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September 15, 2013


Birmingham, Alabama (JFK+50) Fifty years ago today, September 15, 1963, a bomb explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church here in Birmingham resulted in the deaths of four African-American girls.

The victims included 11 year old Denise McNair, 14 year old Carole Robinson, 14 year old Addie Mae Collins and 14 year old Cynthia Diane Wesley.

The four young girls were attending Sunday school classes when the blast decimated their classroom wall.

 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy telling him that he would issue a plea for non-violence in response to the tragedy but asked that the federal government “step in.”

The leader of the Civil Rights Movement sent another telegram to Alabama Governor George C. Wallace.  

Dr. King said…

“Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”

16th Street was the largest black church in the city.  

According to Herb Boyd’s account in  “We Shall Overcome,”

“Nineteen sticks of dynamite placed underneath a stairwell exploded and destroyed the northeast corner of the church.”

Boyd writes that the church’s pastor, John H. Cross, tried to calm the crowd as police arrived and, in fact, stopped a woman from throwing a brick at a police officer because she thought the police had been in on the bombing.

Civil rights activist John Lewis, who arrived in Birmingham a few hours after the bombing, said…

“I remained there for the funeral…and it still pains me when I go and visit Birmingham even today…”

According to Diane McWhorter, the church was targeted because its members were active in the Movement and it was just across from Kelly Ingram Park where dogs and fire hoses had been used on civil rights marchers.

In addition to the 4 dead, more than 20 more people were injured in the bombing.

In the afternoon two more black youngsters, 16 year old Johnny Robinson and 13 year old Virgil Ware, were shot by police.

Governor Wallace sent 500 National Guardsmen along with 300 State Troopers to the city.

The first of the four girls to be buried was Carole Robinson. The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth said at the service…

“You by your loss have made a payment on this great thing called freedom.”

The other three girls were buried a day later with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering the eulogy.

Dr. King said…

“They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

In 1965, FBI agents recommended four suspects should be charged in connection with the murders, but Director J. Edgar Hoover blocked prosecution.

In the mid 1970s, however, charges were finally brought against Robert Chambliss, a former KKK member.  He was convicted of first degree murder in the death of Denise McNair.

Another suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died before charges could be brought against him.

In May 2000, Thomas Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were indicted  and charged with four counts of first degree murder.  Blanton was found guilty and sentenced  to life and a year later Cherry was convicted and received the same sentence.

The 16th Street Baptist Church has become a shrine of the Civil Rights Movement.  It receives more than 80,000 visitors each year.


“JFK Day by Day: A Chronicle of the 1,036 Days of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency,” by Terry Golway and Les Krantz, Running Press Book Publishers, Philadelphia, 2010.

“We Shall Overcome:  The History of the Civil Rights Movement As It Happened,” by Herb Boyd, Sourcebooks, Inc., Naperville, Illinois, 2004.




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