By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
The year I turned ten
I missed school to march with other children
For a seat at whites-only lunch counters
Like a junior choir, we chanted “We Shall Overcome.”
Then, police loosed snarling dogs and fire hoses on us,
And buses carted us, nine hundred strong, to jail.
Excerpt from the poem Birmingham 1963 by Carole Boston Weatherford published 2007
On September 15, 1963 White American Christian terrorists bombed an African American Christian church, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The bomb blast tore through the church basement killing four African children. The four African American girls whose bodies were shattered in that act of terrorism were Addie Mae Collins (1949-1963) Denise McNair (1951-1963) Carol Robertson (1949-1963) and Cynthia Wesley (1949-1963.) An estimated 22 other African Americans members of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church were injured in the bomb blast.
It was Sunday morning and according to reports published at the time: At about 10:22 a.m., twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for the sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives,” when the bomb exploded.
This act of terrorism is considered one of the worst of the 20th century targeted at African Americans during the Civil Rights struggle. There were countless (many never made public) incidents of terrorism against African Americans including the massacre of African Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 (Black Wall Street) and Rosewood, Florida in 1923. Many were labeled “Race Riots” when in fact, in dreadful acts of terrorism, White people lynched African Americans, destroyed their businesses, churches, homes and schools in jealous rage that in spite of the oppression they suffered there were African American individuals and communities that managed to carve out contemporary successful existences.
When the terrorists are White Christians the religion of the perpetrators is ignored but every act of terrorism against African Americans has been carried out by White Christians. In some cases, they are not recognized as acts of terrorism or the perpetrators identified as terrorists. However, in the case of the September 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama even former U.S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that incident and the bombing of African American businesses, churches and homes were acts of terrorism.
Rice was an eight-year-old living in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 at the time of the church bombing and in her 2010 book, Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, writes of the several incidents of bombing in Birmingham, Alabama: As terrorists still do today, bombers exploded the first device in hopes a crowd would gather. They detonated the second bomb filled with shrapnel and nails – in order to injure as many innocent onlookers as possible.
September 15, 1963 was not the first bombing incident or act of terrorism by White Christians to which African Americans were subjected that year. In her 2007 book, Birmingham 1963, Carole Boston Weatherford explains: In the 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama was one of the most racially divided cities in the United States. While Civil Rights protesters pressed for equality and integration, the staunchest racists resorted to violence to resist change. Racists had set so many bombs in Birmingham’s black neighborhoods that the city was nicknamed “Bombingham.”
White Christian Americans were desperate to keep African Americans in a place of second class citizenship in the country which was built on the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans. So desperate that on Good Friday, April 12, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and approximately 80 other African Americans were arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest. Dr. King wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham jail while he was incarcerated in reply to a group of White religious leaders (seven pastors and one rabbi) who exhorted Dr. King and all African Americans to continue to wait for their Human Rights and Civil Rights to be recognized by White Americans.
The mass arrests on Good Friday led to the Children’s Crusade on May 2, 1963 where over 1,000 children (many as young as six) gathered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church before marching to downtown Birmingham. They were all arrested and hauled off to jail in police cars and school buses. On May 3, more African American children gathered and, as they left the church, Commissioner of Public Safety Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor directed the local police and fire departments to use massive force to stop them. The world saw the evil of White supremacy when images of African American children being blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers and attacked by police dogs appeared on television and in newspapers internationally http://www.crmvet.org/images/imgbham.htm.
The scene was repeated on May 4 and on May 6 almost 2,500 youth were arrested. By then the children were being held at the state fairgrounds because the jails were full. On May 10 after eight days of unrest an agreement was reached with the City of Birmingham to desegregate drinking fountains, lunch counters and restrooms within 90 days and to release those in jail on bond or their own recognizance. However that was an agreement with City officials and the good Christian White people of Birmingham refused to treat African Americans as their equal and the terrorist activities against African Americans continued.
For African American families and communities there was the added trauma of being forced to live beside these terrorists. In the case of the murder of the four children on September 15, 1963, the terrorists continued to live in Birmingham, Alabama and were not brought to justice until the 21st century. Since 1963 an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had identified four White Christians as the terrorists responsible for the bombing of the African American church and the murder of the four girls. Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry continued to live in Birmingham, Alabama where the African American community was forced to deal with the fact that these terrorists walked among them daily as free men.
In September 1963 a witness identified Robert Chambliss as the man who placed the bomb at the Sixteenth 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 possession of dynamite. It was not until the 1970s that the case against Chambliss was reopened. The then recently elected attorney general of Alabama requested the original FBI files on the case and discovered that evidence against Chambliss that might have led to a conviction had not been used in the original trial. In November, 1977 Chambliss was tried once again for the September 15, 1963 bombing, was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. By the time the FBI got around to pursuing action against the other terrorists on May 18, 2000, only two were still alive. Cash was dead (1994) but Blanton and Cherry were arrested, tried and convicted (Blanton 2001 and Cherry 2002.) Cherry’s trial was delayed because he was deemed mentally incompetent. However according to This Day in Civil Rights History published in 2009, “The evidence against him, including testimony from his own granddaughter, painted a picture of an unrepentant former Klansman who was a close associate of Chambliss and Blanton and was linked to the bombing.”
Why did it take almost four decades for these White Christian terrorists who devastated the African American community of Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963 to be brought to justice? After all, we have seen how quickly the American government can move against suspected terrorists in other countries inhabited by racialized people who are not Christian.