“This afternoon we gather in the quiet of this sanctuary to pay our last tribute of respect to these beautiful children of God. They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well. Now the curtain falls; they move through the exit; the drama of their earthly life comes to a close. They are now committed back to that eternity from which they came.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., giving the eulogy of the four victims of the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing.
On the morning of September 15th, 1963, just about 3 weeks after the March on Washington, the children’s Sunday School group was gathering in the basement of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Suddenly, an explosion rocked the church as a bundle of 15-20 sticks of dynamite ignited under a stairwell.
There had been previous church bombings in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era. But they had been carried out overnight or during the week. This was different. This was meant to create casualties. It was set to detonate when there were people in the building.
The 16th St. Baptist Church was the staging ground for the Children’s Crusade. The children of the Civil Rights era, some as young as 7, also marched. They held protests, they held sit ins. They also had fire hoses and police dogs turned on them as their older brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mother’s and fathers did. One week before the bombing there was a bomb threat called into the church. Even those who took it the most serious could never have imagined that it would be bombed on a Sunday morning.
Many people, to this day, are filled with sadness when they look back and remember these girls. They grieve over these lives ended before they really began. What could they have been? What could they have done? Would they have been mothers, grandmothers, aunts? Perhaps, as heartbreaking as it is to have children taken from us, they did what they were meant to do. Rosa Parks, less than a decade before, gave the Civil Rights movement a face. Martin Luther King from the Birmingham jail, gave it a conscience. The March on Washington made it national, and the deaths of these little girls made it a priority. The church bombing that took those little girls was the catalyst of major change. It was in the aftermath of this tragedy that white Birmingham finally began to stand with those calling for Civil Rights. The white citizens of Birmingham for the first time began to acknowledge that “those black kids”, were “our Birmingham kids”. In less than a year the Civil Rights Act was law.
Ku Klux Klan member Robert Chambliss was identified by witnesses, and arrested but he was only charged with possessing dynamite without a permit. He was sentenced to 6 months in jail and a $100 fine. In November 1977, the case was reopened and Chambliss, now 73, was finally tried and convicted of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, and died there on October 29, 1985. On May 18th, 2000, the FBI announced that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing had in fact been carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. It was also announced that four men in total, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, along with Chambliss had been responsible for the crime. Herman Cash died in 1994 and thus was never charged. Blanton and Cherry however were both arrested in 2000. Blanton was convicted of murder in 2001 and sentenced to life. Bobby Cherry, after originally being ruled not mentally competent to stand trial, was finally tried and convicted in 2002. He was sentenced to life in prison where he died in 2004.
This past week, we marked the anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. As we do every year, their names were read, and we stopped to remember the 3,000 people who gave their lives that morning, as we should. Let’s not forget the price that those four little girls and the families they left behind paid. Always remember how much their deaths shaped who and what we’ve become as a nation.
Above all, be it among friends or in quiet reflection, remember the names of these innocents who went to church one morning and never came home.
Addie Mae Collins age 14
Cynthia Wesley age 14
Carole Robertson age 14
Denise McNair age 11
Editor’s note: I highly recommend the Spike Lee documentary, 4 Little Girls, on the subject. It is a tremendous historical documentary