On 15 September 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during Sunday morning services. The blast killed four young girls--Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair--and wounded many more. The tragedy occurred in the wake of the highly publicized Birmingham Campaign and further intensified national and global scrutiny on racism in the South.
In the decades preceding the tragedy at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham had seen a plague of racially motivated bombings, earning in the process the nickname "Bombingham." Earlier in September, the home of Arthur Shores, a local African American lawyer, had been bombed in a neighborhood known as "Dynamite Hill" because it had experienced nearly a bombing a year for over a decade.
As one of the most prominent churches in Birmingham's African American community, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church served as a rallying point for demonstrations, meetings, and voter registration efforts throughout he civil rights period. On the morning of 15 September 1963, the young members of the church were in the basement preparing for the "Youth Sunday" service when a bomb placed under the steps of the church by Robert Chambliss detonated.
Following the bombing, citizens took to the street to protest the ever-present threat of violence in the city. During the ensuing demonstrations, two more youths were killed, one by police for failing to yield to their commands, and another was shot while riding bicycles with his brother.
Public outrage at the bombing quickly spread throughout the country. On 15 September, Martin Luther King, Jr. wired President Kennedy urging for civil rights legislation, stating "Investigation will not suffice. The nation and Birmingham needs your commitment to use everything within your constitutional power to enforce the desegregation orders of the courts." The following year, on 2 July 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. President Kennedy had introduced the legislation the previous year, but was assassinated before he could see it passed.
To read more about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, visit its historic site listing with the National Park Service here.
To listen to audio and read a transcript of the eulogy King delivered at the memorial service for three of the girls killed in the bombing, visit our website here.