Fifty-three years ago, on September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church became the quintessential example of the destructive power of racial animus in America. The four young girls murdered by a bomb set by members of the Ku Klux Klan became symbols of how low white supremacists would go in their violent bid to prevent integration: blowing up a church on a Sunday morning.
“The first effect of the bombing, in Birmingham, was a fast-moving phantasmagoria of grief, terror, and hysteria,” wrote Newsweek’s Karl Fleming, in a story later that month. “Pouring out of the church into the chilly street, women and children shrieked amid the debris. Men shouted. A young girl, Sarah Collins, staggered blindly out of the hole ripped by the explosion, her face spewing blood. She stretched her arms in front of her, unseeing, and screamed incoherently.”
Although rife with the race consciousness characteristic of the era, Fleming’s story captured the catastrophe that unfolded:
Negroes by the hundreds swarmed to the scene. Many flung rocks at police cars as they arrived, sirens whining. Half a dozen ambulances and a fire truck raced up into the pandemonium. A Negro woman, heel deep in glass in the street, screamed: “In church! My God, you’re not even safe in church.”
The New York Times, in its coverage noted a particularly ironic fact. “The four girls killed in the blast had just heard Mrs. Ella C. Demand, their teacher, complete the Sunday school lesson for the day. The subject was ‘The Love That Forgives,’” wrote the Times’ Claude Sitton in his report on the day of the bombing. Sitton quoted then-Jefferson County Sheriff Mel Bailey as calling it “the most distressing [day] in the history of Birmingham.”
Sitton also pointed out that the bombing at the church was part of a long pattern: “None of the 50 bombings of Negro property here since World War II have been solved.” The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was solved, although many years would pass before any of the killers would be brought to justice.
On Thursday the congregation of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is holding a commemoration beginning at 10 a.m. and ringing the church bells at 10:22 a.m., 53 years to the day after the dynamite went off. In a press release, the church noted that observing the painful event is needed every year: “When asked why the church observes the bombing each year, Rev. Arthur Price, Jr.,pastor, stated, “We feel it is our responsibility in honor of the lives that were lost here, to always remember their sacrifice and what their loss has meant and continues to mean not only in our city, our country, but in our world. Birmingham is a different Birmingham, a changing Birmingham so very different than what it was 53 years ago. We stand as witnesses to everyone who will hear, that God’s grace and mercy is available to all as we continue to seek peace and cohesion in our nation and globally. May we always remember Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins.”
For more information visit 16thstreetbaptist.org or call (205) 251-9402.