16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: History and Legacy

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory addresses a civil rights demonstration in Washington, DC. Behind him is a poster reading 'No More Birminghams', in reference to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by white supremacists.
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory addresses a civil rights demonstration in Washington, DC. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was an act of domestic terrorism carried out by known white supremacist members of the Ku Klux Klan on Sunday, September 15, 1963, at the predominantly African American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young black girls died and 14 other congregation members were injured in the bombing of the historic church which also served as a regular meeting place for civil rights leaders. The bombing and the often violent protests that followed made the civil rights movement the focus of public opinion and ultimately served as a tipping point in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Key Takeaways: 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

  • The bombing of the African American 16th Street Baptist Church occurred on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Four young African American girls were killed and more than 20 other churchgoers were injured in the explosion, which was declared a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism.
  • During the 1960s, the church regularly hosted civil rights movement meetings and rallies, such as the Birmingham “Children’s Crusade” anti-segregation march of May 1963.
  • By 2001, three former members of the Ku Klux Klan had been convicted of murder for the bombing and sentenced to life in prison.
  • Public outrage over the bombing and often brutal treatment of protesters by police directly contributed to the enactment of two of the most important civil rights laws in the nation’s history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • The 16th Street Baptist Church was repaired and reopened for regular services on Sunday, June 7, 1964.

Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963

In the early 1960s, Birmingham was viewed as one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. The mere suggestion of racial integration was immediately rejected by the apartheid-like all-white city leadership. The city had no black police officers or firefighters and all but the most menial city jobs were held by whites. Throughout the city, blacks were forbidden to use public facilities like parks and fairgrounds except on designated “colored days.”

Because of poll taxes, selectively applied voter literacy tests, and threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, very few blacks managed to register to vote. In his historic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. called Birmingham “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” Between 1955 and 1963, a series of at least 21 bombings of black homes and churches, while none had resulted in fatalities, further heightened racial tensions in the city that had become known as “Bombingham.”

Why the 16th Street Baptist Church?

Founded in 1873 as the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church was Birmingham’s first predominantly black church. Located near city hall in the heart of the city’s commercial district, the church served as the primary meeting place and social center for Birmingham’s African American community. During the 1960s, the church regularly hosted civil rights movement organizational meetings and rallies.

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, September 2005
16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, September 2005. John Morse/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In April 1963, at the invitation of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to the 16th Street Baptist Church to help fight racial segregation in Birmingham. Now supporting the SCLC’s campaign, the church became the rallying point for many of the marches and demonstrations that would heighten racial tension in Birmingham.

The Children’s Crusade

On May 2, 1963, thousands of Birmingham area students from age 8 to 18, trained by the SCLC in non-violent tactics, set off from the 16th Street Baptist Church on the “Children’s Crusade” march to city hall to try to convince the mayor to desegregate the city. While the children’s protest was peaceful, the city’s response was not. On the first day of the march, police arrested hundreds of children. On May 3, Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, known for applying harsh physical force in dealing with racial demonstrators, ordered the police to use high pressure water jets, batons, and police dogs on the children and adult bystanders.

Facade of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama—Bombed in 1963
Facade of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama—Bombed in 1963. Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

As press coverage of the violent treatment of the peacefully protesting Birmingham children spread, public opinion turned heavily in their favor.

On May 10, 1963, the fallout from the Children’s Crusade and the protests and boycotts that followed, forced city leaders to reluctantly order the desegregation of public restrooms, drinking fountains, lunch counters, and other public facilities throughout Birmingham. The action angered segregationists, and more dangerously, white supremacists. The next day, the home of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brother A. D. King, was damaged by a bomb. On August 20 and again on September 4, the home of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores was firebombed.

On September 9, President John F. Kennedy further enraged white segregationists by ordering armed troops of the Alabama National Guard to oversee the racial integration of all Birmingham public schools. A week later, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church would bring Birmingham’s summer of hate to a deadly peak.

The Church Bombing

At approximately 10:22 a.m., on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church’s Sunday school secretary received a telephone call during which an anonymous male caller simply said “three minutes.” Seconds later, a powerful bomb exploded under the church’s front steps near the basement. At the time of the blast, about 200 church members—many of them children attending Sunday school—had assembled for the 11:00 a.m. service featuring a sermon ironically titled “A Love That Forgives.”

The explosion caved in the church’s interior walls and blew bricks and mortar into the parking lot. While most of the parishioners were able to find safety under the pews and escape the building, the mutilated bodies of four young girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carole Robertson (age 14), Cynthia Wesley (age 14), and Carol Denise McNair (age 11) were found in the rubble-filled basement. A fifth girl, Addie Mae Collins’ 12-year-old sister Susan, survived but was left permanently blind. More than 20 other people were injured in the bombing.

Aftermath and Investigation

Soon after the bombing, the streets around the 16th Street Baptist Church filled with thousands of black protesters. Violence broke out around the city after Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had promised voters, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” sent 300 state troopers and 500 National Guardsmen to break up the demonstrations. Dozens of protesters were arrested and one young black man was killed by the police.

Congress of Racial Equality and members of the All Souls Church, Unitarian located in Washington, D.C. march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims.
Congress of Racial Equality and members march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims. Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The day after the bombing, President Kennedy stated, “If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and state—if they can only awaken this entire nation to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost.”

The FBI quickly identified four Ku Klux Klan members, Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, and Herman Frank Cash as suspects in the bombing. However, citing a lack of physical evidence and the reluctance of witnesses to cooperate, the FBI refused to file charges at the time. Rumors quickly spread that controversial FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a critic of the civil rights movement who had ordered investigations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the SCLC, had shelved the investigation. Amazingly, it would take nearly 40 years for justice to finally be done.

In late 1967, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley ordered the case reopened. On November 18, 1977, Klan leader Robert Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder in the bombing and sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Chambliss' niece testified against him, telling jurors that before the bombing, Chambliss had bragged to her that he had “enough stuff [dynamite] put away to flatten half of Birmingham.” Still maintaining his innocence, Chambliss died in prison in 1985.

In July 1997, a full 20 years after the Chambliss conviction, the FBI reopened the case based on new evidence.

In May 2001, former Klansmen Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to four life terms. Cherry died in prison in 2004. Blanton remains in prison and will become eligible for parole in 2021, after having been denied parole in 2016.

The remaining suspect, Herman Frank Cash died in 1994 without being charged in the bombing.

Legislative Response

While the wheels of the criminal justice system turned slowly, the effect of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on social justice was swift and significant.

The bombing moved James Bevel, a prominent civil rights leader and SCLC organizer, to create the Alabama Project for Voting Rights. Dedicated to extending full voting rights and protections to all eligible Alabama citizens regardless of race, Bevel’s efforts led to the “Bloody Sunday” Selma to Montgomery voter registration marches of 1965 and, subsequently, to passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, banning all forms of racial discrimination in the voting and election process.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on. White House Press Office/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Perhaps even more significantly, public outrage over the bombing increased support in Congress for final passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. In this manner, the bombing accomplished exactly the opposite results its perpetrators had hoped for.

A view of the 'Four Spirits' statue and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
A view of the 'Four Spirits' statue and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With the help of donations of over $300,000 from around the world, the fully restored 16th Street Baptist Church reopened for regular services on Sunday, June 7, 1964. Today, the church continues to serve as the religious and social center for Birmingham’s African American community, hosting an average of 2,000 worshipers weekly.

Congressional Gold Medal commemorates the four young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing.
Congressional Gold Medal commemorates the four young girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. United States Mint/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Along with being listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage, the church was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Citing the church’s historic place in the nationwide crusade for civil rights, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the building a National Historic Landmark on February 20, 2006. In addition, the church has been placed on the UNESCO “Tentative List of World Heritage Sites.” In May 2013, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the four young girls who died in the 1963 bombing.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Khan, Farinaz. “Today in 1963: The Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.” Angela Julia Cooper Center (archived), September 15, 2003, https://web.archive.org/web/20170813104615/http://ajccenter.wfu.edu/2013/09/15/tih-1963-16th-street-baptist-church/.
  • Krajicek, David J. “Justice Story: Birmingham church bombing kills 4 innocent girls in racially motivated attack.” New York Daily News, September 1, 2013, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/justice-story/justice-story-birmingham-church-bombing-article-1.1441568.
  • King, Martin Luther, Jr. (April 16, 1963). “Letter From A Birmingham City Jail (Excerpts).” TeachingAmericanHistory.org. Ashland University. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-from-birmingham-city-jail-excerpts/.
  • Bragg, Rick. “Witnesses Say Ex-Klansman Boasted of Church Bombing.” New York Times, May 17, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/05/17/us/witnesses-say-ex-klansman-boasted-of-church-bombing.html.
  • “Prosecutor says justice 'overdue' in '63 bombing.” The Washington Times, May 22, 2002, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2002/may/22/20020522-025235-4231r/.
  • Huff, Melissa. “Beauty from the Ashes of 16th Street Baptist Church.” The Gospel Coalition, September 11, 2003, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/beauty-from-the-ashes-of-16th-street-baptist-church/.