Remembering my four friends 50 years later
Even as the inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech rang out from the Lincoln Memorial during the historic March on Washington in August of 1963 were still reverberating around the world, less than a month later, on September 15, an even louder sound rumbled through my life. The rumbling has never stopped for me.
A bomb exploded before Sunday morning services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama – a church with a predominantly black congregation that served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders. Four young girls were killed, and many other people injured that day.
Many of the civil rights protest marches that took place in Birmingham during the 1960s began at the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which had long been a significant religious center for the city’s Black population and a routine meeting place for civil rights organizers like Dr. King. Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members routinely called in bomb threats intended to disrupt civil rights meetings as well as services at the church.
At 10:22 a.m. on the morning of September 15, 1963, some 200 church members were in the building – many attending Sunday school classes before the start of the 11 a.m. service – when the bomb detonated on the church’s east side, spraying mortar and bricks from the front of the church and caving in its interior walls. Most parishioners were able to evacuate the building as it filled with smoke, but the bodies of four young girls, 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair, were found beneath the rubble in a basement restroom. Sarah Collins (Addie Mae’s younger sister), who was also in the restroom at the time of the explosion, subsequently lost her right eye.
Sunday School had just let out, and the girls were getting ready for the main worship service upstairs. Then it happened. A savage explosion of 19 sticks of dynamite stashed under a stairwell ripped through the northeast corner of the church.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15 was the third bombing in 11 days, after a federal court order had come down mandating the integration of Alabama’s school system. Between 1947 and 1965, over 50 bombings occurred in Birmingham, resulting in the city becoming known as “Bombingham.” Not a single one had been solved up to that point.
The 16th Street Church bombing was the handiwork of Ku Klux Klansmen Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. Robert Chambliss was a notorious racist in the area known as “Dynamite Bob.”
Local authorities showed no real concern for solving the crime, though they held strong evidence pointing to the actual bombers. Because of this local interference, the FBI took over the investigation. With foot dragging of their own, they failed to convict anyone for the crime by 1968. It was not until 1977 that the state convicted just one of the bombers.
As a young boy growing up in Birmingham, I can remember each one of those blasts; shaking the homes, and attempting to shake the resolve of men and women who were on the forefront of the civil rights movement.
Birmingham had one of the strongest and most violent chapters of the Klan. The city’s police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, was also notorious for his willingness to use brutality in combating radical demonstrators, union members, and Blacks. I can still see him riding past our house, on that three-wheeled police motorcycle with a suit and tie. It is worth noting that Bull Connor was not only a member of the Democratic National Committee, but also of the Ku Klux Klan. And when Klansmen attacked Freedom Riders in Birmingham with bats and metal pipes, Connor allowed the beating to go on for 15 minutes without police interference.
“Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was the man who actually placed the bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. He was arrested and charged with murder and possessing a box of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit. On October 8, 1963, Chambliss was found not guilty of murder and received a hundred-dollar fine and a six-month jail sentence for having the dynamite.
The case was unsolved until Bill Baxley was elected attorney general of Alabama. He requested the original Federal Bureau of Investigation files on the case and discovered that the organization had accumulated a great deal of evidence against Chambliss that had not been used in the original trial.
In November 1977 Chambliss was tried once again for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Now aged 73, Chambliss was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Chambliss died in an Alabama prison.
I knew each one of those girls personally; even had my “first crush” on Cynthia Wesley. Addie Collins and her sister, Sadie went to the B.C. Hill Elementary School, as did I. Sadie and I communicated recently, and I reassured her that anyone who knew me knew of her sister and the other three girls…wherever I’ve been since then.
In writing this piece, I felt compelled to acknowledge the 50 years that have passed since that day.
My intent was to share more of my personal experiences surrounding this horrific tragedy, but sitting here, writing, I realize that it is still, 50 years later, too fresh and too painful. After all, I was a little boy, who was up front and personal to the senseless slaughter of four innocent little girls who were all my friends.
Besides, it’s not about me…it’s about Cynthia; Denise; Addie Mae; and Carole.
The bombing gave the movement not just a face, but four faces, four young, innocent faces.
Growing up in Birmingham in the 1960s gave me many experiences, which have shaped who I am today.
In spite of the segregated schools, back of the bus, “colored” water fountains, police brutality, and other horrors of racism, I learned to love.
The Sunday school lesson the morning of the bombing was “The Love That Forgives.”
Glenn Ellis wrote this story in time for the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing. It was published on September 15, 2013 in the Philadelphia Tribune, at PhillyTrib.com. It is published here with the author’s permission.