This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Four Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb at the church, which was long associated with the civil rights movement. When it detonated, it claimed the lives of 11-year-old Denise McNair, 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, 14-year-old Carole Robertson, and 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley. More than two dozen people were also injured.
One of the bombers, Robert Chambliss, was charged with possession of dynamite. He served a six-month sentence. The others weren’t prosecuted for decades. Fourteen years after the bombing, Chambliss was tried again and found guilty in connection with the bombing. He died in 1985. Thomas Blanton wasn’t tried until 2001, and is still serving a life sentence; Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002, and died two years later—that means it took nearly 40 years for most of the bombers to be brought to justice. The other bomber, Herman Cash, had died in 1994 and never faced charges.
The bombing took place at a time when the city faced so much anti-black violence that some in the civil rights movement dubbed it “Bombingham.” Medgar Evers had been killed in neighboring Mississippi just three months previously, and the March on Washington (during which time Dr. King shared his famous “I Have a Dream” speech) had taken place about two weeks previously.
In an op-ed published this week, Dale Long, who survived the bombing as a child, explains why he’s returning to Birmingham this weekend:
There had been church bombings before in Birmingham, but no loss of life. We quickly learned that to exist in Birmingham as an African-American child, understanding the subject of race and discrimination was critical to our survival.