Many have chronicled or memorialized the event and the four girls who lost their lives: 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, and 11-year-old Denise McNair.
Birmingham News reporter Frank Sikora wrote a book. Spike Lee produced a documentary. Kate Campell wrote a song. Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute now stands across the street from the restored church.
The bombing drew national attention again earlier this year when a jury found former Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry guilty—39 years after the fact—of first-degree murder in helping three other Klansmen plant the bomb. One of the other Klansmen was convicted of murder in 1977; another was convicted of murder in 2001; and the other died in 1994 without ever being charged.
In his closing argument at Cherry’s trial, the prosecutor called Cherry and his alleged cohorts “the forefathers of terrorism.”
In 1963, Birmingham was in the midst of Project C—Project Confrontation, the name given to nonviolent direct action led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth.
These and other civil rights leaders had intensified demonstrations in “the most segregated city in America.” From the gathering place at downtown’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, leaders had sent waves of people to protest the city’s hard-line enforcement of segregation.
Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor countered with police dogs and fire hoses. Klansmen countered with terror. They had detonated so many bombs in African-American neighborhoods that Birmingham had a new name: “Bombingham.”
In fact, three bombs had exploded in Birmingham in the four weeks prior to Sept. 15, the Sunday of the bombing. It was Youth Fellowship Day at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the lesson for the day was, “The Love That Forgives.”
At 10:22 a.m., between one and two dozen sticks of dynamite exploded, ripping a huge hole in the church’s east wall. The church’s pastor, Rev. John Cross, was teaching a Bible study when the explosion occurred.
“All around me was so much dust and soot—and glass had fallen, and plaster from the walls and ceiling, and people had begun to move around the building,” Cross told The Birmingham News in 1977. “It was so smoky in there that some of the people could hardly be identifiable three feet away from me.”
Cross’ description could be taken for someone’s experience on Sept. 11, 2001. And the religious symbolism some saw dotting the destruction of Sept. 11 also crept into news accounts of Sept. 15, 1963.
“The only stained glass window in the church that remained in its frame showed Christ leading a group of little children,” United Press International reported the day after the bombing. “The face of Christ was blown out.”
Kate Campbell, in her song about the girls called “Bear It Away,” sings:
“Breaks my heart to think of them.
Four little girls and what they could have been.”
Judaism teaches that God created Adam alone in the world to teach humanity that whoever destroys one soul destroys the whole world, and whoever saves one soul saves the whole world.
Every person matters. The immediate terror of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church wasn’t caught on video, but its terror, and the hate that produced it, were no less real.
Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a joint eulogy for three of the four girls killed, in which he said their deaths “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.”
The philosophy that produces murderers is a philosophy of hate. Sometimes that philosophy burrows into religion for a home, whether that religion is Islam or Christianity. It lives in hate, not love. It deals in lies, not truth. It peddles violence, not peace.
We won’t ever forget Sept. 11, 2001. Let’s not forget Sept. 15, 1963, either.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.