Dead After Church Bombing
Blast Kills Four Children; Riots Follow
Two Youths Slain; State Reinforces Birmingham
September 16, 1963
Sept. 15 -- A bomb hurled from a passing car blasted a crowded Negro church today, killing four girls in their Sunday school
classes and triggering outbreaks of violence that left two more persons dead in the streets.
Negro youths were killed in outbreaks of shooting seven hours after the 16th
Street Baptist Church was bombed, and a third was wounded.
darkness closed over the city hours later, shots crackled sporadically in the Negro sections. Stones smashed into cars driven
Five Fires Reported
at least five fires in Negro business establishments tonight. A official said some are being set, including one at a mop factory
touched off by gasoline thrown on the building. The fires were brought under control and there were no injuries.
NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins wired President Kennedy that unless the Federal Government offers more than "picayune
and piecemeal aid against this type of bestiality" Negroes will "employ such methods as our desperation may dictate in defense
of the lives of our people."
police units patrolled the city and 500 battle-dressed National Guardsmen stood by at an armory.
police shot a 16-year-old Negro to death when he refused to heed their commands to halt after they caught him stoning cars.
A 13-year-old Negro boy was shot and killed as he rode his bicycle in a suburban area north of the city.
Police Battle Crowd
Downtown streets were deserted after dark and police
urged white and Negro parents to keep their children off the streets.
of hysterical Negroes poured into the area around the church this morning and police fought for two hours, firing rifles into
the air to control them.
the crowd broke up, scattered shootings and stonings erupted through the city during the afternoon and tonight.
Negro youth killed by police was Johnny Robinson, 16. They said he fled down an alley when they caught him stoning cars. They
shot him when he refused to halt.
13-year-old boy killed outside the city was Virgil Ware. He was shot at about the same time as Robinson.
after the bombing police broke up a rally of white students protesting the desegregation of three Birmingham schools last week. A motorcade of militant adult segregationists apparently en
route to the student rally was disbanded.
patrols, augmented by 300 State troopers sent into the city by Gov. George C. Wallace, quickly broke up all gatherings of
white and Negroes. Wallace sent the troopers and ordered 500 National Guardsmen to stand by at Birmingham armories.
arrived in the city tonight and went into a conference with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a leader in the civil rights fight in
City Council held an emergency meeting to discuss safety measures for the city, but rejected proposals for a curfew.
of persons were injured when the bomb went off in the church, which held 400 Negroes at the time, including 80 children. It
was Young Day at the church.
few hours later, police picked up two white men, questioned them about the bombing and released them.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wired President Kennedy from Atlanta
that he was going to Birmingham to plead with Negroes to "remain
he said that unless "immediate Federal steps are taken" there will be "in Birmingham
and Alabama the worst racial holocaust this Nation has ever
of survivors, their faces dripping blood from the glass that flew out of the church's stained glass windows, staggered around
the building in a cloud of white dust raised by the explosion. The blast crushed two nearby cars like toys and blew out windows
stoned cars in other sections of Birmingham and police exchanged
shots with a Negro firing wild shotgun blasts two blocks from the church. It took officers two hours to disperse the screaming,
surging crowd of 2,000 Negroes who ran to the church at the sound of the blast.
least 20 persons were hurt badly enough by the blast to be treated at hospitals. Many more, cut and bruised by flying debris,
were treated privately.
Associated Press reported that among the injured in subsequent shooting were a white man injured by a Negro. Another white
man was wounded by a Negro who attempted to rob him, according to police.)
Albert Boutwell, tears streaming down his cheeks, announced the city had asked for help.
is a tragic event," Boutwell said. "It is just sickening that a few individuals could commit such a horrible atrocity. The
occurrence of such a thing has so gravely concerned the public..." His voice broke and he could not go on.
and Police Chief Jamie Moore requested the State assistance in a telegram to Wallace.
the situation appears to be well under control of federal law enforcement officers at this time, the possibility of further
trouble exists," Boutwell and Moore said in their telegram.
Kennedy, yachting off Newport, R.I.,
was notified by radio-telephone and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered his chief civil rights troubleshooter, Burke
Marshall, to Birmingham. At least 25 FBI agents, including
bomb experts from Washington, were being rushed in.
Police Inspector W.J. Haley said as many as 15 sticks of dynamite must have been used.
have talked to witnesses who say they saw a car drive by and then speed away just before the bomb hit," he said.
Montgomery, Wallace said he had a similar report and said
the descriptions of the car's occupants did not make clear their race. But he served notice "on those responsible that every
law enforcement agency of this State will be used to apprehend them."
bombing was the 21st in Birmingham in eight years, and the
first to kill. None of the bombings have been solved.
police struggled to hold back the crowd, the blasted church's pastor, the Rev. John H. Cross, grabbed a megaphone and walked
back and forth, telling the crowd: "The police are doing everything they can. Please go home."
"The Lord is our shepherd," he sobbed. "We shall not want."
only stained glass window in the church that remained in its frame showed Christ leading a group of little children. The face
of Christ was blown out.
the police dispersed the hysterical crowds, workmen with pickaxes went into the wrecked basement of the church. Parts of brightly
painted children's furniture were strewn about in one Sunday School room, and blood stained the floors. Chunks of concrete
the size of footballs littered the basement.
bomb apparently went off in an unoccupied basement room and blew down the wall, sending stone and debris flying like shrapnel
into a room where children were assembling for closing prayers following Sunday School. Bibles and song books lay shredded
and scattered through the church.
the main sanctuary upstairs, which holds about 500 persons, the pulpit and Bible were covered with pieces of stained glass.
of the dead girls was decapitated. The coroner's office identified the dead as Denise McNair, 11; Carol Robertson, 14; Cynthia
Wesley, 14, and Addie Mae Collins, 10.
the crowd came outside watched the victims being carried out, one youth broke away and tried to touch one of the blanket-covered
is my sister," he cried. "My God, she's dead." Police took the hysterical boy away.
Grier, superintendent of the Sunday School, said when the bomb went off "people began screaming, almost stampeding" to get
outside. The wounded walked around in a daze, she said.
of the injured taken to a hospital was a white man. Many others cut by flying glass and other debris were not treated at hospitals.
Fourth in Four Weeks
It was the
fourth bombing in four weeks in Birmingham, and the third
since the current school desegregation crisis came to a boil Sept. 4.
of schools in Birmingham, Mobile,
and Tuskegee was finally brought about last Wednesday when
President Kennedy federalized the National Guard. Some of the Guardsmen in Birmingham
are still under Federal orders. Wallace said the ones he alerted today were units of the Guard "not now federalized."
City of Birmingham has offered a $52,000 reward for the arrest
of the bombers, and Wallace today offered another $5,000.
Dr. King Berates
Dr. King wired Wallace that "the blood of four little children ... is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions
have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder."
The Investigation into the Bombing
The FBI led the initial investigation into the bombing. According
to a 1965 FBI memorandum to director J. Edgar Hoover, it was determined that Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman
Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr. had planted the bomb. Based on the investigation, the Birmingham FBI office recommended
prosecuting the suspects. Hoover, however, blocked their prosecution by rejecting the recommendation that the federal prosecutor
receive the testimony that identified the suspects. By 1968, charges had not been filed and the FBI closed the case.
In 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, reopened the
case. On November 18, 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The case was again reopened
in 1988 and in July 1997, after the FBI received a tip. Herman Frank Cash was still one of the prime suspects, but before
a case could be established against him, he died in 1994.
On May 17, 2000, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry
were charged with the murder of the four girls. Blanton was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison on May 1, 2001.
For the jurors who convicted him, the 1964 taped conversations that the FBI secretly recorded, weighed heavily on their decision.
The tapes had remained secret until 1997, when the case was reopened. In one recorded conversation that took place between
Blanton and his wife, Blanton told her that he was at the Klan meeting where both the bombing was planned and the bomb was
made. In another recorded conversation, Blanton spoke about the bombing to an FBI informant while driving in a car. For the
jurors, the taped conversations provided enough evidence to convict Blanton of murder.
Bobby Frank Cherry's trial was postponed after the judge ruled
that he was mentally incompetent to assist his attorney. After Cherry was found competent to stand trail, on May 22, 2002
he was found guilty of four counts of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. For the family and friends of the four murdered
girls, the conviction of Blanton and Cherry was a long awaited victory.