When 14 year old Carolyn Maull answered the phone that early Sunday morning of September 15th 1963, all the unknown voice on the other end said before discontinuing the call was,”Three minutes.”
As interim Sunday School secretary at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, it was Maull’s job to order Sunday School material, facilitate regular attendance, collaborate with team leaders, maintain updated lists of classes and take phone calls.
But she could never have been prepared for what followed less than 60 seconds after that call. In the basement where five girls – the youngest of them aged 11 – were preparing to give a Sunday School sermon titled, “A love that forgives,” a 15 stick dynamite detonated, sending bricks and glass splinters dashing across the air and crumbling the church’s interior walls.
Four members of the Ku Klux Klan, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry had not long before Maull received that anonymous phone call planted the sticks of dynamite and a timing device beneath the steps of the East side of the predominantly black church.
Four of the five girls in the basement were killed in the explosion and about 22 others injured. The girls, 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair were found stacked on top of each other and clinging to one another beneath the debris in the basement lavatory.
The fifth girl, 12 year-old Sarah Collins had like the others been changing into her choir robe when the explosion occurred. Surviving the incident with a permanent loss to her right eye, Sarah Collins recounted afterwards how she had moments before the blast seen her sister, Addie knotting her dress sash.
The blast dug an about seven feet wide crater in the church’s wall and another of one and a half feet less in the ladies restroom, blew a moving man out of his car, destroyed several other cars, all but one stained glass window and the rear steps of the church.
Prior to the incident, racial tensions in Birmingham were already at the tideline. The city had gained standing for it’s racial discrimination and segregation. George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama who was known for his supportive views of white supremacy and for being anti-desegregation, had a few days before the blast said in an interview with The New York Times that he believed Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals” to stop racial integration.
Members of the Klan had over time issued warnings and bomb threats to the church
The city also had one of the strongest and most brutal chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, no black police officers or firefighters and Eugene “Bull” Connor, the police commissioner, was renowned for his devotion to employing ruthless measures in dealing with blacks.
Bombings at black churches and properties were in fact not new to the city by 1963. It had because of their recurrent nature in previous years – although never resulting in fatalities until the 16th Street bombing – earned itself the nickname, “Bombingham.”
It was considered a focal chunk of the move to integrate the Deep South by civil rights activists and a few months before the 16th Street bombing, Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested there while spearheading a nonviolent campaign.
But just like the bombings, campaigns of this sort were not new to the city. Since the early 1960’s, the citiy’s streets had incessantly been walked by resilient activists in diverse protests for civil rights.
There had been the boycott intended to force business leaders to desegregate their employment policies led by Fred Shuttlesworth, then a succession of sit-ins and parades called Project C and proposed to incite mass arrests, then the engaging of elementary, high school, and college students to partake in non-violent demonstrations.
With it’s acicular steeples, lofty steps and refulgent windows, the 16th Street Baptist Church was a major player in these protests. It served as meeting place for the organizers and a large number of these marches began on the Church’s steps.
When the demonstrations by students was initiated in 1963, more than 1,000 students, some reportedly as young as eight, chose to leave school and to take a peaceful walk fifty at a time from the church.
This wave of activism had not gone unnoticed to supremacists, members of the Klan had over time issued warnings and bomb threats to the church and in a sense, September 15th 1963 was inevitable. The four Klansmen were known segregationists who had in times past engaged in other firebombings across the city.
While the FBI named them as the perpetrators in 1965, there was however because of a withholding of information by the bureau, no prosecution for the attack until 1977. All of the four men except Cash got life sentences, the latter never till his death in 1994 tried for his supposed involvement in the crime.
On September 18, at the funeral of all the girls killed in the bombing except Carol Robertson (her family had organized a private funeral) Martin Luther King Jr while addressing the crowd of over 3000 mourners said, “In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not become bitter. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Life is hard. At times as hard as crucible steel, but, today, you do not walk alone.”