Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham
The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama The story of the 1963 bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama began when members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb inside the building. Yet the story did not end there and after almost four decades later some of the alleged perpetrators of the crime are still awaiting trial. The slow-paced progress in the investigation and apprehension of the murderers is simply one aspect of the story. The Birmingham bombing is one of the most abhorrent crimes committed by racists.
It is a senseless and brutal act, almost impossible to comprehend for those in the present. There is a need to know why there are those who assert that they know the truth and yet will never hesitate to kill children for the sake of ideology. Background When three men entered the premises of the 16th Street Baptist Church to deliver their deadly package they were about to lit the fuse that would not only ignite an inordinate number of dynamite – and destroy an age-old landmark in Birmingham – but also set fire the Southern States and initiate an escalation in hate related crimes.
The planting of the bomb changed the course of U. S. history but it was simply the culmination of centuries of hate and racism. Even after the death of four innocent children America was slow to react while at the same time acts of violence and discrimination continued in the aftermath of the bombing. The reason can be simply attributed to a deep-rooted problem, African-Americans, up until that point continued to struggle in their fight for equality in a land that long considered this minority group as some sort of a sub-human species.
They had to fight for what is right but they could not do so using the white man’s rules, they had to resist but not with the use of weapons but reason, appealing to the white man’s sense of right and wrong. Truth hurts and in this case it is even hard to swallow. But it is plain to see, a casual study of U. S. history will unearth the awful truth – for centuries, the American South was sustained by the blood and sweat of African slaves.
In a time when Europe was way past the Age of Enlightenment, there were many Americans who continue to believe that the white man has the right to own men, women, and children as if they are part of his livestock. In a time when the whole world applauded the creation of the U. S. Constitution, a symbolic document that asserts man’s equality in the eyes of God, Americans continue to adhere to an already obsolete belief that there is an exception to this rule and that African-Americans are not deserving of human rights that the rest of the population so cherished.
The heroes of the American Revolution – the successful War for Independence against British hegemony – went into the battlefield fighting for freedom and equality but after the war they would go back to their plantations and will never feel the slightest discomfort upon seeing a Negro slave staggering from the weight of his labor. In the South there is an abundance of arable land making it a suitable place to establish plantations. After America was liberated from the clutches of the British Empire, these plantations became an important aspect of the new economy.
In this atmosphere children of white men get to interact with the children of black folks. But they would never meet as equals. Therefore, generation after generation of masters and slaves co-existed, the impressionable minds of the young white boys and girls were conditioned to believe in their inherent superiority over the black people. It did not take long for them to create an imaginary wall separating two social classes. Later on this will be turned into something more tangible – segregation.
But before all that the nation was plunged into a Civil War and at the root of the conflict is slavery. The Southern states are now very much dependent upon slave labor to sustain their economy. The Northern states on the other hand already declared it illegal to own slaves years before the face-off. Since no one would like to give in, war was inevitable. Unfortunately for Southerners they lost the war. They paid a heavy price for opposing the government and so they paid with the blood of their sons and damages to property.
Union soldiers invaded the South and wrecked havoc in the region. The Northern states were able to attain their objectives. Millions of Negro slaves were freed but they had nowhere else to go. They had to learn to co-exist with their former masters. Yet the brightest minds of the day could not have anticipated the outcome of the Civil War. Negro slaves are free and yet they do not have what it takes to survive in a radically changing society. Yet at the same time something has to be done to create order in the midst of chaos.
The solution was segregation. In the eyes of the law, blacks are free but Southerners created another law and they regulate the places that the Negroes can enter and the establishments that are strictly forbidden for them. There are also public facilities that they could not use for these are exclusively for white folks. There are schools for white children and there are schools for black children. There are restaurants that will only cater to white men and women while it closes its doors to blacks.
There are water fountains that blacks can use and there are water fountains that are off limits. When it comes to the public transportation, white folks sit in front of the bus while the colored passengers are forced to sit at the rear. Segregation is the tool that created order out of chaos or so the white man argues. They may be wrong but it is understandable why they championed the idea of segregation. No one knew that a time will come when slaves can walk free in the streets of Mississippi and Alabama.
It was frightening for some cruel slave masters to meet their “property” walking free and able to look at them eye to eye. At the turn of the 20th century, things began to change at a more radical pace. African-Americans exposed to the liberal mindset of the Northern states began to oppose segregation. They were absolutely correct in fighting this form of injustice. But Southerners are not going to simply roll over and allow them to turn their world upside down. Just like in the Civil War, they will oppose the dictates of the Northern states.
But wave upon wave of African-American leaders continued to make their case known to the federal government and they are slowly winning their support. Their collective actions continued to gather momentum until one day it was known as the Civil Rights movement. While African-American leaders and their supporters continued to rally for help and build a foundation to effectively destroy the idea of segregation, white supremacist began to view the Civil Rights movement as something that is threatening their way of life.
They had to fight back. They found an ally in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and according to McCann this organization was originally formed in 1866 in the aftermath of the Civil War, “…the KKK was organized as a fraternal association by a group of citizens from the South hoping to advance their belief in the supremacy of the white race…” Not all the members of the KKK believe in violence but the core ideology of the Klan promotes the use of violence as a means to an end.
The need to maintain the status quo is the deep-rooted problem that bore fruit in the bloody decade of the 1960s, when men, women, children were lynched, assaulted, gunned down, and blasted away by dynamite. Behind most of the attacks are members of the dreaded KKK. It was an open secret that a significant number of Southern society’s leaders are sympathetic to the KKK. This is the reason why it took a long time for justice to be served and some say that some of the perpetrators of hate related crimes may even elude the law and die without knowing what it would feel like to be behind bars.
The Event In Birmingham, Alabama the impact of the Civil Rights movement was felt by whites and blacks alike. Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. chose a strategic spot that will be used to gather supporters and at the same time as function as a venue where they can speak about their anti-segregation ideas. The 16th Street Baptist Church was founded in 1873, an expansive brick structure that was as old as the city of Birmingham itself. In the spring of 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from the steps of the said church.
In May of the same year, “…King and his associates arrived at an agreement with city business leaders to desegregate lunch counters and restrooms in Birmingham. ” Racial tension began to increase. All hell was about to break loose. In the early morning of September 15, 1963, eyewitnesses saw three men enter the church building. The men were alleged to be affiliated with the notorious Ku Klux Klan. As mentioned earlier the Klan is hell-bent on imposing segregation and they are willing to maim and kill to achieve their goals.
They went inside to deliver a deadly package. There will be no mistaking the fact that this is no mere prank because the three men brought 19 sticks of dynamite. The leader of the group was later identified as Robert Chambliss, a 59-year old auto mechanic who was known to the police as “Dynamite Bob. ” It was not only a large dynamite bomb but was also of a fairly sophisticated design, “The firing mechanism was attached to a fishing float in a slowly leaking bucket. When the water drained out, the float settled, and the circuit was connected.
” The well thought out plan and the size of the device speaks of premeditated murder. While the bomb is slowly ticking away, or in this case, slowly dripping away, the church opened its doors to the faithful that are coming for the worship service and for Sunday school. When the bomb was about to explode, Sunday school was winding down. The teacher had completed the lesson for the day and so the four girls from class decided to go to the bathroom to freshen up. Then at exactly 10:22 AM, a terrible sound ripped through the church.
The bomb detonated near the bathroom destroying brick walls and the four young girls. Addie Mae Collins, 14 years old, Cynthia Wesley, 14 years old, Carole Robertson, 14 years old, and Denise McNair, 11 years old. They did not even had time to scream, they died on the spot. Sarah Collins the sister of Addie Mae Collins was also inside the bathroom and miraculously survived the carnage. But not without severe injuries to the face and sustaining a deep cut in her feet. Sarah Collins had twenty three pieces of broken glass embedded in her face and eyes.
The picture of four young children pulverized by a dynamite bomb is enough to instigate anarchy. Emotions ran high that day and in the weeks and months that followed. The Aftermath The after effects can be seen from two perspectives. The first one is characterized by outrage, a public condemnation of the terroristic act, and the passage of laws favoring the Civil Rights movement. The second perspective is characterized by increasing tensions, emboldened KKK members, a cover-up and the inability of the government to apprehend the criminals responsible for the crime.
The first type of reaction was expounded by James Stuart Olson who wrote, “Outrage over the bombing spread throughout the country, and public officials of every persuasion condemned the carnage. Civil rights historians today look back upon the bombing as the seminal event in the movement. It gave the entire country a single image of the destructiveness of white supremacy notions. ” This is probably hindsight but in the immediate aftermath there was no cause for rejoicing. Riots flared. Angry black men roamed the streets throwing rocks at vehicles bearing Confederate flags.
The city police known for their ties with the Klan shot a black teenager in the ensuing madness. Looking back the bombing of the church and the murder of innocent children was a strategic blunder for the Klan but in the immediate aftermath they felt that they are gaining strength. In his personal recollection, Morris Dees, a lawyer from the South, came upon a report in which an aptly named white supremacist Connie Lynch boasted in front of a Klan gathering in which he was heard saying, “The four little girls who had died weren’t children.
Children are little people, little human beings, and that means white people … They’re just little niggers …” It will take a few decades before the whole nation will come to terms with what really happened in Birmingham, Alabama. Painstakingly Slow When emotions began to cool down, authorities began an intensified probe into the event. According to Bullard, “The FBI identified the group of Klansmen responsible for the bombing, but inexplicably no one was charged. ” In fact a decade after the incident no one was arrested and no single perpetrator was brought to the bar of justice.
It took a gutsy Alabama attorney general named Bill Baxley to reopen the case. It took 14 years before an arrest was made. By then the chief suspect Klansman Robert Chambliss was 73 years old. He was convicted of first degree murder and will spend the rest of his life in jail. But there were two other guys. And so for the next chapter of the case, the family members of the victims will have to wait a few more decades before the wheels of justice resumes its exceedingly slow grind. As far as the Civil Rights movement was concerned, things began to move a little bit faster after the bombing but it was not good enough for some.
The reason for such a painstakingly slow process was brought to the fore by Chalmers when he described the political stance of then president John F. Kennedy and he remarked, “Kennedy had become president without a plan or a major concern for civil rights … He saw civil rights as a mater of politics, not morality, and the politics of the situation was that he did not wish to lose the support of the southern senators, congressmen, and the white voters. ” Kennedy’s behavior is the same reason why politicians paid lip service to the Birmingham bombing but did very little of significance especially in pursuing the case against Klansmen.
All in all there were four suspects. Aside from Robert Chambliss there was another suspect named Herman Cash but he died in 1994 without being charged. The third suspect was also a former Klansman named Bobby Frank Cherry. He was indicted in the year 2000 but his trial may well be delayed indefinitely due to a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation that says he is mentally incompetent. The fourth suspect Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. was sentenced to four terms of life in prison, one for each victim of the blast. As they say, better late than never. Conclusion
No one would like to be accused of being a racist. But sometimes it is hard to figure out if one is totally free from this wicked mindset. This is because racism comes in different shades. The rabid and violent strain exhibited by white supremacist groups belongs to one end of the scale while the feeling of unease when in the presence of African-Americans belongs to the other side. Both extremes are a byproduct of a long history of pro-slavery where everyone was conditioned to believe that there are certain people destined to rule while there are others that are equally destined to be enslaved.
Centuries of such practices will result in deep-rooted problems that will be extremely difficult to rip up and replace with something more constructive and more consistent with the truth. The Negro race has suffered much since the time when Europeans reacquired the ancient art of subduing a fellow human being and making him a slave for the remainder of his life. The slave trader began to target Africans and started a despicable business that even in the 21st century continues to bring shame to America – the land of the brave and the free.
Free men forcibly taken from their homeland were transformed overnight into a new social class, a minority group called Negro slaves. They were loaded into ships and brought to the New World where an expanding economy required cheap labor. The Negroes – men, women, and children – were brought in like livestock and traded like precious commodity. When the dust of the Civil War finally settled, America saw the Negro slaves breaking the chains of their slavery. They were now able to walk the streets of the Southern states as free men and women.
Yet they may have escaped from the cage, but the white man succeeded in forcing them into a corner through a scheme called segregation. They were freed slaves but will continue to live as second class citizens. In the ensuing battle against segregation, the white folks from the Southern states turned to the Ku Klux Klan for help. The Klan responded by becoming a bloodthirsty group determined to terrorize the Negro back into his proper place. One of their favorite tools for intimidation was the dynamite bomb. A big one was planted in a church and killed four young girls.
In the immediate aftermath the Klansmen claimed victory but they did not realize that it will backfire and eventually help galvanize the nation into ending segregation in the South. But those who were there find it hard to believe that someday they will succeed. In fact, despite witnesses and other forms of evidence no one was arrested. It took 14 years to arrest and convict Chambliss. It took 37 years to indict Bobby Frank Cherry and 38 years to convict Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. These facts force a reexamination of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963.
Sure, it galvanized the nation to act as one but it took a long time before the Civil Rights movement was able to bear fruit. The four children were not the last martyrs in the fight against segregation. Politicians were too afraid to rock the boat. The former president, John F. Kennedy was in a position to radically transform the South but he had to protect his own interests. While politicians were doing lip service and national figures moved cautiously to avoid irreparable damage to their reputation the Klansmen reveled in their victory.
This was perpetuated by a conspiracy of silence that resulted in only two convictions in the span of four decades. It is now made clear that no one fully understood the root of the problem. Many thought that the Civil War was the answer. They were proven wrong by the high number of lynching, beatings, murders and bombings. After forty years, the bad root was uprooted at last but the fight is not yet over because the casualties of war are yet to experience a thorough healing of their emotional and psychological wounds.