52 years ago today, Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Cynthia Wesley (age 14), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Addie Mae Collins (age 14) were killed in a bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 15 sticks of dynamite beneath the front steps of the church. There were 22 other injured people, including the most critically wounded, Addie Mae’s younger sister —Sarah Collins. Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware were two black youths who were killed later in the day. Robinson (age 16) was shot in the back by a policeman as he was fleeing down an alley refusing to follow orders to halt, and Ware (age 13) was shot by a white youth in a residential suburb of the city.
Though the FBI had collected sufficient evidence to prosecute the perpetrators, J. Edgar Hoover closed the case without any convictions, sealing the files in 1965. It wasn’t until 1977, 14 years later, that the case was reopened and that Robert Chambliss was found guilty of the first degree murder of Carol Denise McNair. Thomas Blanton and Robert Cherry, also Klan members, were convicted in 2001 and 2002, 38 and 39 years later, on four counts of murder. All three were sentenced to life imprisonment. The fourth conspirator, Herman Cash, died in 1994 before he was able to be tried. Thomas Blanton is the only one still alive and still in solitary confinement. He will be up for a parole hearing in April 2016.
It is claimed that the deaths of these four young girls shocked and outraged white Americans, helping to change their attitudes toward supporting the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. And there is no need to remind anyone who may be reading this that some 50 years later, the lack of tolerance Americans have for each other continues to thrive. The system continues to privilege some and not others. Lives continue to be cut short.