On this day, September 15, in 1963 a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four children. The entire Sixteenth Street wall of the church building collapsed into a basement amid screams of horror and terror. The explosion at the African-American church marked a turning point in the U.S. 1960s civil rights movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
By 1963, Birmingham, Alabama , had become an epicenter for the civil rights movement. Although city leaders had reached a settlement in May 1963 with civil rights leaders and had started to integrate public places, not everyone agreed with ending segregation. Bombings and other acts of violence occurred following the settlement during the summer of 1963. The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963.
In the early morning 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 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 a Sunday school lesson 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 explosion, and 22 other people were injured.
As news of the bombing and deaths of four children reached the national press, many felt that Americans had not taken the Civil Rights struggle seriously enough. A Milwaukee Sentinel editorial opined, “For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths…in a sense are on the hands of each of us.” Following the tragic event, white strangers visited the grieving families to express their sorrow. At the funeral for three of the girls (one family preferred a separate, private funeral), Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about life being "as hard as crucible steel." More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of all races, attended the funeral service. The bombing increased national sympathy for the civil rights cause and on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in an effort to ensure equal rights before the law of all Americans, regardless of color or creed.
No perpetrators of this crime were prosecuted for the murder of the four children until Bill Baxley was elected attorney general of Alabama and reopened the investigation in 1971. Baxley requested access to the original Federal Bureau of Investigation files on the case and found that the agency had discovered a great deal of evidence against Robert Chambliss. In November, 1977 Chambliss was tried for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. Now aged 73, Chambliss was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Chambliss died in an Alabama prison in October 1985.
In May of 2000 the FBI revealed further information indicating that three additional men, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, had been involved in the planning and execution of the 16th Street church bombing. Cash was dead but Blanton and Cherry were arrested. Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. was tried in 2001 and found guilty at age 62 of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Blanton is currently incarcerated in Alabama’s St.Clair Correctional Facility. Bobby Cherry was tried in 2002 and convicted on four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Cherry died in prison in November 2004 at the age of 74.