Minemyer chip | Four little girls and the church that cradles their memory | New
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama is a site of historic tragedy.
And an unrelenting faith in response to this legacy of grief.
The site is a welcoming and dynamic place of worship, a milestone on the civil rights trail and a source of inspiration and hope.
On September 15, 1963, four young girls were killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing while donning their choir robes for a Sunday morning service.
Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11) were murdered – names lovingly remembered through a monument outside the city wall church where the bomb was detonated, on display in the park diagonally across 16th Street and in the hearts of many worshipers or visitors to this church.
A fifth child, Sarah Collins – sister of Addie Mae – survived the blast but lost an eye among numerous injuries.
From the Learning for Justice website: “It was Youth Sunday at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The preacher had prepared a sermon especially for children. The youth choir would lead the congregation in music and the children would serve as ushers.
“It was an overt act of racial hatred: the church was a key civil rights meeting place and had been the frequent target of bomb threats,” the FBI history website says.
I visited the 16th Baptist Church earlier this year with a group of CNHI editors and business leaders.
We met volunteers who told the story of the bombing with historic clarity and deep passion – and who embodied the church’s slogan of faith and positivity:
“Where Jesus Christ is the main attraction!”
On the church’s website, Reverend Arthur Price Jr. reaffirms the call for love and unity rather than bitterness or resentment:
“It is this life- and world-changing message on which we build our church and our lives.”
It is a foundation of faith that has remained strong after that morning in 1963 – despite the devastation to the building and an unimaginable emotional blow to this Alabama community.
The summer of 1963 was a time of civil unrest – marches and demonstrations, police brutality and widespread attempts at ethnic intimidation.
The 16th Street Church bombing was a flashpoint in the civil rights timeline — following the March on Washington in August and two months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The following year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act – which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; to secure full and equal rights for African Americans before the law – complementing Kennedy’s push for legislative action.
After the bombing, over $300,000 was donated for a restoration project, and the church reopened for services the following June. A stained glass window depicting Jesus during the crucifixion was donated by the people of Wales and still overlooks the church sanctuary.
Over the years, prominent figures have spoken from the 16th Street Baptist pulpit or visited the church – including WEB DuBois, Joe Biden, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson and Barack Obama.
The church’s website states: ‘Due to the importance of Sixteenth Street in the black community and its central location in Birmingham city centre, the church served as a headquarters for mass meetings and gatherings for civil rights in the early 1960s. During this time of hardship, turmoil and confrontation, the church provided strength and security to black men, women and children who pledged to break the bonds of segregation in Birmingham, a city that black citizens considered the most racist in America.
16th Street Baptist Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 1980.
It was just three years after one of the suicide bombers, Robert Edward Chambliss, was convicted of first-degree murder – the first legal action in the case.
This is despite the fact that in 1965 the FBI concluded that the bombing was carried out by four men – Chambliss, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash and Bobby Frank Cherry – who were Klansmen and known segregationists.
Eventually, according to the FBI, “the fear, prejudice, and reluctance that kept witnesses from coming forward began to fade” after Chambliss was convicted and sentenced to life.
“We reopened our case in the mid-1990s, and Blanton and Cherry were charged in May 2000,” the FBI said. “Both were found guilty at trial and sentenced to life in prison. The fourth man, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994.
The bombing inspired Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary film “4 Little Girls,” which was nominated for an Oscar.
In 2017, along with other sites in the city, the church was included in the formation of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
Opposite the church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, with archives and images dedicated to this important period.
The adjacent Kelly Ingram Park features numerous sculptures depicting disturbing scenes of violence offset by uplifting accounts of key figures and events in the civil rights movement.
And this park houses an exhibition in honor of the four girls who died in an act of violence and hatred on September 15, 1963…
Addie Mae Collins.
Carol Denise McNair.
…whose memories serve as an inspiration to the congregation of 16th Street Baptist Church and all who enter and hear their story.
Chip Minemyer is editor and managing director of The Tribune-Democrat and TribDem.com, managing director of the Times-News of Cumberland, Maryland, and CNHI’s regional editor for Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia and North Carolina. He can be reached at 814-532-5091. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.