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‘Birmingham is not a dying city. It is dead.’

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Chuck Morgan’s address to a group of white Birmingham businessmen, Sept. 16, 1963

On September 15, 1963 a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan detonated during Youth Day services (the day’s sermon topic was “The Love That Forgives”) at Birmingham’s all-black 16th Street Baptist Church, “the city’s most elegant black church,” as Diane McWhorter described it in Carry Me Home, her essential history/memoir of growing up in a privileged white Birmingham family at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The bombing was hardly the first to rock the city; in fact, the Klan had set off so many bombs that Birmingham, officially nicknamed “The Magic City,” was better known as “Bombingham” in reference to the 50-plus bombings of black institutions there since World War I. None of the other explosion, however, rocked not only the city but the nation as did  the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which injured 22 and took the lives of four girls: Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14); among the injured was Addie Mae Collins’ younger sister, Sarah.

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McWhorter: “Four girls around my age slipped out of their Sunday school class and went to a basement to primp. Church clothes were, as white people knew, the acme of Negro wardrobe, and Sixteenth Street was a continual fashion show. Today the girls were checking themselves in the mirror before going upstairs to take part in the regular church services for ‘Youth Day,’ inaugurated by the pastor in the hopes of bringing new life to the stodgy congregation.

“At 10:22, an exploding bundle of dynamite knocked a man-sized hole in the steel-reinforced stone-and-brick east wall of the church restroom. It blew the clothes off the Sunday school girls and stacked them like cordwood under a blizzard of debris. All four were killed. One had been decapitated.”

Chuck Morgan
Chuck Morgan

The day after the bombings, Chuck Morgan, a prominent Birmingham civil liberties lawyer, addressed a white businessman’s group and called out the police force, the city’s white ministers and, in fact, Birmingham’s entire white population for fostering an environment that would encourage racist attacks on the black community. He immediately became persona non grata in town and received numerous death threats (some against his family), until finally he relocated to Atlanta and continued his work there. Diane McWhorter’s Uncle Hobart and her father, both rabid segregationists, were friends of Morgan’s, despite their sharply divergent views on race. Hobart, she wrote, “was defined by the country club”; her father “decided to engage with Morgan, from the opposite side. In the years to come, Pops chuckled in fond memory over his brother in Chi Sigma Chi, the elite high school fraternity, and said, “Good ole Chuck. We ran his ass out of town.”

A witness identified Robert Chambliss (aka “Dynamite Bob,” a suspect in several Birmingham bombings), a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as the man who placed the bomb under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He was arrested but charged only with possessing 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. On October 8, 1963, Chambliss received a hundred-dollar fine and a six-month jail sentence for having the dynamite. At the time, no federal charges were filed on Chambliss.

The Klan, Birmingham and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing: an excerpt from a History Channel special

The case was unsolved until Bill Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama in 1971 (he would appoint the state’s first African American assistant attorney general, Myron Thompson, who went on to become a U.S. District Judge). Baxley requested the original FBI files on the case and discovered that the Bureau had accumulated evidence against the named suspects that had not been revealed to the prosecutors by order of J. Edgar Hoover. The files were used to reopen the case in 1971.

In November 1977, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing cae was brought to Court, where Chambliss, now aged 73, was tried once again,  found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died in Lloyd Noland Hospital and Health Center on October 29, 1985.

On May 18, 2000, the FBI announced that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing had been carried out by the Ku Klux Klan splinter group the Cahaba Boys. It was claimed that four men–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 both were tried and convicted in 2001. Blanton, then 62, was convicted on four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison; Cherry’s trial was delayed owing to a psychiatric evaluation that found him mentally incompetent, but in 2002 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2004.

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