Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

The Investigation Begins

Within days of the bombing, the national outcry became enormous. One Alabama newspaper said, "May God forgive the bombers who put a bloody amen to the hour of worship the shame will be ours forever." The Birmingham News wrote, "Not one word or a million makes up for the deaths of four innocent children in the Sunday School bombing yesterday morning." The Birmingham World said, "Is Birmingham a sick city? The United States government and other law enforcement agents must leave no stone unturned until the perpetrators of this heinous crime are brought to justice." President John F. Kennedy expressed grief and outrage from the White House at the "deplorable conditions in the state of Alabama." Even Governor George Wallace, the nation's most public supporter of segregation, was aghast. "It was a dastardly act by a demented fool," he said to reporters, "who has universal hate in his heart."

The FBI sent dozens of agents to Birmingham. This was in addition to the staffing that was already present to investigate the previous series of bombings. The FBI followed up hundreds of leads that poured into local law enforcement offices. The Alabama State Police and the Birmingham City police joined forces in an all-out effort to identify and apprehend the killers of the four girls. A reward fund grew to over $75,000 in just three days. Klan members were under scrutiny as never before and many of them became paid informers for the FBI

On September 30, three Birmingham men were arrested on charges of possessing dynamite. The suspects were identified as Charles Cagle, John Wesley Hall and Robert Chambliss, the same man who was observed near the church on the night of the explosion. Although they were not charged with the Sixteenth Street murders, investigators believed they were involved in the bombing. Chambliss, who was called "Dynamite Bob," was well known in Birmingham as an outspoken racist and a suspect in previous bombings. He was also a known member of the Ku Klux Klan. But Chambliss maintained a favored relationship with the city police department. It seemed he had open access to the police and occasionally rode along with cops on night patrols. "He kept a police band radio turned on most nights and 'helped' police in his local area, often arriving before the police," wrote his niece, Elizabeth H. Cobbs in Long Time Coming. "He caught one man under the 26th Street overpass and pistol-whipped him before the police arrived." It was said that Chambliss enjoyed the quiet approval of Chief "Bull" Connor himself and, therefore, was untouchable in the city of Birmingham.

The outcome of the charges against the three men confirmed that belief. They were fined $1,000 and given six-month jail sentences, which were suspended. In the meantime, the Klan, never squeamish when it came to spreading its twisted vision of America, refused to remain silent. "It's four less niggers tonight!" shouted the leader of a hate rally in Florida, "Good for whoever planted the bomb! We're all better off!"

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