Friday, March 30, 2012
The Birmingham Church Bombing: The Day That Time Stood StilH
By MADELINE FICHTNER
(Note: The author, Madeline Fichtner, is an eighth grade student in Mr. Randy Turner's communication arts class at Joplin East Middle School.)
The clock froze at 10:22 as the explosion rocked 16th Street Baptist Church. The girls in the basement bathroom were Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, and Sarah Collins. Only Sarah survived, and she was blinded. It was Sunday, September 15th, 1963, a day that would be remembered as Birmingham Sunday. The men who did this horrendous crime? Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry, Robert Chambliss, and Herman Frank Cash. Three were convicted; Herman had died a few years before he could be convicted. In Birmingham, bombings were common. So common, in fact, the city had become known as “Bombingham.” There hadn’t been any serious injuries until September 15th. But the story doesn’t end there.
It was youth Sunday at the church that served as the center of the civil rights movement. (Currie 12). The spiritual leader of the church was reverend Fred Shuttleworth, whose home had been bombed no less than three times. Five little girls were primping in the bathroom of the church. The girls were Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, and Sarah Collins. No one knew that these laughs might be their last. What happened next would be forever burned into the minds of Americans.
The bomb under the steps went off at 10:22 on September 15th, 1963. "It sounded like the whole world was shaking," said Reverend Cross later in court. "And the building, I thought, was going to collapse!" (http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/terrorists_spies/terrorists/birmingham_church/4.html). On the other side of the wall was a bathroom containing the girls. The explosion injured 16 people other than the girls: nine black males, five black females, and two white females. (FBI files). Denise’s body was pulled out first followed by Addie, Cynthia and Carole. A boy named Virgil Ware and James Robinson died also that day after being shot. (Currie, 17). A mayor’s aide, Charles Vann, was on his way to the scene and saw Robert Chambliss. He later told the press that the man was “looking down toward the 16th street Baptist church like a firebug watching his fire.” (http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/terrorists_spies/terrorists/birmingham_church/5.html)
The girls that died that day were all exceptional children. Cynthia always wanted to help others and was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Wesley. Cynthia was said to be a delightful young lady. Carole always just wanted to teach history and dance in her free time. Carolyn Lee Brown said, “[Carole] was a very giving, outgoing person.” Carole was in the band, and she was supposed to play at her first football game the following day. Obviously, she didn’t get to. Carole had a bible in her pocketbook the day of the explosion, which her mother still keeps. Addie was a quiet girl and, given she hadn’t died, probably would have become a social worker, or even a teacher. Her sister said, “to know Addie is to love Addie.” After she was killed, her other sister, Junie, frequently had panic attacks. Denise was involved in the cause in which she died for. She wanted nothing more than to fight for the cause of equal rights. Her aunt, Helen Pegues, said, “ I think she spent most of her time trying to do for other children.” But they would never get the chance to. (Brimmer, 34-37) (4 little girls). The explosion blinded Sarah Collins. She spent two full months in the hospital with 21 shards of glass embedded in her face. (Currie, 16, 21). Denise had a chunk of concrete imbedded in her skull. (4 little girls.)
Immediately after the explosion military jets of bomb experts were flown to Birmingham to investigate. Activists believed that Governor Wallace was behind the murders, as he had said a few days earlier, “we need a few first-class funerals to stop integration in Alabama.” And that was exactly what happened. But instead of dousing the flames, it only made them burn brighter than ever. (www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2007/september/bapbomb_292609) Rev. John Bevel said, “it was like someone was hitting me with hot steel, and I felt personally insulted because it was like they knew these children was using this church and it was like they knew these children was using this church and they really felt insulted because these children has defeated them, right? So its like they’re coming back on these children to say, ‘we will tech you a lesson’ and its like, ‘no, we will teach you a lesson.’” (4 little girls) Rev. John Cross said that the people responsible would be brought to justice (Currie, 32) and within days the police had four suspects. (http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/1963_birmingham_church_bombing.htm)
The civil rights leaders, including rev. bevel and martin Luther king Jr., wanted to plan a mass funeral, but Carole Robertson’s family wanted a quiet, private funeral. At the mass funeral, there was singing and a speech by Dr. King. (4 little girls)
The first arrest was of Robert Chambliss. On October 8th, 1963, he was convicted of murder and possession of 122 sticks of dynamite. He was found not guilty of murder and got six months of jail time for the dynamite.
The case remained unsolved until bill Baxley, attorney general of Alabama requested the original FBI files and discovered that J. Edgar Hoover had a lot of evidence against Chambliss that hadn’t been used in the original trial. (www.4littlegirls.com)
In November of 1977, a 73-year-old Chambliss was tried again. His defense attorney was Arthur Hanes Jr. (4 little girls) He was convicted of one count of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison and died there in 1985.
(http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAC16.htm) The people who convicted him included Mrs. Glenn, who identified him as the man who set the dynamite, and Yvonne young, who accidently walked into a room filled with dynamite on her way to find the bathroom. (www.useekufind.com/peace/trial.htm)
In 1988, Frank Herman Cash was indicted but never formally charged and died before the charges could be pressed. 1n 1997, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were charged with murder. Blanton was tried and convicted on May 1st, 2001. (http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1744). It took the jury just two hours to convict him. (www.4littlegirls.com).
Cherry’s trial was pushed back because he was deemed “too mentally unstable to help the lawyer with his own defense. Later he was ready to stand trial, and on May 22nd, 2002, he was convicted of the murder of all four girls and was sentenced to life in prison. (http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1744) Bobby was said to be an uneducated, abusive redneck. (Currie, 20).
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the bombing. Remember the girls who paid the price for a nation’s ignorance. And as it was said, “On Birmingham Sunday, the blood ran like wine, and the choir kept singing of freedom.”
· 4 little girls. Director Spike Lee. 40 Acres & A Mule Film works, 1997. DVD.
· Currie, Stephen. The Birmingham Church Bombings. Detroit, MI: Thompson Gale, 2006.
· Brimmer, Larry Dan. Birmingham Sunday. Honesdale, PA: Calkins creek, 2010.
· McKinstry, Carolyn. While the World Watched. USA, Tyndale, 2011.