This church is known worldwide for the September 15, 1963, bombing which killed four little girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson) who were attending Sunday school. This senseless act of racial violence became the turning point in the struggle for civil rights in the city and the nation.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
1530 Sixth Avenue North (corner of Sixteenth Street)
Birmingham, AL 35203
ph.: (205) 251-9402
fax: (205) 251-9811
Web site: www.16thstreet.org
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, has been ensured a place in history due to its infamous bombing on September 15, 1963, in which four little black girls lost their lives. However, the church, placed in 1980 on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has had a rich church calling since its inception in 1873 as the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham. Its mission statement aims to advance the gospel, to serve the community at large, and to witness to the ends of the earth, according to the Reverend Dr. Christopher Hamlin in Behind the Stained Glass (1998). Also, this church was pivotal for the planning of civil rights activities and mass demonstrations that would impact future legislation and the national tone on desegregation. Furthermore, a proliferation of commemorative works of art resulted from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as a source of aesthetic and moral inspiration. This historic landmark, most important, has been a beacon of hope–racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and gender-wise–for oppressed people throughout the world.
The Elyton Land Company chartered Birmingham in December, 1871, and assisted in developing it as “the Magic City” with the construction of carefully planned rail lines in the heart of the city, which added to the natural coal-producing raw materials of limestone, coal, and iron, according to Hamlin’s research. This company also donated land to industrial firms, the county and city for schools and parks, and white and black Christian religious sects. After the Civil War, the church was an important institution for combating mounting racial discrimination by creating community-family outreach programs for African Americans who worked in the mines. Therefore, on September 1, 1873, James R. Powell, president of the Elyton Land Company, received one dollar from the trustees of the First Colored Baptist Church for land for their building. As recorded in Behind the Stained Glass, the church later had to relinquish land in Birmingham city center–reserved for white denominations–but in July, 1882, the congregation purchased its known address at Sixth Avenue North and Sixteenth Street and later officially changed its name to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (because a previous congregation established in 1881 assumed the name of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church). By 1884, a beautiful building in the Gothic revival style was finalized to serve as both a church of worship and a facility for religious education.
However, in the early 1900’s, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was considered structurally unsound. Trustees complied with the city’s order to raze their building while simultaneously vowing to erect one of even greater stature. Therefore, in 1909, black architect Wallace Rayfield’s design for a new facility was accepted, and Thomas Cornelius Windham, both a member of the church and a builder, constructed the new Sixteenth Street Baptist Church facility. It consisted of a Romanesque-Byzantine architectural design with twin towers and pointed domes, a cupola over the sanctuary, and a large auditorium with rooms in the basement. The new church was dedicated in 1911 and, according to the National Park Service’s 1993 Historic American Buildings Survey, “The prominence of the structure–a reflection of the prominence of its congregation–coupled with its size and downtown location made Sixteenth Street Baptist Church a focal point for various activities in the black community.” Throughout the twentieth century the church, under various pastors, became a stronghold for political debates, cultural activities, and diversified civic events, earning its nickname of “Everybody’s Church.”
Despite Birmingham’s national and international reputation as “the Pittsburgh of the South” (symbolized by its mighty Vulcan statue), African Americans called their city “the Johannesburg of America,” as quoted in George Cantor’s Historic Landmarks of Black America (1991). In spite of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church’s concentration on youth programs and community outreach assistance, it could no longer evade racial disparities, such as Birmingham’s segregated waiting rooms and lunch counters, white- and colored-labeled drinking fountains, frequent bombings of black homes in North Birmingham, and the racism of Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and the Ku Klux Klan.
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church opened its large doors for the mass meetings of the Civil Rights strategists and movement, especially for “Project C” (Confrontation)–a nonviolent approach that aggressively encouraged more all-public services and facilities to be open equally to blacks and whites. From the time of its earliest meetings in the 1960’s organized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, bomb threats ensued, marches in downtown Birmingham continued, and demands to open segregated businesses augmented. Reverend King’s April 16, 1963, Letter from Birmingham City Jail and ongoing mass demonstrations were assisted by the children’s movement and freedom walks–the children receiving instruction from the church first. In May, tensions heightened in the city as the children’s marches were met by Bull Connor’s vicious dogs and water hoses. The homes of activists and the nearby Gaston Motel, which housed civil rights leaders, were bombed frequently, leading to Birmingham’s pejorative nickname: “Bombingham.” The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was a definite contributor to the training and spirit of civil rights activism through voter registration clinics at the church, Dick Gregory’s leading of children from the church, and even child pickets and incarceration, as Glenn T. Eskew describes vividly in But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (1997).
The moment in time most associated with the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is 10:22
Tensions that prefaced the horrific bombing had been mounting throughout the months of 1963 in Birmingham. In fact, Frank Sikora, in Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case (1991), notes that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had highlighted segregated Birmingham for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s attempt to overcome existing racial barriers. Shuttlesworth, who directed the Alabama Christian movement, joined with King and top aide Ralph Abernathy to stage marches, fight Commissioner Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses, and denounce the continuous bombings of civil rights activists’ homes. Victoriously, on May 9, 1963, an agreement was honored by Birmingham business leaders to desegregate rest rooms, drinking fountains, and lunch counters; then, on May 20, Bull Connor finally left office. After a brief calming of the city, tensions renewed when school desegregation issues flared in the late summer of 1963. In fact, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church pastor and church members were uneasy and feared the worst due to numerous bomb threats.
At Carole Robertson’s funeral on September 17, 1963, the eulogy emphasized not revenge but collaboration in God’s love. On September 18, Reverend King’s message at the service for Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Addie Mae Collins–echoing that of other Birmingham spiritual leaders–stressed nonviolence and hope for a new beginning. On November 18, 1977–fourteen years later–Robert Chambliss, a reported member of a Ku Klux Klan group called the “Cahaba Boys,” was found guilty of the September, 1963, bombing and sentenced to life imprisonment for the death of one young girl, McNair. In 2000, two other men, Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., were indicted for the murders.
A resurgence of artistic works continues to commemorate the loss of the four little girls’ lives. There is a memorable plaque (with victims’ photographs) on the wall of the Memorial Nook in the lower auditorium of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that reminds visitors of the heinous act. Yet, the message of the last line exemplifies the spirit of the historic church: “May men learn to replace bitterness and violence with love and understanding.”
Welsh stained-glass artist John Petts created, in his hometown Cardiff, the famous Wales Window for Alabama. According to Hamlin’s interpretation, this work depicts a Jesus of African heritage with huge hands that illustrate a protesting, crucified Jesus (suggesting black protesters and racial injustice) and a Christ demonstrating a loving embrace. Streams of water from the Birmingham Civil Rights movement and bullets on the cross’s top beam suggesting the violence in South Africa combine to paint worldwide oppression; however, the multicolored background symbolizes God’s everpresent love of all people–regardless of race, color, or creed.
Many poets and musicians wrote memorializing lyrics based on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing including Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” and Joan Baez’s recording of “Birmingham Sunday.” Sculptor John Waddell’s That Which Might Have Been: Birmingham, 1963 (1964) in Phoenix, Arizona, depicts four large, lifelike nude girls facing four diverse directions. Imagery ranges from the lack of procreation and societal understanding of African Americans to acceptance of help, death, love, and hope (symbolized by an upraised hand inscribed with “prayer”). In 1992, John Rhoden gifted his native Birmingham and Sixteenth Street Baptist Church with a huge bronze plaque depicting events of 1963 centered around four dolls representing the four young bombing victims.
Following the turbulence and need for healing of the 1960’s, the role of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is a positive, regenerative one. Out of the ashes, like a phoenix, the church has risen to a dominant role in the Birmingham community and beyond. It opened in June of 1964 for Sunday services; youth ministries and community outreach and educational programs have been instituted. It is a center of resource information about the Civil Rights movement and, concomitantly, a source of inspiration and reconciliation for all ethnic cultures and diverse creeds.
The church acts as a focal point for the Birmingham African American community. National and international figures speak at the church; workshops on women’s rights and health issues such as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) are sponsored. Furthermore, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is a viable force for the arts with its collaborative liaison with the Onyx (Theater) Agency, Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, and Operation New Birmingham. Mainly, this institution is a memorial house of worship where people from the community-at-large can be continually reminded of, touched and guided by, and delivered from the tragedy of September 15, 1963.
Cantor, George. Historic Landmarks of Black America. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991. A scholarly national overview of major cities’ historic landmarks. Short and concise entries with black-and-white photographs. Eskew, Glenn T. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. A comprehensive, well-documented anthology tracing Birmingham and national movements in the Civil Rights era. Details of leaders, events, and dates. Hamlin, Reverend Dr. Christopher M. Behind the Stained Glass: A History of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Birmingham, Ala.: Crane Hill, 1998. A thorough historical text examining the church from its 1873 founding to the mid-1990’s. Black-and-white photographs of major happenings. “The History of 16th Street Baptist Church: Everybody’s Church.” www.16thstreet.org. Rogers, William W., Robert D. Ward, Leah R. Atkins, and Wayne Flynt. Alabama: The History of a Deep South State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994. A detailed account of events leading up to and following the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Sikora, Frank. Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991. A personal diary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing victims and the subsequent investigation. With witness accounts, FBI depositions, and jury testimonies.