16th Street Church Bombing

April 22, 2011 in 1960s-1970s, Intellectual history

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed on September 15, 1963. The explosion at the African-American church, marked a defining moment in the U.S. 1960s Civil Rights Movement and played a part in the support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Even though city officials had reached an agreement in May with demonstrators and began to amalgamate public places, not everyone supported outlawing segregation. Bombings and other acts of hate preceded the settlement, and the church had become an inviting target. The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963, and was where the students who were arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign’s Children’s Crusade were trained. The place of worship was used as a meeting place for civil rights pioneers such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. Anxiety was intensified when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress on Racial Equality became involved in a movement to help register African Americans to vote in Birmingham. The demonstrations led to a deal in May between the city’s African-American leaders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to integrate public facilities in the country.

In the early daylight of Sunday, September 15, 1963, Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash, and Robert Chambliss, members of United Klans of America, a Ku Klux Klan group, planted a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, near the basement. At about 10:22 a.m., twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for the sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives,” when the bomb exploded. Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), were killed in the attack. The explosion blew a hole in the church’s back wall, destroyed the back steps and all but one window, depiciting Christ leading a group of kids.

A witness branded Robert Chambliss, an affiliate of the Ku Klux Klan, as the person who placed the bomb under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He was apprehended and charged with murder and possessing a box of 122 sticks of dynamite while not having a permit. Chambliss was found not guilty of murder and received a one hundred-dollar fine and a six-month jail sentence for having the dynamite.

The case was unsolved until Bill Baxley was voted attorney general of Alabama. He requested the original FBI files on the case and found that the organization had accumulated a great deal of evidence against Chambliss that had not been used in the original trial. In November, 1977 Chambliss was tried once again for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church murders. Now aged 73, Chambliss was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Chambliss died in an Alabama prison on 29 October 1985.

On 18 May 2000, the FBI reported that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing had been executed by the Ku Klux Klan splinter group, the Cahaba Boys. It was speculated that Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry had been responsible for the crime. Cash was dead but Blanton and Cherry were arrested and Blanton has since been tried and convicted.




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