In 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the largest black church in Birmingham, Alabama. Due to its size and central location, the church served as a meeting place for civil rights activists in the community at a time when they were engaged in efforts to register local African Americans to vote and racial tensions were reaching a fever pitch.
On the morning of September 15, 1963, a white man was seen placing a box under the steps of the church. Shortly afterward, the box detonated and the resulting explosion rocked the building, with 400 congregants inside. Parents rushed to the Sunday School classroom to check on their children, and it was discovered that four young girls had been killed in the blast: Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14). More than 20 others were injured.
Immediately after the bombing, violence surged throughout the city as police clashed with enraged members of the black community. Before the day ended, at least two other African American children were slain: 16-year-old Johnny Robinson, who was shot by police as he fled down an alley, and 13-year-old Virgil Ware, who was shot and killed by white youths while riding his bicycle.
More than a decade later, in 1977, Ku Klux Klan leader Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder for participating in the bombing; he died in prison. Several more decades passed before Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton were also convicted of murder for the bombing in the early 2000s. Both men were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Hosted by the late D’Army Bailey, Moments in Civil Rights History is produced in collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative and is part of Comcast NBCUniversal’s “His Dream, Our Stories” project. Visit http://www.HisDreamOurStories.com for more Civil Rights History, first hand accounts from those who led, participate in or benefited from the Movement, or to share a civil rights story of your own (or that of a loved one).
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