Anguished Cry: ‘Oh Jesus, They Bombed Our Church’
Even in today’s post-911 world, when innocent people are killed in markets, office buildings and schools, the horror of what happened 48 years ago is still shocking. On Sept. 15, 1963, four young African-American girls were killed when the Ku Klux Klan bombed their church in Birmingham, Alabama. This hate crime sickened the nation and galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.
One of the four Klan members involved in the bombing, Robert Chambliss, placed a box of dynamite attached to a time-delay fuse under the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church steps. In the spring and summer of 1963 Birmingham was a cauldron of racial unrest, protests and violence, and the church had been used as a meeting place and training ground for civil rights activists. Just one week before the bombing Alabama’s governor, noted segregationist George Wallace, had told the New York Times that a “few first-class funerals” would stop integration in his state, and the Klan apparently agreed with the governor.
On the morning of Sept. 15, twenty-six children were attending Sunday school class at the church, centered on the day’s sermon: “The Love That Forgives.” At 10:22 the bomb exploded, destroying the back of the church, injuring 23 people, and killing four girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11. All that day and night fires and violence flared in Birmingham, even as civic and religious leaders pleaded for peace and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., flew in from Atlanta to urge calm and adherence to non-violence.
The barbarity of the act—attacking a church and murdering four young girls—outraged the American public and brought pressure to bear on integrating public places and protecting civil rights, especially for African-Americans. This momentum helped lead to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964.
A witness saw Robert Chambliss plant the dynamite bomb under the church steps. When police came to arrest him they found a box with 122 sticks of dynamite. Despite the evidence and the witness, Chambliss was found not guilty of murder, and was only given a $100 fine and a six-month jail sentence because he lacked a permit for the dynamite.
With the discovery of new evidence, Chambliss was tried again in 1977 and this time found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was 73, and lived the last eight years of his life behind bars.
In 2000 the FBI identified the three accomplices as Thomas Blanton, Herman Cash and Bobby Cherry. Cash had died by then, but Blanton and Cherry were arrested and tried for murder. Blanton was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life imprisonment; he remains behind bars at the age of 81. Cherry was convicted in 2002 and also sentenced to life imprisonment; he died in a prison hospital unit in 2004 at the age of 74.
These two newspaper articles describe the horror of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. The first article provides a first-hand account of the scene at the church right after the bombing, and the second describes what happened in Birmingham the rest of that day and night. Both of these copyrighted articles were printed by the Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey) on the front page of its Sept. 16, 1963, issue:
Death, Hate and Anguish
‘Oh God, They Bombed Our Church’
By William K. Handel
Birmingham—UPI—They stumbled coughing and crying from the terror of the bomb, the stone and plaster dust in their eyes, down the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
“My God, a church. Oh Jesus, they bombed our church,” cried a Negro woman.
Sirens shut out the cries of the Negro churchgoers pouring into the street as police officers and ambulances rounded Kelly Ingram Park.
The stone dust still was settling from the dynamite blast that took four lives as police and Negro ambulance attendants ran down what once were basement steps at the church, now covered with rubble.
“My baby is in there. She was putting on her robes; she’s in there,” a Negro man screamed and tried to run into the church. He was held back by police officers.
The smell of gunpowder was strong and the crowd was panicky as police officers began throwing up ropes around the church.
The old red brick neo-romanesque church, with its tall stained glass windows, once the pride of the congregation, looked like a war scene.
At the rear of the church basement there was an ugly hole which hours before was a door. Two cars sitting just outside the church were shattered wrecks. One had a door caved into the back seat from a chunk of stone, and holes big as footballs pierced it.
Other debris was hurled across the street, and amid the watermelon-sized stones was a twisted handrail for what were once steps. About 10 other cars with windows, hoods and roofs smashed were crazily parked where the blast had blown them.
They brought out the first shrouded body of a little girl and the crowd went wild.
“Let me look, I think—oh God—I think it’s my sister,” said one Negro. They let him look.
“This is my sister, and she’s dead,” he said. The head was severed from the body. The dazed young man was led to the same ambulance.
The crowd, minutes before inside the church for a Sunday school lesson on “The Love That Forgives,” was a solid face of hate.
“Let me at ‘em, I’ll kill ‘em. I’ll kill those whites,” a man shouted. Other cries born of bewilderment, sorrow and hate came from the crowd, aimed at the clump of white policemen, firemen and newsmen by the church.
Another body, and almost immediately, two more, came from the church under white sheets.
The Rev. Charles Billips and the church pastor, the Rev. John Cross, got on police megaphones. Cross began the Lord’s prayer: “Our Father, Who art in heaven…”
“Go home and pray for the men who did this evil deed,” said Billips. “We must have love in our hearts for these men.”
The stained glass from the church windows kept falling onto the sidewalk with a tinkling sound. Across the street, a woman leaned against the door of a restaurant. Chunks of stone were buried in the back wall of the establishment; a piece of wood had crashed through the window, hitting a patron quietly eating scrambled eggs and side meat. He was taken to the hospital.
In a laundry across from the blast a Negro woman screamed “I’ll kill the bastards” and fainted. She was carried back inside.
The crowd began leaving slowly.
From two blocks away came a well-dressed Negro who complained to police the blast had shattered the window in the Black Muslim Temple.
“Look what it did here,” said an officer. “You were lucky.”
The Muslim went on down the street and got into a philosophical argument with another Negro. He told him: “See what these whites will do. And you—you want to integrate.”
The other Negro said: “Look over there. This is no time to get in an argument.”
From down the street came the boom of a shotgun and then the crisp chatter of a machine gun or carbine.
Reporters began running down the street but were stopped by an officer who said: “You guys stop. There’s a Negro shooting at everybody down there. They have run him off into those houses.”
By this time, the dust had settled and the Negro crowds had disappeared. But the emotions lingered for hours.
A Negro woman spat in the street in the direction of police. She shouted: “You whites better not be here when it gets dark. You better not.”
Officials Seek Peace in Shaky Birmingham
Bombing Grips City with Fear
Birmingham, Ala.—AP—Officials took extraordinary steps today to head off any new racial violence in bomb-shaken Birmingham after a dynamite blast killed four Negro girls, caused hours of terror and brought outraged protests from national Negro leaders.
The U.S. Justice Department sent in three top officials and a force of FBI agents with bomb experts. City officials joined with church leaders in a special telecast, urging citizens to be calm.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., flew into town to urge Negroes to be non-violent—just as he did in May when the bombing of a Negro motel touched off rioting by Negroes.
National Guardsmen were placed on alert. Gov. George C. Wallace sent 300 state troopers into the city at the request of Mayor Albert Boutwell.
The Sunday morning blast at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church occurred during a youth day program at the church where numerous desegregation meetings have been held.
It killed the four young girls and injured 23 others. Within a few hours, two Negro boys were shot to death in other parts of the city, and three other persons were wounded.
Most Frightening Day
“Today has been the most frightening in the history of Birmingham,” said Sheriff Melvin Bailey as violence continued despite pleas for peace.
Not since integration leader Medgar W. Evers was shot to death at his home in Jackson, Miss., in June has the nation’s Negro community reacted so strongly to racial violence.
Negro leaders called for strong federal action.
The blast was the worst of numerous bombings and other violence since Negroes began campaigning in earnest last April for desegregation here.
They achieved public school integration. Its beginning last week brought some student boycotts and protests. Gov. Wallace earlier had sought to block the integration but was stymied by federal intervention.
This tense city spent a long, fearful day and night after Sunday’s blast. Several fires broke out, rocks were thrown by Negroes in various sections and some gunfire was reported.
Sunday school classes at the church were just ending a lesson on “The Love That Forgives” when the explosion tore out concrete, metal and glass.
The four girls apparently were in the lounge in the basement of the old brick church. One, Cynthia Wesley, 14, was hit by the full force of the blast and could be identified only by clothing and a ring.
The others were Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Denise McNair, 11.
Cries for Peace
Even as officers were roping off a two-block area around the church, civic and church leaders were crying for peace and non-violence.
But there was no peace. Two white youths fatally shot a 13-year-old Negro boy, policemen shot to death a 16-year-old Negro and two white men were wounded by Negroes, one in a robbery attempt.
Police were kept on the run for hours investigating reports of rock throwing, fires and other outbreaks.
The state troopers came in, the FBI launched its probe and U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy sent three top aides, Burke Marshall, Joseph Dolan and John Nolan.
King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, telegraphed President Kennedy:
“Unless some immediate steps are taken by the federal government to restore a sense of confidence in the protection of life, limb and property…we shall see in Birmingham and Alabama the worst racial holocaust the nation has ever seen.”
King came here from Atlanta, he said, “to plead with my people to remain non-violent in the face of this terrible provocation.”
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