Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls In Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain

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Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls In Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain

Guard Summoned

Wallace Acts on City Plea for Help as 20 Are Injured

Wallace Orders Guardsmen Out

By Claude Sitton 
Special to The New York Times

Birmingham, Ala., Sept. 15--A bomb severely damaged a Negro church today during Sunday school services, killing four Negro girls and setting off racial rioting and other violence in which two Negro boys were shot to death.

Fourteen Negroes were injured in the explosion. One Negro and five whites were hurt in the disorders that followed.

Some 500 National Guardsmen in battle dress stood by at armories here tonight, on orders of Gov. George C. Wallace. And 300 state troopers joined the Birmingham police, Jefferson County sheriff's deputies and other law-enforcement units in efforts to restore peace.

Governor Wallace sent the guardsmen and the troopers in response to requests from local authorities.

Sporadic gunfire sounded in Negro neighborhoods tonight, and small bands of residents roamed the streets. Aside from the patrols that cruised the city armed with riot guns, carbines and shotguns, few whites were seen.

Fire Bomb Hurled

At one point, three fires burned simultaneously in Negro sections, one at a broom and mop factory, one at a roofing company and a third in another building. An incendiary bomb was tossed into a supermarket, but the flames were extinguished swiftly. Fire marshals investigated blazes at two vacant houses to see if arson was involved.

Mayor Albert Boutwell and other city officials and civic leaders appeared on television station WAPI late tonight and urged residents to cooperate in ending "this senseless reign of terror."

Sheriff Melvin Bailey referred to the day as "the most distressing in the history of Birmingham."

The explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church this morning brought hundreds of angry Negroes pouring into the streets. Some attacked the police with stones. The police dispersed them by firing shotguns over their heads.

Johnny Robinson, a 16-year-old Negro, was shot in the back and killed by a policeman with a shotgun this afternoon. Officers said the victim was among a group that had hurled stones at white youths driving through the area in cars flying Confederate battle flags.

When the police arrived, the youths fled, and one policeman said he had fired low but that some of the shot had struck the Robinson youth in the back.

Virgil Wade, a 13-year-old Negro, was shot and killed just outside Birmingham while riding a bicycle. The Jefferson County sheriff's office said "there apparently was no reason at all" for the killing, but indicated that it was related to the general racial disorders.

Another Negro youth and a white youth were shot but not seriously wounded in separate incidents. Four whites, including a honeymooning couple from Chicago, were injured by stones while driving through the neighborhood of the bombing.

The bombing, the fourth such incident in less than a month, resulted in heavy damage to the church, to a two-story office building across the street and to a home.

Wallace Offers Reward

Governor Wallace, at the request of city officials, offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the bombers.

None of the 50 bombings of Negro property here since World War II have been solved.

Mayor Boutwell and Chief of Police Jamie Moore expressed fear that the bombing, coming on top of tension aroused by desegregation of three schools last week, would bring further violence.

George G. Seibels Jr., chairman of the City Council's police committee, broadcast frequent appeals tonight to white parents, urging them to restrain their children from staging demonstrations tomorrow. He said a repetition of the segregationist motorcades that raced through the streets last Thursday and Friday "could provoke serious trouble, resulting in possible death or injury."

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived tonight by plane from Atlanta. He had led Negroes, who make up almost one-third of Birmingham's population, in a five-week campaign last spring that brought some lunch-counter desegregation and improved job opportunities. The bombed church had been used as the staging point by Negro demonstrators.

Curfew Plan Rejected

Col. Albert J. Lingo, State director of Public Safety and commander of the troopers, met with Mayor Boutwell and the City Council in emergency session. They discussed imposition of a curfew, but decided against it.

The bombing came five days after the desegregation of three previously all-white schools in Birmingham. The way had been cleared for the desegregation when President Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and the Federal courts issued a sweeping order against Governor Wallace, thus ending his defiance toward the integration step.

The four girls killed in the blast had just heard Mrs. Ella C. Demand, their teacher, complete the Sunday school lesson for the day. The subject was "The Love That Forgives."

During the period between the class and an assembly in the main auditorium, they went to the women's lounge in the basement, at the northeast corner of the church.

The blast occurred at about 10:25 A.M. (12:25 P.M. New York time).

Church members said they found the girls huddled together beneath a pile of masonry debris.

Parents of 3 Are Teachers

Both parents of each of three of the victims teach in the city's schools. The dead were identified by University Hospital officials as:

Cynthia Wesley, 14, the only child of Claude A. Wesley, principal of the Lewis Elementary School, and Mrs. Wesley, a teacher there.

Denise McNair, 11, also an only child, whose parents are teachers.

Carol Robertson, 14, whose parents are teachers and whose grandmother, Mrs. Sallie Anderson, is one of the Negro members of a biracial committee established by Mayor Boutwell to deal with racial problems.

Addie Mae Collins, 14, about whom no information was immediately available.

The blast blew gaping holes through walls in the church basement. Floors of offices in the rear of the sanctuary appeared near collapse. Stairways were blocked by splintered window frames, glass and timbers.

Chief Police Inspector W. J. Haley said the impact of the blast indicated that at least 15 sticks of dynamite might have caused it. He said the police had talked to two witnesses who reported having seen a car drive by the church, slow down and then speed away before the blast.

Ballad of Birmingham

BY DUDLEY RANDALL (On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.

Other children will go with me,

And march the streets of Birmingham

To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For I fear those guns will fire.

But you may go to church instead

And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,

And bathed rose petal sweet,

And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,

And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child

Was in the sacred place,

But that smile was the last smile

To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,

Her eyes grew wet and wild.

She raced through the streets of Birmingham

Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,

Then lifted out a shoe.

“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,

But, baby, where are you?”

Dudley Randall, “Ballad of Birmingham” from Cities Burning. Copyright © 1968 by Dudley Randall. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Dudley Randall.

Monday, Sep. 23, 2013

Fifty Years After Bombing, Birmingham is Resurrected

By Jon Meacham

It was 10:22 on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, and the sound of the dynamite exploding at the 16th Street Baptist Church roared across Birmingham. Fourteen-year-old William Bell was getting ready for church when he heard the blast--from three miles away. Bell's father rushed his wife and children into the family car and drove to the church, where they found chaos and tragedy.

Four young girls had been massacred by a white supremacist's bomb: Denise McNair, 11; Carol Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14. "Every individual in this town knew at least one of the girls or knew their families," Bell says. "Carol Robertson is a cousin of mine ... Denise McNair went to school with my brother. Her mother taught my brother. You felt it, the pain of it."

This September, William Bell, now the mayor of Birmingham (and the fourth African American to hold the office) will preside over the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing. The attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church was an act of terrorism that stands as one of the great turning points in American history. Together with the March on Washington in August, the September murder of the four little girls opened the way for Lyndon Johnson's successful push for civil rights legislation in 1964, in the aftermath of the November assassination of President Kennedy.

The mechanics of memory are particularly fraught in the American South, where so much history unfolded the day before yesterday. There is a natural human tendency to want to shut the door on a painful past. When we're being totally honest with ourselves, however, we know that William Faulkner was right when he observed, in Requiem for a Nun, that the past is never dead; it isn't even past.

Birmingham is marking the 50th anniversary of 1963 forthrightly, acknowledging the city's sins but asking for the nation and the world to see the city in full--not just for what it was then but also for what it is now. "My thought all along is be exactly who you are," says Bell. "The images are always about the dogs and the hoses. And yes, that's who we were, but we've come out of that."

What Birmingham is now is a striving and surprisingly resilient Southern city trying to make its way economically and culturally. The Jackie Robinson movie 42 was filmed in Birmingham, which boasts a new minor-league ballpark for the Southern League's Birmingham Barons. Mercedes and Honda have opened plants in Alabama. Mayor Bell spends more time talking up investments in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's medical-research center than he does speaking on racial issues.

That would have been largely unimaginable in the early 1960s. "There is a great deal of frustration and despair and confusion in the Negro community," King told President Kennedy shortly after the bombing. "And there is a feeling of being alone and not being protected. If you walk the street, you aren't safe. If you stay at home, you aren't safe--there's a danger of a bomb. If you're in church now, it isn't safe. So the Negro feels that everywhere he goes, or if he remains stationary, he's in danger of some physical violence."

For Mayor Bell--and for Birmingham, and for the country--the movement and its martyrs changed everything. "Their sacrifice made my life possible, made my being the mayor of Birmingham possible," Bell says. Out of terror came hope.

King preached at the funeral for three of the four victims in September 1963. "God still has a way of wringing good out of evil," he said. "And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city." And so it has.

The face of Jesus was blown out of one of the 16th Street Baptist Church's windows during the attack, an eerie and enduring symbol of a world where hate--at least in the moment of the bombing--overshadowed love. Today, a memorial window from the people of Wales depicts a crucified Jesus and a quotation from Matthew 25: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

The Jesus in the window is a black man, arms outstretched, reaching, it seems, to a future beyond the blood and the bombs--a future that is far closer to reality now than appeared possible 50 Septembers ago.

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