Forty-nine years ago today, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair had finished Sunday School, and were donning their choir robes in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. At 10:22 a.m., a bomb planted in the basement by white supremacists tore the church apart, killing these four girls, and injuring dozens of their friends and other church members. Denise McNair was eleven years old, and her three friends were 14 years old. The March on Washington had taken place in August, just a few weeks before. I was eleven years old, and I don’t remember hearing a thing about it until I was well on into my teens. As I get older, I think about it often. I had never noted the anniversary, but this year I was reminded by an e-mail newsletter I receive as a supporter of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in Washington DC in 2015.
The newsletter, “A Page from Our American Story”, comes from Mr. Lonnie Bunch, founding museum director, historian, lecturer, and author. It’s a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. This newsletter “…showcases individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.” Here is the text from his essay this week.
A Page From Our American Story
America Sees the Truth the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing
Lonnie G. Bunch,
Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
“On September 15, 1963, an explosion shattered the quiet of a Sunday morning, blowing apart the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls who were getting ready for Sunday School were killed almost instantly.
Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14 died as a result of a bomb placed under the church by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Twenty-two others, including Collins’ younger sister Sarah, were injured.
“I remember Denise asking Addie to tie her belt,” Sarah Collins Cox said in an interview. “And then it happened.”
Most Americans had little idea, or had paid little attention to the fact that Birmingham had been the scene of more than 50 bombings between 1947 and 1963. This bombing, however, would not go unnoticed. The murderous event awakened the nation and effectively galvanized the civil rights movement.
In the months leading up to the bombing, Birmingham had become the focal point of the civil rights front. The city was all too familiar with racial violence. Both African Americans and moderate whites had been long terrorized by the Klan.
Years earlier, Birmingham minister Fred L. Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to directly confront racism and segregation in the city. In the spring of 1963, Shuttlesworth’s group joined forces with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the largest and best known organization fighting for equal rights at the time. Together, the men formulated a plan that called for months-long protests to end segregation in Birmingham.
In May of that year, after weeks of marches, sit-ins, boycotts, bus strikes, and prayer vigils, an agreement was reached. It had the input of local government leaders, white business owners, African American leaders and civil rights groups. The city would actively begin working toward integration. The agreement did not sit well with segregationists, among the most violent of which was the notorious KKK.
Riots erupted during the summer months, and nightly newscasts revealed to the rest of America the lengths to which Southern racists like Governor George Wallace and Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Conner would go in their fight to keep the South segregated.
Conner ran Birmingham’s police and fire departments, and his ruthless tactics against the demonstrators shocked the country. With each evening’s news, Americans watched as Conner’s police used attack dogs, billy clubs, and tear gas on the peaceful protestors. He turned fire hoses on the crowd with water pressure so high it would “peel away skin,” according to press reports.
Still, it was the 16th Street Baptist Church and the deaths of four innocent children that finally snapped the nation and the federal government into action. All over the country, citizens became angry and ready for change. In June 1963, President John Kennedy introduced a civil rights bill, now known as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to widespread support.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is cited by many historians as the turning point in the civil rights movement. An editorial in the Milwaukee Sentinel said the bombing should “serve to goad the conscience” of the country. “The deaths…in a sense are on the hands of each of us.”
We should always keep in mind that the four girls who died, while immortalized in history, were children with children’s dreams. Carol Robertson was a straight A student who loved to dance. Cynthia Wesley excelled in math. Addie Mae Collins was quiet, athletic, and had a flare for art. Denise McNair wrote plays for the kids in her neighborhood.
History is not scripted. In the case of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing it was shaped out of racist hatred that ended four innocent lives, but changed America forever.”
Mr. Lonnie Bunch, author of this essay, is director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Supporters of the NMAAHC like me received this essay as part of the ongoing online series, “A Page from Our American Story”.