“The Day a Church Became a Tomb”: Civil Rights and Violence in Bombingham, 1963-1965

            16 SEPTEMBER 1963. It was Monday morning, and the headlines in The Birmingham News read “The day a church became a tomb,” “Screams echo among debris,” and “Victim by victim, scream by scream.” The day before, the newspaper reported, “10 sticks of dynamite dug a grave for four children” at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and that night, “gunshots echoed in the streets while police hunted a killer-bomber.” Birmingham was on the brink of chaos.
16th Street Baptist Church
            Bombings were hardly a novel phenomenon. Since the end of World War II, roughly fifty explosions had rocked the city, earning Birmingham the moniker of “Bombingham” among black residents. The attack on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, however, shook the city to its core. The attack claimed the lives of four young African American women: Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carol Robertson, 15, Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, 14. It was the first time that a bombing had cost lives. In the confusion that followed, a police bullet killed Johnnie Robinson, another black teenager. At roughly the same time, two white teenagers shot and killed Virgil Ware, a black thirteen-year-old who was not near the bombing. It was a particularly desperate moment, in what had already been a tumultuous period.
This memorial stands against the wall of the
church where explosives claimed the lives of
four young women.
            Nineteen-sixty-three was a difficult year for Birmingham, which historian Adam Fairclough has called “the South’s most segregated city.” Martin Luther King, Jr., chose Birmingham as the next site for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to contest segregation. Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety and an intransigent segregationist, turned fire hoses and police dogs against African Americans who protested the city’s discriminatory policies through store boycotts, sit-ins at lunch counters, and marches. Despite the elimination of his position and losing a bid for mayor, Connor initially refused to leave his office. Even after Connor lost his political authority, the city's entrenched racism guaranteed a challenge for any efforts at desegregation. By the summer of 1963, the city’s black leadership, along with King, had successfully negotiated the desegregation of lunch counters, water fountains, and restrooms. The night the agreement became public, bombs tore apart a black-owned business and the residence of King’s brother.  Eventually, white supremacists targeted the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Because of its size and historical importance for the African American community, the church had become a central meeting place and rallying point. Moreover, Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the church, was the site of many of the conflicts between Connor's police force and the civil rights demonstrators.
Kelly Ingram Park is a powerful site in
the effort to commemorate the brutality
of those forces resisting desegregation.
Structures like this call to mind the
excesses of force employed to quash
civil rights demonstrations.
            Segregation would not die without a fight. It claimed the lives of innocents. The four young women who perished in the rubble of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had not taken part in marches or protests. Instead, they were preparing for a religious service. Further, in the South's most segregated city, justice was slow. It took more than ten years to get a single conviction. A second alleged perpetrator died in 1994 without a conviction. Two more men were arrested and charged in the early 2000s, nearly forty years after the crime. Two generations of Alabamans had to see the dismantling of institutionalized racial segregation in order to push for the execution of justice.

Daniel Manuel

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