Birmingham Church Bombing
During the 1960's, the South was segregated. Blacks and whites had separate schools, restroom facilities, restaurants and sections of busses. Violence was very common. In September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded before the Sunday service at 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham, Alabama. This church had a congregation which was mostly black. Many civil rights leaders held meetings there also.
After its founding in 1871, Birmingham became the leading industrial and commercial center in Alabama. Its governor, in the 1960's, George Wallace, didn't want his state to be desegregated. A violent branch of the Ku Klux Klan existed in Birmingham also. This group was a white group which hated blacks and destroyed their homes and even killed them.
Because of the extreme violence in Birmingham, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference put their focus on the city to fight for desegregation. SCLC was a group who worked to promote the rights of blacks in the South. They led a non-violent protest in the city in the spring of 1963. Rev. Martin Luther King was a part of this peaceful demonstration. However, he was arrested and put in jail. Many of the protest parades began outside 16th Street Baptist Church. His famous 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail' called for peaceful demonstrations. The letter was published nationwide along with graphic photos of police violence against the protestors. This letter helped to bring about more public awareness of the problem is in Alabama and across the South.
On the morning of September 15, 1963, about 200 people were in Sunday school classes in the 16th Street Baptist Church building prior to the service. The bomb went off on the east side of the church. Most of those in attendance that day escaped, but four young girls were killed. Another girl lost an eye and over 20 people were injured.
Eleven days before, a federal mandate had ordered the desegregation of schools in the city. During those eleven days two other bombings had occurred. After the church bombing, thousands of black citizens gathered to protest near the church. Governor Wallace sent out police and State Troopers to keep order. Violence erupted. Two young black men were killed. Finally, the National Guard was called out by the governor. Martin Luther King spoke at the funeral for three of the girls. Anger broke out across the country.
For more than ten years, although several suspects were mentioned, no person or persons were arrested. Later, it was learned that as early as 1965, the FBI had information and didn't do anything. The head of the FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, didn't care about the rights of blacks. In 1977, the attorney General of Alabama, Bob Baxley, took up the crime again. Robert E. Chambliss, a leader of the KKK, was arrested for murder and put in prison. He continued to claim innocence.
The case was revisited in 1980, 1988, and 1997. Eventually, two other Klan members were arrested, Thomas Blanton, and Bobby Frank Cherry. A fourth suspect died before he could be tried.
Although it seemed that the legal system was slow in resolving this case, the effect of finally convicting 3 men for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church had lasting importance. It helped gather support for the desegregation movement across the South. All this work led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As it turned out, therefore, the civil Rights Movement was helped rather than hurt by the bombing, just the opposite of what the bombers wanted.
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