Cover Story
Associated Press

Birmingham +50

Civil Rights | Relations between blacks and whites have improved in what was once a hotbed of racist violence, but a lot of work remains

Issue: "50 years after the bomb," Sept. 21, 2013

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Police believe that after midnight on Sept. 15, 1963, four white Klansmen planted 11 sticks of dynamite wrapped in paper in the basement stairwell of 16th Street Baptist Church, a Birmingham church founded by emancipated slaves in 1873. That September, the first few African-American children had integrated the white Birmingham public schools. The furious Klansmen set the timer on the bomb for Sunday morning.

The church had designated that day as Youth Sunday. As Sunday school classes finished before the worship service, a gaggle of girls in the downstairs bathroom prepared for their special roles. Cynthia Wesley, 14, and Carole Robertson, 14, were planning to serve as ushers. Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Denise McNair, 11, would sing in the choir. The lesson in their mothers’ Sunday school class that morning was titled, “The Love That Forgives.” 

Segregationists were detonating bombs all over Birmingham in 1963. In May, they bombed the front half of Rev. A.D. King’s home. The minister and his family, in the back rooms, survived uninjured. That same day two bombs exploded at the Gaston Motel, where civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., had been meeting. No one died. Twice, once in August and again in September, they bombed the home of one of the first black lawyers to practice in Alabama, Arthur Shores. One blast knocked his wife unconscious. No one died.  

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At 10:22 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1963, the dynamite exploded feet from where Cynthia, Carole, Addie Mae, and Denise were preparing for the service. The pastor of the church at the time, John Cross, was one of the first to the rubble, and he and others dug out the bodies. He didn’t recognize the girls because they were so burned and disfigured. “They were all on top of each other, as if they had hugged each other,” Cook related in an oral history for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. 

He found Addie Mae’s sister Sarah in the bathroom too, alive but with her face covered in blood. She lost an eye. Other children had sprinted away from the church after the bomb went off: Frantic parents found them scattered across downtown Birmingham.

The bombing shifted the course of the civil rights movement, erasing any possible ambivalence. “No matter who you are, or what color you are, when a kid is killed, it throws a different light on things,” said Tom Cherry, the son of one of the convicted bombers, decades later in an interview with Texas Monthly. A question now: What came of those deaths? What has changed in Birmingham in the 50 years since that bomb exploded?

Fifty years later, the South has become a better place for blacks to live. African-American church leaders in Birmingham agree that race relations between blacks and whites have massively improved, and they think it’s in part because black Southern churches were the heart of the civil rights movement in the first place. But despite all these positive developments African-American church leaders today see growing disparities and systemic divides that aren’t unique to the South. 

“All is not well because you can’t legislate love,” said Janice Kelsey, a lifelong Birmingham resident and an African-American.

A few months before the bombing, teenager Kelsey had joined a children’s march in Birmingham that police disbursed with water hoses and dogs. Kelsey, arrested, spent four days in jail. Her school expelled her, but a court reversed that. No court could reverse the 16th Street explosion, which killed Janice’s friend, Cynthia. Despite that horror, Kelsey has stayed in Birmingham her whole life and watched her city change. She is now a deacon at Greater Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, which four months ago invited Shade Mountain Baptist, a white church in a wealthy Birmingham suburb, to come into a poor area of Birmingham, the West End, for a joint worship service.

At the joint service the black church choir sang, bringing the house down. Then the white choir sang, without exactly bringing the house down, but the black congregation clapped and shouted encouragement. Shade Mountain pastor Danny Wood preached, and tried to adapt to his audience talking back to him with words of encouragement during the sermon. After Wood’s sermon, Greater Shiloh pastor Michael Wesley stood up and said, “If we can meet here it has a chance to happen in municipalities. It has a chance to happen in cities. It has a chance to happen around the world.”

It was the first time in its 122 years of existence that Greater Shiloh had held a joint service with a white church. Wesley told me he and Wood have connected over their shared vision for the city and their desires for church growth. Wesley hopes Shade Mountain will help his church develop leaders, and he has encouraged his congregation to meet with Shade Mountain leaders and learn what they do day to day. He has told Wood that his church might have something to learn from Greater Shiloh, too: Their churches have begun doing service projects in Birmingham together. 

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