These children-unoffending, innocent and beautiful-were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. And, yet, they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Not everything in black history is all about those men and women who have made such wonderful strides for a race of people oppressed and long ago enslaved. Much of it is very tragic. There is black "present" that is just as tragic to a totally different degree because where there used to not be laws in place to fight against the murders, the harassment, and oppression of African-Americans, now there are laws that are supposed to prevent these things from going un-prosecuted. Unfortunately, a lot of murders and hate crimes go without being prosecuted or fairly prosecuted where the one who was murdered was not put on trial, but was instead seen as the victim.
I wasn't alive when the bombing took place, of course, but my bio grandmother, great-grandmother and other members of my family were and they have shared stories with me about how the death of the four little girls who were in the church affected so many people. And though I wasn't there I know that just hearing about the bombing shook me to my core.
I want to take today to honor those four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair.
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 a box of 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 the sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives,” when the bomb exploded. Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack, and 22 additional people were injured, one of whom was Addie Mae Collins' younger sister, Sarah. The explosion blew a hole in the church's rear wall, destroyed the back steps and all but one stained-glass window, which showed Christ leading a group of little children.
Civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, for the killings. Birmingham was a violent city and was nicknamed “Bombingham”, because the city had experienced more than 50 bombings in black institutions and homes since World War I. Only a week before the bombing Wallace had told The New York Times that to stop integration Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals."
A witness identified Robert Edward Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, as the man who placed the bomb under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He was arrested but only charged with possessing a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. On October 8, 1963, Chambliss received a hundred-dollar fine and a six-month jail sentence for having the dynamite. At the time, no federal charges were filed on Chambliss.
The case was unsolved until Bill Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama. He requested the original Federal Bureau of Investigation files on the case and discovered that the FBI had accumulated evidence against the named suspects that had not been revealed to the prosecutors by order of J. Edgar Hoover. The files were used to reopen the case in 1971.
In November 1977, the seemingly forgotten case of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was brought to Court, where Chambliss, now aged 73, was tried once again and was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Chambliss died in Lloyd Noland Hospital and Health Center on October 29, 1985.
On May 18, 2000, the FBI announced that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing had been carried out by the Ku Klux Klan splinter group the Cahaba Boys. It was claimed that four men, the afore-mentioned Robert Edward Chambliss, Herman Frank Cash, Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry had been responsible for the crime. Cash was dead but Blanton and Cherry were arrested, and both have since been tried and convicted.
The explosions increased anger and tension, which were already high in Birmingham. Birmingham’s Mayor Albert Boutwell wept and said, “It is just sickening that a few individuals could commit such a horrible atrocity.” Two more black people were shot to death approximately seven hours following the Sunday morning bombing, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware. Robinson was shot by police, reportedly after they caught him throwing rocks at cars and he ignored orders to halt as he fled down an alley. Ware was "shot from ambush" as he and his brother rode their bicycles in a residential suburb, 15 miles north of the city; UPI reported: "Two white youths seen riding a motorcycle in the area were sought by police."
They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In spite of everything, the newly integrated schools continued to meet. Schools had been integrated the previous Tuesday with black and white children in the same classrooms for the first time in that city.
As the news story about the four girls reached the national and international press, many felt that they 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.”
The city of Birmingham initially offered a $52,000 reward for the arrest of the bombers. Governor George Wallace, an outspoken segregationalist, offered an additional $5,000. However, civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wired Wallace that "the blood of four little children ... is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder."
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 service. No city officials attended. The bombing continued to increase worldwide sympathy for the civil rights cause. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring equal rights of African Americans before the law.
FBI investigations gathered evidence pointing to four suspects: Robert Chambliss, Thomas E. Blanton Jr, Herman Cash, and Bobby Frank Cherry. According to a later report from the Bureau, “By 1965, we had serious suspects—namely, Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., all KKK members—but witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. Also, at that time, information from our surveillances was not admissible in court. As a result, no federal charges were filed in the ’60s.” Although Chambliss was convicted on an explosives charge, no convictions were obtained in the 1960s for the killings.
Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened the investigation after he took office in 1971, requesting evidence from the FBI and building trust with key witnesses who had been reluctant to testify in the first trial. The prosecutor had been a student at the University of Alabama when he heard about the bombing in 1963. “I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what.”
In 1977 former Ku Klux Klansman Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was indicted in the murder of all four girls, tried and convicted of the first-degree murder of Denise McNair, and sentenced to life in prison. He died eight years later in prison.
Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr. was tried in 2001 and found guilty at age 62 of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Herman Frank Cash died in 1994 without having been charged. Bobby Frank Cherry, also a former Klansman, was indicted in 2001 along with Blanton. Judge James Garrett of Jefferson County Circuit Court ruled "that Mr. Cherry's trial would be delayed indefinitely because a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation concluded that he was mentally incompetent.” He was later convicted in 2002, sentenced to life in prison, and died in 2004.
About Addie, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia
Addie Mae Collins was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 18, 1949. She attended the 16th Street Baptist Church with her parents, Julius and Alice, as well as her six siblings. On the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, 14-year-old Collins was in the church basement room with a group of other children.
Cynthia Dionne Wesley was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 30, 1949. She attended the 16th Street Baptist Church with her adoptive parents, Claude and Gertrude Wesley. On the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, a 14-year-old Wesley was in the church basement room with a group of other children.
Carole Denise McNair was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 17, 1951. She attended the 16th Street Baptist Church with her parents, Chris and Maxine McNair. On the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1962, 11-year-old Denise McNair was scheduled to participate in the morning sermon. She filed into a basement room with 25 other children who were also preparing for the sermon, entitled "The Love That Forgives."
Born on April 24, 1949, Carole Rosamond Robertson grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where her family had deep roots. With her father, Alvin, her mother, Alpha, an older sister, Dianne, and an older brother, Alvin Jr., Carole lived in Birmingham's Smithfield neighborhood, an African-American section of the city.
Alvin was an educator with an interest in music, and Carole was a musical child herself. She sang in the chorus at Wilkerson Elementary School, played the clarinet and was a member of Parker High School's marching band. In addition to reading and studying—Carole was a high-achieving student—she participated in Saturday dance lessons, the science club, Girl Scouts and Jack and Jill of America, a civically minded youth and family organization (in addition to working as a school librarian, Alpha Robertson served as a regional director for the group).
Bombing in Birmingham
Having seen 50 racially targeted bombings since 1945, Carole Robertson's hometown was sometimes called "Bombingham." Though her parents wanted to protect their daughter, not allowing her to go out alone at night, the family also continued to lead a regular existence. One part of their routine was attending services at the 16th Street Baptist Church, a nerve center for the city's African-American community that had also served as a gathering place for leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
On September 15, 1963, a Sunday, Carole went to church and attended a Sunday school class. While she was preparing for a "Youth Day" service, a bomb went off at 10:22 a.m., killing the 14-year-old. Three other young girls were killed in the blast—14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, and 11-year-old Denise McNair—and more than 20 other people were injured. Horrified by the attack, protests followed in Birmingham, during which two African-American boys were killed, one by a police officer.
After identifying his daughter's body, Alvin Robertson came home and broke a porch door in his grief. Though the three other victims had a funeral service together, Carole's family chose to hold a private service on the Tuesday after the attack—as her sister, Dianne, later explained, "The world was upset and hurt, but it was our family's grief." The bombing had shocked the entire country, and in its aftermath support grew for the Civil Rights Act, which became law in 1964.
At 10:22 a.m., a bomb exploded under the steps of the church. Collins was killed in the blast along with Denise McNair, 11, and Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, both 14. In addition to the four fatalities, more than 20 people were injured. One of these was Addie Mae's younger sister, Sarah Collins, who lost an eye and sustained other serious injuries.
The bombing at killed Collins and her friends was a racially motivated hate crime. It occurred in the context of social upheaval in the city of Birmingham, which earned the moniker "Bombingham" after a spate of terrorist activities.
In the months leading up to the church bombing, the Civil Rights Movement had made strides in the city of Birmingham. In May 1963, city and civil rights leaders negotiated the integration of public spaces, sparking widespread violence. The 16th Street Church, frequently used as a meeting place for leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy, was an obvious target for this activity.
Collins's murder remained officially unsolved until the 1970s. Robert Chambliss, a member of a Ku Klux Klan group seen placing the dynamite under the church steps, was arrested in 1963, but tried only for illegal possession of explosives. The case remained dormant until 1971, when Attorney General William Baxley reopened it. Baxley obtained FBI files containing substantive information, including the names of suspects, which had been withheld by J. Edgar Hoover in the '60s. In a later statement, the FBI stated that their investigation had been impeded by the lack of witness cooperation in Birmingham.
In 1977, a 73-year-old Chambliss was convicted of the murder of Addie Mae Collins and sentenced to life in prison. Two other perpetrators—Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry—were convicted in 2001 and 2002, respectively. A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994, before he could be charged.
Legacy and Mystery After Death
Collins and her fellow victims became symbols of racial violence, styled as martyrs in the struggle for civil rights. In 2013, the United States Congress awarded each girl the Congressional Gold Medal.
The Collins family appears in the 1997 Spike Lee film 4 Little Girls, a documentary on the bombing and its political significance. In 1998, the Collins family requested that Addie Mae's body be exhumed and moved to another cemetery. Her body was not in the spot where it was presumed to be. After decades of neglect, the cemetery records were found to be incomplete and the location of the body had been lost.
Chris and Maxine McNair had two daughters following Denise's death. The family appears in the Spike Lee film 4 Little Girls, a documentary on the bombing and its aftermath. McNair and her fellow victims became symbols of racial violence, styled as martyrs in the struggle for civil rights. In 2013, the United States Congress awarded each girl the Congressional Gold Medal.
These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry...to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(*Addie Mae Collins. (2014). The Biography Channel website. Retrieved 01:38, Feb 07, 2014, from http://www.biography.com/people/addie-mae-collins-21396619.*)
(*Denise McNair. (2014). The Biography Channel website. Retrieved 01:38, Feb 07, 2014, from http://www.biography.com/people/denise-mcnair-21396581.*)
(*Carole Robertson. (2014). The Biography Channel website. Retrieved 01:39, Feb 07, 2014, from http://www.biography.com/people/carole-robertson-21402433.*)
(*Cynthia Wesley. (2014). The Biography Channel website. Retrieved 01:40, Feb 07, 2014, from http://www.biography.com/people/cynthia-wesley-21402019.*)