A Brief History
On May 22, 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry, former member of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
The early 1960’s were a turbulent time in America, with racial integration and the civil rights movement in high gear. As the South fought against the end of segregation, violence was used as a weapon by radicals on both sides. The 16th Street Baptist Church had been a focal point for African-American activists, used as a meeting spot by the top ranking African-American civil rights activists and a training location for youngsters to learn how to partake in protests.
In the early pre-dawn darkness, 4 Klansmen including Cherry put a box of dynamite under the steps of the church. At 10:22 AM the bomb’s timer triggered a large explosion as children were walking down the basement stairs. The blast killed 4 of the children, all girls, ages 11 through 14. Another 22 people were injured, and a hole was blown in the back of the church.
Outraged African-Americans blamed the hard corps segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, and the country was shocked. Birmingham had a reputation for bombs directed against African-Americans, with over 50 bombs exploding there since World War I. People derisively referred to the city as “Bombingham.” Police response was less than enthusiastic, and only one of the perpetrators was charged, and the charge was only for possession of dynamite, earning him a $100 fine.
In 1971, it was discovered J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, had ordered evidence sealed. The investigation started anew, and one of the suspects was convicted in 1977 and sent to prison. Another of the 4 bombers was already dead when the third was convicted in 2001, leaving only Cherry.
Cherry tried to avoid prosecution by claiming dementia, which would hinder his defense, but he was tried and finally convicted, sent to prison and closing the nearly 40 year old case.
The bombing had shocked the nation and had actually worked toward the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. White Americans that had been indifferent or hostile to the plight of Southern African-Americans became supporters of racial equality in droves. Thus, the violent act of hatred had the opposite effect than that intended. Movies, television shows, plays, songs and books commemorate the bombing, and in 2013 President Obama signed legislation awarding Congressional Gold Medals to the 4 girls killed at the church.
Metropolitan Birmingham, home to a fourth of Alabama’s population, had its first African-American mayor in 1979 and the current mayor is also African-American, something the hateful Klansmen certainly did not foresee.
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think would be a reasonable sentence for such a crime? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
George, Denise and Carolyn McKinstry. While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2013.
Klobuchar, Lisa. 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing: The Ku Klux Klan’s History of Terror (Snapshots in History). Compass Point Books, 2009.