This Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the reprehensible bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young girls were killed while attending Sunday School.
The victims are pictured above. Going clockwise (from the top left) are Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Cynthia Wesley (age 14), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Denise McNair (age 11—a friend and schoolmate of 8-year-old Condoleeza Rice, who could hear the bomb down the street from her father’s church).
No one was convicted of the crime at the time, though Klansman Robert Chambliss (1904-1985), nicknamed “Dynamite Bob,” was a suspect. Eight years later, in 1971, the case was reopened, and in 1977 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He died at the age of 81, proclaiming his innocence.
In 2001-2002, three co-conspirators were also declared guilty: Herman Cash died before he could be charged; Bobby Frank Cherry died in prison in 2004; and Thomas E. Blanton Jr. is still serving a life sentence at the age of 82.
Timothy George narrates the story of one young woman, Carolyn Maull McKinstry, who was in the church when the bomb ripped through the building:
It was gray and overcast on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963. Some rain had fallen in the night, but no one knew that the heavens would weep again before the day was done. It was “Youth Sunday” at the church, and Pastor John Cross had announced that he would preach a sermon titled ”A Love that Forgives” based on the Gospel text in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Carolyn Maull, 14, the Sunday School secretary, hurried to fulfill her responsibilities. She greeted visitors, counted Sunday School offerings, and reported the day’s attendance. In the brief interval between Sunday School and the morning worship service, Carolyn stopped by the girls’ restroom and spoke to her friends, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, who was 11. She left the restroom, walked up the stairs to the church office, and answered the ringing phone. A man’s voice said simply: “Three minutes.” He hung up.
Carolyn felt confused. She walked into the sanctuary, where the clock hanging on the wall indicated that the time was 10:22 a.m. Then she heard the blast. Boom! For a second, she thought it was thunder or a lightning strike. Then she realized—it must be a bomb. She vividly remembers two things from that horror-filled moment: the sound of feet scurrying past her to get to the exits, and looking up at the stained glass window—the same one that had brought her such comfort when she looked into the face of Jesus at her baptism. The window was still intact . . . all except the face. Jesus’ beautiful face was gone.
This coming Sunday, September 15, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the bomb that shook the church and changed the world. The theme for the service will once again be “A Love that Forgives.” The clock on the wall has been left as it was at the moment of the bombing, a lasting reminder of what happened fifty years ago at 10:22 a.m. But the face of Jesus in the church window, shattered by hate fifty years ago, has since been restored, so that the Savior looks down in mercy and love once again.
You can read his whole piece here.
On September 18, 1963, three days after the attack, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offered his “Eulogy for the Young Victims.” King said that “These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” He argued that “in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death.” He insisted that “they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.”
King also pastorally addressed the bereaved families: “I hope you can find some consolation from Christianity’s affirmation that death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal.”
You can listen to the entire eulogy below:
You can also watch Spike Lee’s 1997 Academy-nominated documentary, 4 Little Girls, here: