September 15, 1963
A timebomb planted by 4 KKK members explodes at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing 4 girls
The victims [l to r: Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14)] had been in the church’s basement when a phone call came in to the church. The phone was answered by 14-year-old acting Sunday school teacher Carolyn Maull who was simply told “three minutes” before the caller hung up. Less than a minute later the bomb, consisting of at least 15 sticks of dynamite, exploded.
The girls were thrown by the blast, one decapitated by the explosion and was so badly mangled she was only identified by her clothing and a ring. Another girl in the basement at the time of the explosion, Addie Mae’s 12-year-old sister Sarah Collins, survived the blast though she was injured by 21 glass pieces which had become embedded in her face and left her blind in one eye. Aside from the 4 victims killed and Sarah Collins, a further 21 people were injured in the attack as well.
The explosion was so great, vehicles on the street were heavily damaged and one driver was even blown from his car. A hole 7 feet in diameter was blown out of the church wall, and a crater 5 feet wide and 2 feet deep was created where the bomb had been placed.
A young white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. decried the attack, blaming the acquiescence of the white citizens towards the oppression of black citizens, stating “Who did it? We all did it! The ‘who’ is every little individual who talks about the ‘niggers’ and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son … What’s it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States.”
An editorial published in the Milwaukee Sentinel echoed the sentiment with “For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths… in a sense, are on the hands of each of us.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. placed blame upon the black population, citing “the apathy and complacency” of black Alabamans. Because of Dr. King’s statement, Carole was buried separately from the other victims.
The FBI investigated the case and concluded 4 members of a KKK splinter group called the Cahaba Boys had planted the bomb. However, they were met with resistance as no witnesses would come forward against them and the case was officially closed and sealed with no arrests.
The case was reopened in 1971 when Alabama Attorney General Bill Bradley took office. In 1977 Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The case was again reopened in 1988 and yet again in 1997. Herman Frank Cash had been a prime suspect since the original investigation but he died in 1994 before a case against him could be built. In 2000 the remaining two suspects, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were charged with the murders as well. Both were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Chambliss died in 1985 and Cherry in 2004. Blanton was denied parole in 2016 and his next hearing deferred until 2021.