Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

The Bombing

By 9 a.m. on September 15, 1963, the class, which consisted of 80 teenage girls, began to assemble in the lobby of the Sixteenth Street Bethel Baptist Church. Though it was still summer, the morning was cool and crisp, with a temperature just into the 60s. Autumn was only a week away and it would be a welcome relief from the summer heat. Ella C. Demand led the class and the focus of instruction was "the love that forgives." The girls descended into the basement while several hundred adults, who were attending formal Sunday services, were in the area on the first floor directly above Mrs. Demand's class. Most of the girls knew each other and had grown up in the same neighborhood. They had attended the same schools and were all members of the same church.

The spiritual leader of the church was Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, whose home had been bombed no less than three times. Once, on Christmas Day 1958, his home was completely demolished by an explosion. Police Chief Connor's reaction was to ask Reverend Shuttlesworth to take a lie detector test to clear his name in the bombing of his own house. These tactics attempted to place suspicion on leaders of the black civil rights movement. The goal was to portray them as "rabble-rousers," agitators or un-American. They were frequently described as Communist sympathizers.

As Reverend John Cross delivered his sermon to a packed church, the girls listened attentively to Mrs. Demand's instruction in the basement. There were a few latecomers and the students turned to look as they entered the large room. Denise McNair, 12, who was in the Brownies and loved to play baseball, strolled in from the lounge area. She saw Addie Mae Collins, 14, sitting on the floor giggling with her classmates. In the group were Cynthia Wesley, 14, who played in the local school band, and Carol Robertson, 14, who aspired to be a singer. It was a friendly time and most of the group undoubtedly was looking forward to the end of Sunday class so they could return to their homes and play for the rest of the beautiful day. Then, at 10:22 a.m., their world ended.

A massive explosion shook the church to its foundation. The noise was deafening. The entire Sixteenth Street wall of the building collapsed into the room amid screams of terror. Broken glass flew through the air like bullets. Rocks and chunks of mortar crashed into the ceiling and into opposite ends of the basement. Those that survived said the incredible force of the explosion propelled the little girls through the air like rag dolls. "It sounded like the whole world was shaking," said Reverend Cross later in court. "And the building, I thought, was going to collapse!" All the stained glass windows in the upper part of the church were shattered. The basement room filled with fine dust and all the lights went out. But one windowpane, which later became symbolic of the explosion, had remained mostly intact. Only the face of Jesus had been blown away.

"We've been bombed!" someone screamed. Almost immediately, people who had been attending services upstairs ran toward the sound of the explosion. Some did not know where it originated, only that it was somewhere in the church. Maxine McNair, Denise's mother, had been in the choir area with friends and upon hearing the explosion, began screaming. She and the others started down the steps toward street level.

Addie May Collins, victim
Addie May Collins, victim

"My baby, my baby!" she cried. As the adults reached the basement steps, which had been demolished by the blast, some of the frightened children began crawling out through the wreckage. A few of the wounded had to be pulled from the rubble by other children. But others were missing. As the children lay bleeding in the streets, rescue units began arriving. Crowds of neighborhood youths descended on the Sixteenth Street Church as the stunning news raced through the black community like an electric current.

"They bombed our children!" someone cried in agony.

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