On September 15, 1963, two and a half weeks after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a dynamite bomb set by members of the Ku Klux Klan erupted, just as twenty six children walked into the basement assembly room of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were dressed in their “Youth Sunday” best, ready to lead the 11:00 adult service at the church, which since its construction in 1911 had served as the center of life for Birmingham’s African American community. Only a few minutes before the explosion, they had been together in the basement women’s room, excitedly talking about their first days at school. The bombing came without warning.
Following the tragic event, white strangers visited the grieving families to express their sorrow. At the funeral for three of the girls (one family preferred a separate, private funeral), Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about life being “as hard as crucible steel.” More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of both races, attended the service. No city officials braved the crowds to attend.
News stories circulated about symbolic incidents that occurred at the time of the bombing. For example, the image of Jesus’ face was knocked cleanly out of the only surviving stained-glass window in the church’s east wall, and the church clock stopped at exactly 10:22 a.m.
The deaths of the children followed by the loss of President Kennedy two months later gave birth to a tide of grief and anger–a surge of emotional momentum that helped ensure the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is located in Birmingham, Alabama, at the intersection of 16th Street and 6th Avenue. Tours are given 10 am to 4 pm, Tuesday through Friday and by appointment only on Saturdays. Groups should call 205-251-9402 to make arrangements.