Months of demonstrations, boycotts and violence culminated 50 years ago Sunday, on Sept. 15, when KKK members planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four girls aged 11 to 14. Today, the bombing that killed Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley would be called an act of domestic terrorism.
The bombing of a church and the deaths of children stunned the nation, and was the beginning of progress toward the end of the overt racism that dominated Birmingham. It is unfortunate that it took such a deadly tragedy to create that stepping stone.
It was in Birmingham, however, that media coverage of the events of the previous months had horrified many Americans and got the attention of President Kennedy, who in June finally acknowledged that segregation was “morally wrong’’ and that it was “time to act’’ to end it.
I was just 13 in May 1963 when I was shocked by television coverage of Birmingham police and firemen turning German shepherds and fire hoses against anti-segregation demonstrators. The president saw the same coverage and was already aware that MLK had been arrested and jailed in Birmingham in April during a desegregation drive.
So, in June, when Gov. Wallace blocked entrance to the state university to black students, Kennedy called in National Guard troops. Wallace backed down.
Five days before the deadly church bombing, three previously all-white schools in Birmingham were integrated when Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and the Federal courts issued an order against Wallace’s opposition.
Last week in Washington, 50 years later, House and Senate leaders formally awarded Congress’ highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, to the families of the four girls killed in the church bombing, which many now regard as one of the most horrific acts of violence of the civil rights era.