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How This Infamous Civil Rights-Era Church Bombing Still Haunts America

On Sept. 15, 1963, a Ku Klux Klan attack in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four Black girls. Sixty years on, white supremacist violence continues.

A photograph of 11-year-old Denise McNair, who was killed on Sept. 15, 1963, in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is part of the "Say Their Names" memorial on Boston Common in Boston in November 2020. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Lisa McNair never knew her sister, Denise. But Denise’s story has always been with her.

Sixty years ago, on Sept. 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan planted some 15 sticks of dynamite under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which was a nucleus of the Civil Rights Movement. Right before 10:30 a.m., they detonated the bomb. The explosion killed four Black girls who’d been in a basement restroom, changing into their choir robes before the Sunday sermon: Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; Carole Robertson, 14; and Denise McNair, 11.

Addie Mae’s 12-year-old sister, Sarah, survived the blast but was seriously injured.

At a funeral service for three of the girls, Martin Luther King Jr. denounced the attack as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” and he expressed hope that it might “cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”

Lisa McNair was born about a year after the blast.

“You can imagine what an awful experience that was when my parents lost Denise. She was their only child at the time,” McNair told Capital B. “Learning that people had killed my sister simply because they didn’t like the color of her skin was my first memory. It was just our lot in life: As Black people in the U.S., we could be killed for absolutely no reason.”

Mourners gather for a funeral service in late September 1963 for one of the victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. (Burton McNeely/Getty Images)

That sentiment — “we could be killed for absolutely no reason” — also describes Black Americans’ present-day racial reality, scholars say.

The 60th anniversary of the bombing, which reanimated the Black freedom struggle and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, arrives at a moment when Black communities are recovering from another act of racist violence. Last month, a white gunman killed three Black people at a Dollar General in Jacksonville, Florida. This massacre mirrored two other racist shootings from the past decade — the 2022 attack at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, and the 2015 attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina — that together killed 19 Black people.

All three shootings were committed by white men who, on the surface, seemed to be lone wolves. But they were actually bolstered by online communities and modern propaganda that hearkened back to the racist rhetoric spewed by Klansmen and others within state- and community-sanctioned hate groups.

Indeed, the important link between the anti-Black violence of the ’60s and the anti-Black violence of today, said Omar Wasow, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is “the overarching notion that one group should be free to dominate another — and that then justifies the brutality that follows.”

‘They lashed out’

Understanding the devastation of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing and the ongoing danger of racist violence requires understanding the white supremacist terror movement of the ’60s.

If we were to transport ourselves to April 1963, we’d witness events such as the Birmingham campaign, which drew attention to the cruelty of segregation in the Deep South via nonviolent direct action, explained T. Marie King, a local activist. She’s also the co-producer of a 2022 documentary about Fred Shuttlesworth, a former pastor of Bethel Baptist Church and a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“You had more than 60 Black churches involved, hosting meetings for their congregations to make sure that they were aware of what was going on,” King said, adding that there were lots of ways people contributed. “You had Shelley Stewart, who was a DJ and used the airwaves to keep people informed. You had Shuttlesworth, who’d gathered folks around smaller challenges and was now saying, ‘We have a larger system to tackle. This is how we’re going to do it.’”

This advocacy included sit-ins and boycotts. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested not long after the campaign’s launch. During his time in prison, he wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

More than 1,000 Black students joined the cause and marched in May in an event known as the Children’s Crusade; images of police officers confronting the students with dogs and high-pressure fire hoses outraged the world.

Organizers’ efforts forced the city to desegregate by the end of the summer. But they also angered the Ku Klux Klan, according to Barry McNealy, the historical content expert at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

“Integration spurred the United Klans of America to respond by planting that awful bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,” he said. “Black people felt that the movement was successful. They were engaged and energized. But at the same time, they were very quickly reminded that there were those who didn’t want things to change. And they lashed out.”

Between 1947 and 1965, dozens of bombings targeting integration efforts occurred in Birmingham. The scale of the assaults was so massive that the city acquired a nickname: Bombingham. And in Smithfield, a neighborhood west of the city center, the blasts were frequent enough that the area became known as Dynamite Hill.

Mere hours after Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, two Black boys, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware, were shot to death.

Crucially, the attack at the church marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

“For us,” said the Rev. Thomas Wilder, the current pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, which was bombed three times in the ’50s and ’60s, “1963 was a culminating event. The shock of four little girls being killed in church on Sunday morning made the whole country wake up. Before, there were isolated attacks that people might not have known about. But the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was covered everywhere. The shame of it was just too much to bear, and something had to be done.”

Investigators and spectators gather outside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, following the Sept. 15, 1963, explosion that killed four Black girls. (Associated Press)

The killings, along with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22 of that year, galvanized support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the greatest achievements of the era, the law helped to banish the Deep South’s apartheid conditions.

The persistence of racial hierarchies

We can detect echoes between the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing and recent tragedies, making the 60th anniversary all the more sobering, McNealy said. He was referring to the Jacksonville shooting.

On Aug. 26, a 21-year-old white gunman killed Angela Michelle Carr, 52; Jerrald Gallion, 29; and Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr., 19. The attack occurred in New Town, a historically Black neighborhood. T.K. Waters, the Jacksonville sheriff, said at a press conference that day that the gunman, who earlier had been chased away from a nearby HBCU, specifically targeted Black people: “Any member of that race at that time,” Waters said, “was in danger.”

McNealy also stressed his concern about Republican lawmakers’ maneuvering to censor classroom instruction about race and racism and scale back the rights revolution of previous decades. This climate, he explained, “has made highlighting the 60th anniversary an urgent mission.”

This isn’t to suggest that there are no differences between the anti-Black violence of the ’60s and what we see today. For one thing, online networks over the past 10 years or so have modernized the organization of anti-Black violence and made it easier for adherents to connect and build community, media experts have found.

“The internet has enabled a different kind of racist violence. Their actions might be individual, but the people committing this violence aren’t self-radicalizing. They’re radicalizing in networks of like-minded racists and antisemites,” Wasow said.

He also mentioned that other prejudices have recently gained prominence. For the iteration of the Ku Klux Klan that formed in response to the Civil Rights Movement, the contestation was about maintaining Jim Crow. Today, as race remains at the center of the country’s social and political conflicts, we see white supremacists more obviously embrace a range of bigotries, including transphobia.

All that being said, downplaying parallels would be rash, per scholars and advocates.


Read more: Racist Policies, Racist Attack: Jacksonville Deplores Lack of Black History Education


In a 2013 interview with the progressive news show Democracy Now!, the philosopher and political activist Angela Davis, who grew up in the Dynamite Hill neighborhood, underscored her fear that observances of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing were “just to close the book on the racist violence of the Civil Rights era so that we can embalm that violence and transform it into something to be gazed at through the conventional lens of the museum.”

She went on, saying that “just as sediments of slavery are still with us, most dramatically represented by the country’s incarceration practices and by the racism of the death penalty, the vestiges of an era where racist violence was the norm and was condoned by officials, from local governments to Washington, are still haunting us.”

Wasow shared similar sentiments. He told Capital B that an important way the present resembles the past is that, over and over again, we see vigilantism directed at Black Americans. While these acts can mobilize people against such brutality, they also are just incredibly tragic.

“There’s still a philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior, and those ideas — under Jim Crow and in the present — continue to motivate many people, and make them think that they’re on the side of angels when they engage in terror against innocent people,” Wasow said, referencing an October 1963 speech to the United Nations by Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia, in which he appealed for a worldwide end to racial discrimination.

These days, Lisa McNair, who last year released a book, Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knew, travels the country to speak with different groups about the ongoing fight for racial equality. She also is a board member of The Morgan Project, a Birmingham-based nonprofit that “seeks to introduce evidence-based lessons into classrooms” on the Civil Rights Movement, according to the organization’s website.

She lamented that she knows people who are unaware of this past — have never heard of Emmett Till or a number of other Black Americans killed during that time. Remedying this information gap, she insisted, is vital.

“Everyone needs to be educated about what our history is,” McNair said. “It’s not all pretty. But it still needs to be told.”


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