16th Street Baptist Church bombing

The 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963 as an act of racially motivated terrorism. The explosion at the African-American church, which killed four girls, marked a turning point in the U.S. 1960s Civil Rights Movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Although city leaders had reached a settlement in May with demonstrators and started to integrate public places, not everyone agreed with ending segregation. Bombings and other acts of violence followed the settlement, and the church had become an inviting target. 

The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama had been a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963, and was where the students who were arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign’s Children’s Crusade were trained.

The church was used as a meeting-place for civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. Tensions were escalated when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) became involved in a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham.

Still, the campaign was successful. The demonstrations led to an agreement in May between the city’s African-American leaders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to integrate public facilities in the country.

In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash, and Robert Chambliss, members of United Klans of America, a Ku Klux Klan group, planted a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, near the basement. At about 10:22 a.m., twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for the sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives,” when the bomb exploded. Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack, and 22 additional people were injured, one of whom was Addie Mae Collins’ younger sister, Sarah. The explosion blew a hole in the church’s rear wall, destroyed the back steps and all but one stained-glass window, which showed Christ leading a group of little children.