The 16th Street Baptist church bombing

During the first two weeks of September 1963 the Civil Rights movement in the US was feeling confident – they had hope, hope that change, real change, was in the air. They had on their side President Kennedy; the Civil Rights bill had every chance of becoming law and, in Dr Martin Luther King, Jnr, they had a leader capable of stirring the conscience within every strata of society, from government to the common man.

The March on Washington

Only days before, on 28 August, 250,000 Americans had demonstrated their solidarity for the movement by taking part in the March on Washington. Black and white, rich and poor, young and old, swayed in time as Bob Dylan sung Blowin’ In The Wind and Joan Baez led the singing of We Shall Overcome. Then they intently listened as King, surrounded by a bank of microphones, spoke of his dream.

The bombing

But then on Sunday morning, the 15 September 1963, four white men, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted a bomb consisting of dynamite beneath a Baptist church on Sixteenth Street in Birmingham, Alabama.

The church, popular with the African American community, had become a rallying point for the civil rights movement. Tension in the state was high as the black community with the backing of federal government pushed for greater desegregation whilst the large racist element of local whites resisted. The success of the March on Washington had inflamed further the tension as the whites could see that the tide of history was turning against them.

The bomb detonated at 10.20 a.m. ripping through the church as worshippers congregated to listen to the Sunday sermon. Twenty-three were injured and tragically four girls, aged 11 to 14, were killed.

The funeral

Three of the girls were buried at a joint funeral attended by 8,000 mourners. Dr King spoke. The girls, he said, had “died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”

Of the murderers, King said: “we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

16th Street Baptist church bombingPictured: Members of the Congress of Racial Equality march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims.

Justice – eventually

The main suspect, Robert Chambliss, was, in October 1963, found guilty – not of murder but of possessing dynamite. He was fined $100 and sentenced to six months imprisonment. But, a decade on, as the young victims would have been enjoying the brightest years of their womanhood, Chambliss was re-tried as evidence, suppressed in 1963, came to light. In 1977 Chambliss was found guilty and sentenced to four life terms. He died in jail in 1985.

Two of the remaining three suspects were not charged until the dawn of the new century. Thirty-seven years they had evaded justice before it finally caught them up. It had taken almost four decades.

The Civil Rights bill

If, back in September 1963, Chambliss and his KKK colleagues hoped that through their actions they could cower the black community into submission they were wrong. Instead the bombing further galvanised the movement and on July 2, 1964, less than a year later, President Johnstone signed the bill of Civil Rights, another important milestone in the advancement of the Civil Rights movement.

Rupert Colley

Read more in Black History: History In An Hour published by Harper Press, available in various digital formats and audio.