On this day in 1963, a bomb fashioned from 15 sticks of dynamite and set by Klansmen explodes during Sunday morning services in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls. A well-known Klan leader, Robert Chambliss, was charged with murder and with buying 122 sticks of dynamite. In October 1963, Chambliss was cleared of the murder charge and received a six-month jail sentence and a $100 fine for the dynamite.
Throughout the civil rights movement, Birmingham was a major site of protests, marches, and sit-ins that were often met with police brutality and violence from white citizens. Homemade bombs planted by white supremacists in homes and churches became so commonplace that the city was sometimes known as “Bombingham.”
Local African American churches such as the 16th Street Baptist Church were fundamental in the organization of much of the protest activity. In 1963 the 16th Street Baptist Church hosted several meetings led by civil rights activists. In an effort to intimidate demonstrators, members of the KKK routinely telephoned the church with bomb threats intended to disrupt these meetings as well as regular church services.
When the bomb in question detonated at 10:22 AM on Sept. 15, 1963, church members were attending Sunday school classes before the start of the regular church service. The bomb exploded on the east side of the building, where five girls were getting ready for church in a basement restroom. The explosion sprayed mortar and bricks from the front of the building, caved in walls, and filled the interior with smoke; horrified parishioners quickly evacuated.
Beneath piles of debris in the church basement, were the dead bodies of four girls: Addie Mae Collins; Cynthia Wesley; Carole Robertson, all age 14; and Denise McNair, 11. A fifth girl who had been with them, Sarah Collins, the younger sister of Addie Mae Collins, lost her right eye in the explosion, and several other people were injured.
Efforts to prosecute the other three men believed responsible, Herman Cash, Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas E. Blanton, continued for decades. Though Cash died in 1994, Cherry and Blanton were arrested and charged with four counts of murder in 2000.
Blanton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Cherry’s trial was delayed after judges ruled he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. This decision was later reversed, and on May 22, 2002, Cherry was convicted and sentenced to life, bringing a long-awaited, Pyrrhic victory to the friends and families of the four young victims.