A little more than two weeks had passed since the March on Washington climaxed the long summer of demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., seeking desegregation in Birmingham, an effort often punctuated by violence. There were so many bombings of black people’s homes in one section that it was known as Dynamite Hill.
That Sunday morning I was on duty at the Associated Press office in the Birmingham News building with one of the AP’s best photographers, Bill Hudson. We had talked before about the lull in the storm since the latest bombing of a civil rights attorney’s home after a few black people registered at white schools.
Alabama’s most prominent segregationist at the time, Gov. George Wallace, had come to Birmingham and talked about continuing to fight but counseled against violence — then congratulated Police Commissioner Bull Connor “for the fight he has made.” Connor had loosed police dogs and fire hoses on black teenagers trying to march downtown from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, headquarters for demonstrations.
Suddenly, the Sunday morning quiet was broken by a heavy booming sound. Bill and I jumped to our feet. Intuitively, I yelled, “It’s Sixteenth Street!” We rushed to the church. Smoke and dust from the bomb still hung in the air. Ambulances were carrying away the injured. Police and firemen dug through the rubble from the explosive that blasted a huge hole in the basement and hurled chunks of concrete into parked cars and buildings across the street. A police riot tank stood by as a crowd gathered.
It was like a war scene. Entering the sanctuary of the red brick building from the wide front steps, I walked over broken glass and debris that was strewn everywhere. Above the blast area, a staircase to the basement was blown loose, boards snapped like match sticks and scattered helter-skelter.
Then I found in the debris a piece of paper. It was the Sunday School lesson: “The Love that Forgives.”
The blast killed four young girls. They were 11-year-old Denise McNair, and Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson and Annie Mae Collins, all 14. Injured in the explosion were at least 21 other innocent souls whose only crime was the color of their skin. The four girls had not even taken part in the summer’s demonstrations.
Dr. King returned to Birmingham on a mission of sorrow, joining with other black leaders in appealing for restraint in the wake of a horrifying provocation. Birmingham police braced for the violent reaction they felt certain would follow the stunning atrocity. But the outbreak did not come. There was power in “The Love that Forgives.”
Sheriff Melvin Bailey of Jefferson County said, “Today has been the most distressing in the history of Birmingham.” Shocked white clergymen called for church bells to toll as a call to prayer. There were wild rumors of more bombings. But the schools opened on an integrated basis without trouble.
Two days later the funeral was held for Carol Robertson, and the next day King conducted services for the other three victims. He said the girls were heroines of a crusade for human dignity and freedom. “They have something to say,” he said, to every minister, to every politician, to the federal government, and to every black person “who has passively accepted the evil of segregation: They say we must substitute courage for caution.”
He counseled against despair. “We must not become bitter,” he said. “We must not lose faith in our white brothers.” A solitary shaft of sunlight streamed through a stained glass window high above and behind him. It stretched to one of the flower covered caskets.
Change was slow and elusive in Birmingham. An adviser to the mayor said, “I don’t see any real indication of any permanent change in the attitude of the white leaders or white people.” That change would be a long time in coming although the church bombing gave strong impetus to enactment of a civil rights bill by Congress and eventually Birmingham changed.
It was decades before three of the four Ku Klux Klansmen who carried out the bombing were convicted and sent to prison. The despicable act, unspeakable evil, ranks as the most heinous of the racist crimes in the long, bloody history of the South.