Lessons from Birmingham: 60 years after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing

On Sept. 15, 1963 the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. This week, the city is remembering one of the darkest chapters in civil rights history. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for NPR)

Birmingham, Alabama, is remembering one of the nation’s darkest chapters in civil rights history. On September 15, 1963 the Ku Klux Klan bombed a downtown church, killing four Black girls and rocking the conscience of the nation.

Carolyn McKinstry was the Sunday School secretary at 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 and remembers the day of bombing in vivid detail.

“Our lesson for that Sunday morning was a love that forgives,” she recalls. “It was youth Sunday. Everyone was excited about that.”

McKinstry, 15 at the time, retraces her footsteps through the church that day, starting in the basement, where Sunday School classes were held. She left early to take the collection upstairs to the church office.

“When I reached the top of the stairs, the phone is ringing and there’s a male caller on the other end who simply says ‘three minutes.’ And as quickly as he says that he hangs up.”

Moments later the bomb went off, shattering stained glass windows and shaking the building.

“When the bomb exploded you heard screaming,” McKinstry says. “And I heard someone say, ‘hit the floor.'”

She scooted under the first pew in the sanctuary where she remained until she heard the rest of the congregation fleeing the building.

Klansmen had planted the bomb beneath a stairwell on the side of the church. She later learned four of her classmates were killed – 11-year-old Denise McNair, and Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, all 14.

Now McKinstry and other survivors of the blast say there are lessons for the country today in a climate where politicians are seeking to whitewash racist history.

“60 years later, I see things that are frighteningly reminiscent of what happened in the 1960s,” says McKinstry.

Sarah Collins Rudolph was 12 at the time.

“I am the 5th little girl that survived the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing,” she says.

She was in the ladies’ lounge freshening up with the four other girls, including her sister Addie Mae who was helping Denise McNair tie the sash on her purple plaid dress.

“And when she reached her hand out to tie it – boom!”

Collins Rudolph says she called out her sister’s name but got no answer.

“I didn’t know what had happened,” she says.

A deacon dug her out of the rubble and she was taken by ambulance to the hospital with shrapnel in her eyes, face and body.

Her wounds remain, both physical and emotional. She lost an eye, and wears a prosthetic. There’s still glass embedded in her other eye.

“I had a lot of fear during that time,” she says. “Every time I would hear a loud sound, I would jump. Still doing that today.”

Collins Rudolph has tried to get restitution from the state of Alabama, arguing political leaders of the day helped foment the violence that killed the girls and injured her. But no compensation has come.

She takes solace in how the bombing drew attention to the brutal tactics employed to maintain white supremacy in the American South.

A day later, on September 16, 1963, President John F. Kennedy condemned the racial violence in Birmingham.

“If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and state – if they can only awaken this entire nation to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence – then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost,” he said in a statement.

The events in Birmingham galvanized Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.

“Our history changed things,” says Collins Rudolph. “Those girls did not die in vain. And I thank God for that.”

But in Birmingham, change was slow to come. Racially-motivated bombings continued in the city nicknamed “Bombingham” for the sheer number of attacks on Black homes, churches, and businesses that went unpunished. The 16th Street Church had been targeted because it was used as a gathering place for protesters during the Birmingham movement.

Bombing survivor Carolyn McKinstry remembers her confusion when the church reopened after repairs.

“There was no memorial,” she says. “I thought I would see their names on the doors or something. And there was nothing.”

No one even talked about what happened.

“There were no sermons about the evil that had happened here or the people that perpetuated the evil.”

McKinstry believes no one talked about it out of fear and futility, knowing that racial crimes were left unsolved. There was a bombing across from her home months after the church was hit, which only added to her trauma, something she struggled with for decades.

“I was 15 when the bomb exploded, but I would remain 15 years old for the next 20 years,” she says. “I was really stuck in that place, primarily because I never saw anyone arrested or taken to justice for this.”

The FBI determined that four members of a local KKK klavern known as the “Cahaba River Bridge Boys” were responsible for the bombing. But the first prosecution didn’t come until 1977. Then two more in the early 2000s. The fourth killer died, never being brought to account.

“It was an unsolved murder in which there were four families that were destroyed, and those families never had had the full measure of justice,” says former U.S. Senator Doug Jones, who was the U.S. Attorney in Alabama who re-opened and prosecuted the case nearly 40 years later.

“I don’t think I recognized it as much at the time, but over time, it has become so important for people to reflect on where we were as a country,” he says. “Where we were as a people, and how divided we were under Jim Crow laws and how horrific those were. And how political leaders can sometimes stoke violence.”

The bombing came three months after Alabama’s staunch segregationist Gov. George Wallace had tried to defy the federal courts and block Black students from enrolling in the University of Alabama. Now it was Fall and public schools were desegregating.

Jones says the overall climate gave the Klan cover to wreak terror. He’s worried that the country is backtracking today.

“It’s not just black and white now,” he says. “It’s against folks because of their sexual orientation. It’s against folks based on their religion, their national origin. Hate crimes are on the rise. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. We are being divided more and more.”

Events in Birmingham this week seek to lift up the lessons of history at a time when there’s a growing conservative political movement to squash discussions of race and equity.

Lisa McNair walks along an open corridor on the second floor of City Hall, where she has helped curate an exhibit of her father’s photographs during the civil rights era. She’s the younger sister of Denise McNair, one of the four girls killed in the bombing.

Her father, Chris McNair, was a prominent photographer and later, local politician.

“Being a Black photographer that meant you got to see it from a different perspective as an African-American,” she says.

There are intimate pictures of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., including the day he was released after writing his famous “letter from Birmingham jail.” And, chillingly, one image of the bombed-out 16th Street Baptist Church that Chris McNair took shortly after identifying his daughter Denise with a piece of mortar lodged in her forehead.

“It was the only picture he shot that day of the bombing,” she says.

Lisa McNair was born a year later, and says she still can’t imagine what her parents went through.

“The heaviness in the waiting, not knowing whether she was alive or dead. And then finding out,” she says. “There’s just immense grief and sadness.”

Sitting down to reflect after walking through the exhibit, Lisa McNair, who still lives in Birmingham, says 60 years later there remains a sense of urgency to preserve this history.

“It took us from slavery to 100 years toward desegregation,” she says.

“We have to pay attention. We have to know our history. We got to keep talking and our stories have got to keep being shared so that everybody will know.”

McNair says that’s the best way to stand up for a better Alabama, and a better America.

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