Civil Rights History – Know It Or Repeat It

Heather Cox Richardson

At 10:22 this morning, a Jewish temple in Birmingham, Alabama, blew the shofar, and churches rang their bells four times. 

It was at that moment, sixty years ago, that a bomb ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was Youth Day in the historic brick church on Sunday, September 15, 1963, and five young girls dressed in their Sunday best were in the ladies’ lounge getting ready for their part in the Sunday service that was about to start. As Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins were chatting and adjusting their dresses, a charge of dynamite stashed under the steps that led to the church sanctuary blasted into the ladies lounge, killing the four girls instantly. Standing at the sink in the back of the room, Addie’s sister Sarah survived with serious injuries. 

Just five days before, Black children had entered formerly all-white schools after an August court order required an end to segregation in Birmingham’s public schools. This decision capped a fight over integration that had begun just after the May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision in which the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional. 

In that same year, in the wake of the successful 381-day Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott to protest that city’s segregated bus system, Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, along with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and strategist and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to challenge segregation through nonviolent protest, rather than trusting the work to the courts alone. 

On September 9, 1957, Shuttlesworth and his wife Ruby, along with other Black parents, tried to enroll their children in the city’s all-white flagship John Herbert Phillips High School. A mob of white Ku Klux Klansmen met them at the school, attacking them with chains and bats; someone stabbed Ruby Shuttlesworth in the hip with a pocketknife, and an amateur videographer captured a man named Bobby Frank Cherry on video reaching for brass knuckles before diving back into the attack on Shuttlesworth. 

Cherry had no children at the school.

Over the next several years, the Ku Klux Klan lost the political struggle over civil rights, and its members increasingly turned to public violence. There were so many bombings of civil rights leaders’ homes and churches that the city became known as “Bombingham.” When the Freedom Riders, civil rights workers who rode interstate buses in mixed-race groups to challenge segregation, came through Birmingham, police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor looked the other way as KKK members beat the riders with baseball bats, chains, rocks, and lead pipes. 

Connor was a perfect foil for civil rights organizers, who began a campaign of nonviolent direct action to challenge segregation in Birmingham. One of the organizers’ tactics was to attract national attention by provoking Connor, and participants in the movement began sit-ins at libraries, kneel-ins at white churches, and voter registration drives. Shuttlesworth invited King to Birmingham to help. 

In April 1963, Connor got an injunction barring the protests, and promised to fill the jails. He did. King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a product of Connor’s vow, smuggled out of jail on bits of paper given to him by a sympathetic inmate. In the letter, King responded to those who opposed the civil rights protests and, claiming to support civil rights, said that the courts were the proper venue to address social injustice. King agreed that the protests created tension, but he explained that such tension was constructive: it would force the city’s leaders to negotiate. “‘Wait,’” he reminded them, “has almost always meant ‘never.’”

But Connor’s tactics had the chilling effect he intended, as demonstrators shied away from being arrested out of fear of losing their jobs and being unable to provide for their families. So organizers decided to invite children to join a march to the downtown area. When the children agreed, the SCLC held workshops on the techniques of nonviolence and warned them of the danger they would be facing. 

On May 2, 1963, they gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church, just blocks away from Birmingham’s City Hall. As students moved toward City Hall in waves, singing “We Shall Overcome,” police officers arrested more than 600 of them and blocked the streets with fire trucks. The national news covered the story.

The next day, Bull Connor tried another tactic to keep the young protesters out of the downtown: fire hoses set to the highest pressure. When observers started to throw rocks and bottles at the police with the fire hoses, Connor told police officers to use German shepherd dogs to stop them. Images from the day made the national news and began to galvanize support for the protesters.

By May 6, Connor had turned the state fairgrounds into a makeshift jail to hold the overflow of protesters he was arresting, and national media figures, musicians, and civil rights activists were arriving in Birmingham. By May 7 the downtown was shut down while Connor arrested more people and used fire hoses again. The events in Birmingham were headline news. 

By May 10, local politicians under pressure from businessmen had agreed to release the people who had been arrested; to desegregate lunch counters, drinking fountains, and bathrooms; and to hire Black people in a few staff jobs. 

After Connor’s insistence that he would never permit desegregation, white supremacists in Birmingham felt betrayed by the new deal, basic though it was. Violence escalated over the summer, even as King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was widely published and praised and as civil rights activists, fresh from the Birmingham campaign, on August 28 held the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., where King delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. 

For white supremacists in Birmingham, the children and the 16th Street Baptist Church where they had organized were the symbols of the movement that had beaten them. 

Their fury escalated in summer 1963 when a lawsuit the Reverend Shuttlesworth had filed to challenge segregation in public schools ended in August with a judge ordering Birmingham public schools to desegregate. 

Five days after the first Black children entered a white school as students, four members of the Cahaba River Group, which had splintered off from another Ku Klux Klan group because they didn’t think it was aggressive enough, took action. Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, and Bobby Frank Cherry—the same man who in 1957 had beaten the Reverend Shuttlesworth with brass knuckles for trying to enroll his children in school—bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. “Just wait until Sunday morning and they’ll beg us to let them segregate,” Chambliss had told his niece. 

The death of innocent children—on a Sunday morning, in a house of God—at the hands of white supremacists drew national attention. It woke up white people who had previously been leery of civil rights protests, making them confront the horror of racial violence in the South. Support for civil rights legislation grew, and in 1964 that support helped legislators to pass the Civil Rights Act. 

Still, it seemed as if the individual bombers would get away with their crimes. In 1968, the FBI investigation ended without indictments.

But it turned out the story wasn’t over. Bill Baxley, a young law student at the University of Alabama in 1963, was so profoundly outraged by the bombing that he vowed someday he would do something about it. In 1970, voters elected Baxley to be Alabama’s attorney general. He reopened the case, famously responding to a Ku Klux Klan threat by responding on official state letterhead: “kiss my *ss.” 

The reluctance of the FBI to share its evidence meant that Baxley charged and convicted only Robert Chambliss—whose nickname in 1963 was “Dynamite Bob”—for the murder of Denise McNair. 

But still the story wasn’t over. Another young lawyer named Doug Jones was in the courtroom during that trial, and in 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Jones as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Jones pursued the case, uncovering old evidence and finding new witnesses. Herman Cash had died, but in 2001 and 2002, representing the state of Alabama, Jones successfully prosecuted Thomas Edwin Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for first-degree murder. 

Chambliss, Cherry, and Blanton all died in prison: Chambliss in 1985, Cherry in 2004. Blanton died in 2020.

Leave a Reply