The smoke and shrapnel from the fatal bombing 60 years ago at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is long gone, but the memories of the tragedy still linger heavily in the air — just ask Jesse Strong.
“In 1963 that was a two-story apartment building, where the institute is. We lived upstairs on the very far end,” said Strong, 66, pointing to what is now the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “September 15, at 10:55, that Sunday morning, myself and my siblings were on the porch, when all of a sudden, ‘BOOM! Bum, bum, bum,” he explained, imitating the noise of an explosion.
“[There was a] big ol’ hole in the side of the church, shotgun haze as far as you can see,” Strong said, explaining the fateful day, when members of the Ku Klux Klan [KKK] set a bomb that killed four girls: Adddie Mae Collins, 14; Carol Denise McNair, 11; Carole Rosamond Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Diane Wesley, 14. Sarah Jean Collins, Addie Mae’s 12-year-old sister, was also severely injured in the bombing, but survived.
“When all was said and done,” Strong continued, “the firemen, and the bomb squad, and so forth, they made two blocks of people get out of their house and go to the park, because they expected it may be another bomb.”
Bombings had become commonplace by September 1963.
“There was also a hotel right behind here, called A.G. Gaston that they bombed. There were over 40-something bombings. They started calling Birmingham ‘Bombingham,’” Strong told The Informer, before considering the other racist realities of that time, such as Jim Crow laws, which made segregation legal.
“Back then, you could get arrested for going into a white folks bathroom, using the same water faucet,” he emphasized.
On a sunny Saturday in early August, the 65-year-old Birmingham native didn’t talk long before growing emotional thinking about the bombing that shook that intersection– and the world — back in 1963. The sights, smells and feelings from 60 years ago, remain etched into his memory.
Monuments Highlight Trials and Triumphs of Birmingham’s Freedom Fight
When walking near Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, emotions weigh heavy. A despondency looms when considering the young lives robbed by the KKK; and at the same time, there is an air of activism.
Originally a site for organizing and action, then a tragic reminder of injustice in America, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands, not just as a place of worship, but as a symbol of the strength and resilience of Civil Rights leaders and the African American community as whole. The big brick building, with its stained glass windows, grand staircase, and blue cross-shaped marquee, is a reminder to continue combating racism and stand tall even in the face of despair.
All along Sixth Avenue N and 16th Street are monuments remembering the four little girls who were tragically killed on Sept. 15, 1963, when the members of the KKK set a bomb at the church.
“This property possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States,” reads the National Historic Landmark sign on the church building, which was dedicated by the National Park Service in 2006. “In 1963 it was the staging ground for the Birmingham Campaign Civil Rights Youth Marches and the place where a bomb killed four young girls, ‘martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.’”
Another monument on Sixth Ave N features an illustration of four little girls whose arms are wrapped around each other — their backs turned to the onlooker. A plaque below the image reads: “Killed September 15, 1963,” with the names and birthdays of the fallen youth.
A marker with the young girls’ names also sits at the site where the bomb was laid and includes the Bible verse Genesis 50:20: “ye though evil against me, but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass as it is this day to save much people alive.”
The remembrances don’t end with the church building or the sidewalks near the church.
Across the street from the church is not only the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but Kelly Ingram Park, where peaceful protestors — many adolescents — were violently met with police brutality, such as authorities releasing police dogs and spraying powerful water cannons.
Now filled with monuments paying homage to the protestors and people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Kelly Ingram Park, like the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the markers along Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, shows how the area has been working to commemorate those who courageously fought for justice and acknowledge the horrors of the racist past.
The City of Birmingham has formed partnerships with churches, arts organizations, businesses, nonprofits, activists and local leaders, to use the entire year to pay homage to the trials and triumphs of the 1963 Birmingham Civil Rights Movement, which, in many ways, due to media coverage served as a wake-up call about America’s racist realities, for the whole world.
“The eyes of the world were on Birmingham in 1963 while a battle was waged for the equal rights of all of its residents,” said Birmingham Mayor Randall L. Woodfin in a statement. “We plan to spend 2023 remembering and reflecting on the people and events that helped to break down segregation not only in Birmingham, but in our country.”
Eventual Justice, A Call for Continued Action, Freedom Fighting
The fight for freedom and justice for all did not end with the murder of the four little girls
As many sought justice for their deaths, the freedom fight also continued.
At the time of the bombing, Dr. King famously wrote to then-Alabama Gov. and segregationist George Wallace: “The blood of our little children is on your hands.”
When he delivered the girls’ eulogy, King emphasized that justice was beyond incarcerating their murderers: “They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
With the world now privy to the challenges African Americans faced, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing served as a tragic catalyst for positive change.
“That horrific day in Birmingham, Alabama quickly became a defining moment for the Civil Rights Movement,” former President Barack Obama said on the 50th anniversary of the bombing in 2013. “It galvanized Americans all across the country to stand up for equality and broadened support for a movement that would eventually lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Despite federal legislative victories, it took years before justice was served in the court of law after the 1963 bombing.
The FBI launched an investigation into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, with then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover naming KKK leader Robert Chambliss as well as members Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton and Herman Cash as primary suspects.
The investigation ended in 1968 with no indictment, however was reopened again in 1971.
Fourteen years after the girls were killed, in 1977, Chamblis was convicted of murder for his participation in the bombing, and later died in prison. In the early 2000s, Cherry and Blanton were sentenced to life in prison for their contributions to the 1963 murders. Cash died in 1994, without having been prosecuted for his alleged involvement in the bombing.
While the legal battle for justice has concluded, many leaders and modern freedom fighters still invoke the four little girls– continuing their legacies and sparking activism to this day.
“We in Birmingham are celebrating the 60th anniversary, we’re commemorating it, because we understand that if you don’t own your history, if you don’t make sure that your history is your history, then you are doomed to repeat it,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D- Alabama), told the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC Sept.10. “This will be a remembrance, a reflection, and a recommitment and dedication to the cause for which these four little girls died…. Their tragic death is nothing more than domestic terrorism.”
From the racially motivated mass shootings in Jacksonville, Florida, in August 2023 to Buffalo, New York, in May 2022, and in Charleston in June 2015, Sewell said that history is repeating itself.
“Old battles have become new again, and I believe in the face of these old battles, that we must use the same tactics and same strategies that our forefathers and foremothers used,” the Alabama congresswoman emphasized. “I know that I get to walk the halls of Congress because four little girls lost their lives in Birmingham, Alabama, on that fateful day and I think it’s really important that we make sure that their lives were not lost in vain.”