September 15, 1963: Birmingham Sunday

Birmingham1It was Youth Sunday, and the young people of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, were dressed in their Sunday best when a bomb hurled from a passing car blasted the crowded church, killing four girls and triggering outbreaks of violence that left two more persons dead in the streets.

Thousands of hysterical Negroes poured into the area around the church and police fought for two hours, firing rifles into the air to control them. As darkness closed over the city, shots crackled sporadically in the Negro sections. Stones smashed into cars driven by whites. Downtown streets were deserted and police urged white and Negro parents to keep their children off the streets.

Police reported at least five fires in Negro business establishments. An official said some were being set, including one at a mop factory touched off by gasoline thrown on the building. Meanwhile, NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins wired President Kennedy that unless the Federal Government offers more than “picayune and piecemeal aid against this type of bestiality” Negroes will “employ such methods as our desperation may dictate in defense of the lives of our people.”

City police shot a 16-year-old Negro to death when he refused to heed their commands. Police said Johnny Robinson fled down an alley when they caught him stoning cars. They shot him when he refused to halt. A 13-year-old Negro boy, Virgil Ware, was shot and killed as he rode his bicycle in a suburban area north of the city.

Shortly after the bombing, police broke up a rally of white students protesting the desegregation of Birmingham schools, and a motorcade of militant adult segregationists en route to the student rally was disbanded. Police patrols, augmented by 300 State troopers sent into the city by Gov. George C. Wallace, quickly broke up all gatherings of white and Negroes. Wallace ordered 500 National Guardsmen to stand by at Birmingham armories.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wired President Kennedy from Atlanta that he was going to Birmingham to plead with Negroes to “remain non-violent.” But he said that unless “immediate Federal steps are taken” there will be “in Birmingham and Alabama the worst racial holocaust this Nation has ever seen.”

Mayor Albert Boutwell, tears streaming down his cheeks, announced the city had asked for help. “It is a tragic event,” Boutwell said. “It is just sickening that a few individuals could commit such a horrible atrocity. The occurrence of such a thing has so gravely concerned the public…” His voice broke and he could not go on.

As police struggled to hold back the crowd, the church’s pastor, the
Rev. John H. Cross, grabbed a megaphone and walked back and forth, telling the crowd: “The police are doing everything they can. Please go home.”

“The Lord is our shepherd,” he sobbed. “We shall not want.”

The only stained glass window in the church that remained in its frame showed Christ leading a group of little children. The face of Christ was blown out.

One of the dead girls was decapitated. The coroner’s office identified the dead as Denise McNair, 11; Carol Robertson, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14, and Addie Mae Collins, 10.

As the crowd outside watched the victims being carried out, one youth broke away and tried to touch one of the blanket-covered forms. “This is my sister,” he cried. “My God, she’s dead.” Police took the hysterical boy away.

Source: The Washington Post (United Press International) September 16, 1963

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