On September 15, 1963, a bomb planted in the girls’ restrooms in 16th Street Baptist Church detonated during a Sunday service, killing four African American young girls. The attack took place just three weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic speech, “I Have a Dream.”
This horrific scene was one of the major tragedies experienced at the peak of the Civil Rights era. Here are eight other facts you need to know about the 16th Street Baptist Church bomb attack.
1. The 16th Street Baptist Church was the first African American church in the United States. It was founded in 1873, just 10 years after Abraham Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation. Founded in Birmingham, the church also served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
2. On that fateful day, it was a youth Sunday during which young people were supposed to lead the service. The theme of the sermon was “A Love That Forgives,” based on Luke 23:34.
3. The dynamite bomb detonated at 10:22 am, while the service was in progress. There were approximately 200 church members in the Baptist Church when the attack took place.
4. The bomb was planted by four members of the Ku Klux Klan, who had already warned of a forthcoming attack. The bomb involved 15 sticks of dynamite that were planted underneath the church near the ladies’ washrooms.
5. When the bomb went off, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Carole Robertson all died on the spot. Luckily, Sarah Collins—Addie Mae’s younger sister—managed to survive the attack, but lost her right eye.
6. The Birmingham church bombing was the third such attack in eleven days. It signaled the start of major reforms in America, such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and 1965, respectively.
7. The four Klux clan members who planned the attack were not convicted until 1977. Robert Chambliss was sentenced for life imprisonment for the murder of Denise McNair, while Thomas Blanton and Frank Cherry were sentenced for life in prison in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Herman Cash died in 1994 before he was sentenced.
8. President Barack Obama honored the four girls with a Congregational Medal of Honor, which was presented before the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on May 24, 2013.