Black History and the Civil Rights movement
In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama it was tough to be a black teenager. Race relations were reaching a boiling point. At the Sixteenth Baptist Church, luminaries like Dr. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy met to discuss tactics and ways to defuse the crisis while advancing the cause of civil rights.
Cynthia Wesley was fourteen years old on that Sunday in September. She loved the choir and was an honor student at Ullman High School. September 15 was just like any other Sunday – get up, eat breakfast with her parents, get ready for church. Claude and Gertrude Wesley adopted her as a baby and gave her a loving home.
Everything was normal … until hate came to visit. At 10:22 am, the church phone rang. The anonymous caller said, “Three minutes,” and hung up. Less than a minute later, a bomb went off. The explosion blew a hole measuring seven feet (2.1 m) in diameter in the church’s rear wall, and a crater five feet (1.5 m) wide and two feet (0.61 m) deep in the ladies’ basement lounge, destroying the rear steps to the church and blowing a passing motorist out of his car. Five children, including Cynthia, were in the church basement, changing into choir robes, ready to sing for the sermon, A Love that Forgives. The force of the blast, from fifteen sticks of dynamite, propelled the girls’ bodies high in the air and wounded scores of others. Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson also died in the blast.
The dynamite was planted by Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry – all members of the KKK. Addie Mae’s younger sister, 12-year-old Sarah Collins was also injured in the blast, with twenty-one pieces of embedded glass, and lost the use of an eye.
The bombing was in response to the street demonstrations the previous May, where over one thousand took to the streets, including school children, to demand racial equality. The city leaders agreed after some hesitation to a plan for integration, beginning on September 4. Less than two weeks after the integration started, the KKK bombed the church where many of the seminal meetings had taken place. Birmingham was a very different place in those days – there were no black policemen or firemen, and it was purposefully difficult for black people to register to vote. Prior to the Sixteenth Street bombing, twenty-one black homes and churches were bombed, but until that point, there were no fatalities.
Alabama Governor George Wallace granted an interview with The New York Times in which he said he believed Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals” to stop racial integration. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the bombing as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity”. It is difficult to believe now that Wallace was once a major third-party candidate for the presidency of the United States – but he was.
Justice for Cynthia and her friends was not swift. Witnesses were intimidated, physical evidence lacking or tampered with. No charges were filed until more than seven years after the bombing. In 1971, William Baxley, who had been a law student at the time of the bombing, was sworn in as attorney general of Alabama. He was determined to get to the bottom of the case. Baxley determined that the FBI had withheld evidence from local authorities and in a five-year fight, won access to the FBI records.
Due to Baxley’s efforts, on November 14, 1977, Robert Chambliss, then aged 73, stood trial in Birmingham’s Jefferson County Courthouse, charged with the murder of the four children. The judge ruled in a pre-trial hearing that Chambliss would only be charged with the murder of Carol McNair, not the other three children – and set Chambliss free on $200,000 bail. Chambliss pleaded not guilty, in spite of records showing that he purchased dynamite prior to the bombing, and was a known member of the KKK. Reverend Elizabeth Cobb, a niece of Chambliss, testified that her uncle boasted about his running battle with the blacks, and having enough dynamite to flatten half of Birmingham. Chambliss, however, flatly denied that he bombed the church, saying it was really Thomas Rowe. On November 18, 1977, Chambliss was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison – he died October 29, 1985, at the age of 81 in the hospital. Rowe was investigated but never prosecuted.
The other named clan members were arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. A 1980 Justice Department report had concluded that J. Edgar Hoover had blocked prosecution of the four suspects of the bombing in 1965.