it to explode and take four innocent lives. Hatred and racism were at the core of each stage of planning.

This bombing was bigger than four little girls. It was bigger than local minister, Fred Shuttlesworth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was a vicious attack upon humanity, against the innocence of what it means to be a child without worry. It was a murderous assault on the backs of the people and their struggle for equal rights, an onslaught against peace and non-violence. Collins, McNair, Robertson, and Wesley became the Civil Rights Movement’s youngest casualties of the war for freedom and justice—four deaths that still speak volumes to the devaluation of Black life in America. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing wasn’t just an act of racism. It was the culmination of white supremacy and American complacency. The 16th Street Baptist Church was more than just the site of a historic bombing. It was the local headquarters for liberty and justice, the home base for freedom fighting and grassroots organizing. It was the local symbol of hope against oppression. Racists thought that such a heinous act would work to defeat the energy of the burgeoning movement in Birmingham. Ku Klux Klan members were attempting to brew fear and intimidation. Instead, such display of brutal racism ignited a new zeal among organizers, supporters and protesters nationwide—such sheer disregard for humanity challenged the morality of even staunch moderates.

In laying out this tragic event, it is important that we understand the historical developments here—that we flesh out the mitigating factors that created such an environment to begin with. In 1963, dogs and water hoses were being used against Black folk all over the South, including children. Separate But Equal was interwoven within the fabric of social life. Sticks of dynamite were part of the landscape. Police officers were part-time lawmen, full-time klansmen. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connors, was a prime example. To the dismay of local white supremacists, Birmingham was drastically changing. Black folk were demanding the right to vote and to participate in local and state politics. Rallies, protests, and demonstrations were sprouting up left and right. Young people were joining the picket lines and taking critical stances. Just five days before the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, the order for desegregation had come down from the federal government. Considering the degree to which Alabama State Governor, George Wallace, was against integration, President John F. Kennedy had to resort to federal authority to enforce such an order. As ‘change’ pressed forward, the struggle could not be moved.

Lost in the shuffle were the deaths of two additional youth later that evening. Hours after the 16th Street Baptist Church was maliciously bombed, two Black boys were killed. Johnny Robinson, a sixteen-year-old, was shot in the back and murdered by a police officer. Robinson was allegedly throwing rocks at white youth who were driving through his neighborhood, bearing confederate flags. Thirteen-year-old Virgil Wade was shot and killed while riding his bicycle home amidst the chaos. Multiple fires set blaze throughout the city. A bomb from an unknown source was tossed into a neighborhood grocery store. Anger, tension, and frustration spilled over. An uprising had ignited; mass cries for justice and equality poured into the streets by the thousands. Five hundred National Guardsmen along with three hundred state troopers were called in to “restore peace.” Unfortunately, for the Black community, hell was already being had even before the loss of those four little girls. According to scholar, activist, and Birmingham native, Angela Davis, during the eight years prior to the 16th Street Baptist Church there had been 21 bombings in Birmingham. Just eleven days before the church bombing, the home of Civil Rights attorney, Arthur Shores, was bombed on September 4th.

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was no far-fetched anomaly. Such reign of racist terror was no isolated case. Nicknamed “Bombingham,” Birmingham, Alabama had been the home of over 50 bombings directed toward African Americans since World War II. The city’s Black working class community was targeted by so many explosives local residents began calling it “Dynamite Hill.”

When the aftermath of such a brutal attack against four defenseless children and churchgoers hit the world stage, it revealed the true nature of U.S. democracy, unveiling the brutal truth of what it means to be “Black in America.” It was the news clips of Birmingham that shocked the world—the live coverage of bombs and state-sponsored brutality that enlightened the globe of the conditions of an oppressed people here in America. German Shepherds were mauling the faces of children, fire hoses beating down at the skin of women. Africa, Asia, and Latin America saw this on the front page of their newspapers. And as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so carefully noted, “They aren’t going to respect the United States of America if she deprives men and women of the basic rights of life because of their skin.” It was obvious that while democracy was favorably broadcasted abroad, hate was the state’s primary mandate back home.

Pursuing Justice Delayed

It would take fourteen years and the election of new Alabama attorney general, Bill Baxley, to bring forth even the slightest morsel of justice. Up until November 1977, Robert Chambliss had only received a mere one hundred dollar fine and six month sentence at the county jail for simple possession of dynamite—122 sticks to be exact. Due to the efforts of Baxley and local activists, “Dynamite” Bob was finally tried and convicted of first degree murder. He would go on to serve eight years until his death in 1985. When the initial bombing occurred, an eyewitness had identified Chambliss as the perpetrator who had indeed placed multiple sticks of dynamite at the church’s outside steps. However, thanks to FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, no federal charges were filed against Chambliss. Fact is, the FBI had evidence but chose to conceal it from state and federal prosecutors. Chambliss was responsible for several bombings previous to the 16th Street Baptist Church explosion. State and city officials knew exactly who he was, and by turning a blind eye, basically condoned his rash of savage bombings. Along with Chambliss, there were three additional offenders who also participated in bombing the church—Bobby Cherry, Herman Cash and Thomas Blanton. Blanton and Thomas would not be indicted until decades later—both surrendering to murder charges in May of 2000. Cash died in 1994 without ever serving time.

Struggle Makes Us Stronger

I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in March of 2009 on the Martin Luther King Jr. “Freedom Tour.” I was in that basement. I sat in the pews right next to where the bomb exploded. You could still hear the call of untimely death. You could still smell the rank of injustice looming through the air. Their congregation never forgot those girls and neither should we. In 1963, their deaths were the catalyst of a new zeal. Fifty years have passed and their fire for freedom still burns.

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church isn’t just some sad story marked by 50 years of remembrance. For many Black folk this story is still being told. On September 12th, 2013, 50 years after the explosion heard around the world, all four girls who died were awarded congressional gold medals. Though be it an honorable gesture, gold medals don’t equal justice, especially not when the same brand of systematic injustice is still wreaking havoc. Quite frankly, such racist acts of violence have continued today. As we all know, the 1960s weren’t the end of racism in America. In many ways, the lives of Black youth today still bear a similar resemblance of racial divide. Black youth are still the victims of racist killings, most of them by police officers. Bombings and lynchings have become weekly executions conducted by law enforcement officials. Black men are no longer hanging from Georgia pine trees. Today, the ‘strange fruit’ that bears that peculiar stench hangs in county jails and private prisons.

The important element here is not just to remember, but to allow remembrance to guide our actions and future deeds. As freedom fighters, we don’t have time to wallow in sorrow. Of course our emotions bring sadness and heavy hearts, but that which brings pain must be used to fuel the good fight. For those who continue to march, this piece of American history has only made us stronger.

Lamont Lilly is a contributing editor with the Triangle Free Press, Human Rights Delegate with Witness for Peace, and organizer with Workers World Party. He resides in Durham, NC. Follow him on Twitter @LamontLilly.