Introduction The Civil Rights Era was one of the most tumultuous times in our American history, that fact is no more visible than in Birmingham, Alabama which during the timespan from 1957 to 1963 was known as one of the most segregated and violent cities in the south. Numerous beatings, bombings, and other violent confrontations aimed at African Americans went unsolved and widely uninvestigated. While Birmingham was the location of some of the most heinous crimes against Civil Rights, it was also the home of the movement’s biggest triumphs and accomplishments. The 16th Street Church is one location that was a part in both the highs and lows.
Children’s March During the spring of 1963, the Civil Rights protests began to see a dip in participation in Birmingham due to the overwhelming intimidation by lawmakers of the city and state. Out of fear for losing their jobs, many adults were reluctant to participate in demonstrations opposing the status quo. Civil Rights leaders needed to find a way to progress the movement by other means. While jailed in Birmingham for refusing to discontinue his protests, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was approached by a man named James Bevel with an idea for a protest that would reignite the fire for change.
Bevel, a staff member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), proposed that students in the Birmingham area be recruited to participate in protests and demonstrations. Dr. King and other civil rights leader were at first opposed to the idea of putting children in possible harm’s way, but soon agreed to enlist students from local college campuses and high schools to volunteer. Youth volunteers were trained in the tactics of non-violent protest by practicing how to stay calm while they faced racial slurs, food being thrown on them, or threats of violence.
Once the students were prepared for the opposition they were going to face a plan was set in place. Broadcast in secret messages by radio DJs at black radio stations, students were instructed to skip school on May 2nd, 1963 in order to meet at the 16th Street Baptist church to march for freedom. While singing songs with lyrics of freedom, the students were to march two-by-two in groups of 50 from the church. As the group marched they were quickly arrested by awaiting police, and then replaced by another group of 50 waiting inside the church.
At the end of the day, more than 1,000 children were arrested. In the following days, thousands more students cut classes to join in the crusade. The overwhelming number of protesters was more than the authorities could handle and the order was given to combat the non-violent protest with fire hoses, clubs, and K9 attack dogs. After several days of brutal attacks on protesters, images of the students begin to appear in newspapers and on TV across both the country and the world. Now viewed as a national disgrace, President John F. Kennedy pushes for an end to segregation in the city.
After much negotiation, an agreement is reached to desegregate public facilities and regulations on hiring practices. The bravery and determination of the youth of Birmingham was a deciding factor on a major event in the civil rights era. 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing The Civil Rights movement seemed to be making major strides in the latter half of 1963 with the successes of the Children’s March and the March on Washington. But the joy and excitement of the triumphs was short-lived in the city that was dubbed “Bombingham” due to the numerous bombings of churches and homes of African-Americans and their sympathizers.
Just over two weeks after Dr. King’s inspiring speech in Washington, a horrific act shocked a city and a nation at its core. For many years Birmingham had been terrorized by violence inflicted by a white supremacists group called the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), often times without any fear of prosecution for their crimes. Theophilus “Bull” Connor was the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement and had confirmed ties to the KKK. Connor was a segregationist that had many known KKK members on the police force and vowed to keep the city segregated.
Connor was behind the use of force on the students who protested in the Children’s March. With little consequences to their actions the KKK used brutal force to intimidate African-Americans in Birmingham. Shortly after the Birmingham schools were ordered to desegregate, the group exacted a harsh awakening to those who thought that the fight for freedom was over. The 16th Street Baptist Church was a center of activity in the Civil Rights Movement, hosting meetings for the SCLC as well as civil rights leaders Dr. King and Ralph David Abernathy.
On the morning of September 15, 1963 a bomb detonated during Sunday school classes killing four and wounding many others. The victims of the blast were four little girls that were in a basement restroom changing into their choir robes for the 11:00a. m. service. The deaths of Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14) sparked outrage nationwide but in the ultra-segregated city of Birmingham the investigation was slow moving and almost non-existent.
Most suspected the KKK in the bombing, but there was not movement in the case until 1977 when three KKK members were tried and convicted of murder. Although a tragic and senseless act, the 16th Street Church Bombing made an immediate impact on the Civil Rights Movement by increasing support in the cause and being a motivating factor in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.