We All Did It: The Birmingham Church Bombing


Family members at the funerals

Friday marked the 54th anniversary of the infamous 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson were all 14, and Carol Denise McNair was 11. The blast injured 19 more, and two more black children were killed later that day: One was shot in the back by police when he ran from a scuffle with white teenagers, and one was shot by a white teenager who accosted him on his bike.

The 16th Street Baptist Church was Birmingham's largest black church and staging ground for civil rights protests; it had hosted W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson. When the 19 sticks of dynamite planted by the Klan exploded at 10:22 that Sunday morning, the four girls had just come from Bible Study - Matthew 5: "The Love That Forgives" - and were in the basement bathroom, dressed all in white, excitedly getting ready to sing in the choir for the 11 o'clock service. Also there was Collins' 12-year-old sister Sarah; she survived, but lost an eye. The blast destroyed all the stained glass windows except one; it only blew out the face of "White Jesus." "The absence of the face is something of an achievement," James Baldwin later noted, "since we have been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ."

Just three weeks earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington. The violence and its aftermath, both unconscionable,  showed how distant King's dream remained: It took 14 years to convict the first Klansman of murder, and almost four decades to convict two more; the prosecutor in those cases, Doug Jones, is now Alabama's candidate for the Senate. At the girls' funerals, King grieved that life for too many of his people was "as hard as crucible steel." Later, he called out the absence of white city officials, declaring, "More than children were buried that day; honor and decency were also interred."

With the racism of that era on the rise, and a White-Supremacist-In-Chief enabling it, it's instructive to hear the quietly searing speech by Charles Morgan, a white civil rights attorney in Birmingham, to a white business meeting the day after the bombing. Morgan blasts the hypocrisy of "lawless, leaderless" powers-that-be - political, religious, economic, law enforcement, anyone with the easy privilege of white skin who hadn't stood up, spoken up, denounced the sins of segregation, called out the terror and tiki torches, done whatever they could in the name of what's right to prevent the bitter deaths of four little black girls - before asking, "Who is really guilty?"


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