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On the 60th Anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

Tomorrow marks the sixtieth anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history. On the morning of September 15, 1963, some Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, claiming the lives of four innocent little girls and injuring dozens of others. While Alabama surely felt “far away” to many, the tragedy stirred the nation's conscience and played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. We write to reflect on this event, honor those who were killed, and pay tribute to those who tirelessly work for justice and equality.

The Four Girls

Two of the four young girls who were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church were there to sing in the church choir and two were there to be ushers. They are:

  • Addie Mae Collins (age 14). A vibrant teenager, Addie Mae was known for her infectious laughter and joyful spirit. She had dreams of becoming a nurse and making a difference in her community.
  • Denise McNair (age 11). Denise was a cheerful and talented young girl who loved to sing in the church choir. Her innocence and bright smile endeared her to all who knew her.
  • Carole Robertson (age 14). Carole was a diligent student and a dedicated athlete. She had dreams of becoming a nurse and was known for her kindness and compassion.
  • Cynthia Wesley (age 14). Cynthia was an aspiring journalist with a strong sense of justice. She was determined to use her voice to bring about positive change.

While the lives of these four girls were tragically cut short, their memory continues to inspire us. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights in America. At the height of the civil rights movement, Birmingham was an epicenter of racial tension and segregation and the church had been a hub for organizing civil rights protests, making it a target for those who opposed desegregation and equality. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was not just a local tragedy; it was a watershed moment in the struggle for civil rights in America. The shockwaves of this heinous act reverberated across the nation, galvanizing a movement that would ultimately challenge the entrenched forces of segregation and inequality.

This tragedy exposed the depths of racial hatred that still lingered in the South and spurred a groundswell of public outrage. It became a catalyst for change and is often cited as creating momentum for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which aimed to dismantle the legal framework of segregation and discrimination.

The tragedy served as a wake-up call to the nation, highlighting the urgency of addressing racial hatred and discrimination. It showed the United States what hatred and injustice look like. It galvanized civil rights leaders, activists, and ordinary citizens to demand change and put an end to the systemic racism that plagued the South and the nation at large.

Justice Delayed

While the tragedy of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing stirred the nation's conscience and sparked change, the murderers did not meet justice for decades. The FBI identified suspects in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, but the climate of fear and racial hostility in Birmingham hindered the prosecution of those responsible. The families of the four girls endured years of anguish, their pain compounded by the protracted legal process.

It was not until nearly 40 years later, in 2001, that one of the perpetrators, Thomas Blanton Jr., was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry was also convicted, and he died in prison in 2004. Robert Chambliss, who had been convicted of an unrelated crime in 1977, died in prison in 1985 without facing charges for the bombing. Herman Cash, another suspect, passed away without facing justice in 1994.

The delayed justice for the families of the victims is indicative of the deep-seated racism and injustices that permeated the South for generations and serves as an example of the challenges faced by those who sought to bring civil rights-era perpetrators to justice.

Sixty Years Later

Today, as we solemnly commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, we pay tribute to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley; to all those who worked for justice for the four girls; and for all those who work for justice today.

This 60th anniversary is a reminder of the ongoing struggle for civil rights and the need to confront the enduring legacy of racism. It underscores the importance of never forgetting the sacrifices made by those who fought for justice and equality, and it urges us to continue the work of dismantling systemic racism in all its forms.

As attorneys, we have a solemn duty to uphold the principles of justice and equality. The memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing reminds us of the importance of our work in advocating for those who have been marginalized and discriminated against. We must continue to use the law as a tool for change and ensure that justice is never delayed or denied.