Until this week, I thought I had a good understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. I knew of the intimidation tactics used by the Ku Klux Klan, the beatings of nonviolent protesters, and the bombings of various activists’ houses and churches. However, I was unaware of one of the most troubling KKK attacks: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Two years after the initial wave of Freedom Rides in May of 1961, and the violence ensuing in Birmingham, the Civil Rights Movement was still in full swing, with the focal point then on city-wide desegregation integration of schools rather than interstate travel. The most prominent black church in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church, became the center for civil rights activists and community mass meetings, thus making it a target for violent retaliation in 1963.
On September 15, 1963, just eleven days after the integration of schools in Birmingham, four Klansmen ignited multiple sticks of dynamite under the steps of the church. At 10:22 that morning, people heard and felt the explosion many blocks away. Glass shattered, walls crumbled, and a place of worship was damaged..
Sunday School was in session and the congregation had begun to gather. The explosion injured over twenty people and killed four young girls. They were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson.
The oldest was fourteen years old. Their killers were aKKK splinter group called the Cahaba Boys. Despite this horrible crime, not one of their perpetrators—Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton or Bobby Cherry—were convicted until 1977, 14 years later. Only one of them, Robert man (Chambliss) was found guilty of murder.
Two of the other men listed, Blanton and Cherry, were convicted of murder in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Cash passed away in 1994 at the age of 75 before the reopening of the case which resulted in Blanton’s and Cherry’s convictions.
Many have been critical of the delayed justice. While I do believe everyone is entitled to due process and a fair trial, I also believe in proper justice for victims. Four girls lost their lives. While three of the four men responsible for this crime were convicted of murder, justice was not served. A jury convicted Chambliss at the age of 73. Blanton was convicted when he was 70 and Cherry when he was nearly 72. Cash lived until he was 75 without a murder conviction. They lived full lives, which is more than I can say about their victims. That is not justice, and not fair.
The most justice that resulted from this horrific tragedy was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and national realization of the dire consequences of southern discrimination. I find it distressing, however, that it took the death of four children for the nation to take serious action.