Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The March on Washington and the Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I juxtapose the triumph of the August 1963 "March on Washington" with the tragedy of the bombing deaths of three young African American women at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

To put pressure on Congress to pass the bill and perhaps strengthen it, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King organized a “March on Washington” to be held in late August. The Kennedys strongly opposed the rally, fearing wavering members of Congress might resent the show of force, that violence might break out, or that a small turnout might undermine momentum for the legislation. When it became clear that the march would take place, the Kennedy team essentially stage-managed the event, insisting that speeches be cleared with them beforehand. John Lewis, a veteran of the freedom rides, wrote a speech highly critical of the Kennedy administration and planned to say, “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie the way [Union Gen. William Tecumseh] Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow down to the ground non-violently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together again in the shape of democracy.” Kennedy advisers feared the impact of these words and pressured Lewis to tone down the speech, and he complied.

Washington police warned the public to avoid the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol where the march would take place and, holding stereotyped views of African Americans, law enforcement banned liquor sales in the capital. Officials asked the marchers to leave town before sunset. In case chaos reigned, President Kennedy ordered 4,000 soldiers to be stationed nearby to squash any potential riot. About 250,000 people showed up for the August 28 march, and the assembly was well-dressed and peaceful. The din made it hard for the massive throng to hear folksingers like Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; and Peter, Paul, and Mary; and the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. The world, however, listened as national TV broadcast King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In ministerial cadences, King mesmerized the marchers in Washington and the vast television audience with these words:

"As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating 'For Whites Only' We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Kennedy declined to speak at the event, but agreed to meet the organizers after the successful march. He greeted King with words echoing the civil rights leader’s earlier speech: “I have a dream.” Rather than provoke a backlash, the march gave momentum to the civil rights bill, which was approved by the House Judiciary Committee and referred to the full House on October 23, 1963. Kennedy had feared that support of civil rights would lose him the critical support of Southern Democrats, but polling by Louis Harris in November 1963 indicated he had gained more support than he lost by lending his support to the civil rights bill. Kennedy still sought to repair the gulf between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party when he decided to make an appearance in Dallas, Texas, later that month.


Whatever euphoria civil rights activists might have felt in the wake of the March on Washington gave way to bitter tears on September 15, 1963. That day an explosion rocked the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham during a Sunday school class. A bomber had tunneled under the church basement and set off a bundle of dynamite underneath the girls’ restroom, killing four young girls dressed in white, three 14-year-olds named Cynthia Wesler, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, and one 11-year-old named Denise McNair. The explosion during the church’s annual “Youth Day” injured 20 other worshippers. When the bomb exploded, Sunday school students had been debating the day’s topic, “The Love That Forgives.” McNair’s father, upon discovering her body, stood holding one of her white dress shoes and screamed, “I’d like to blow the whole town up.”

The United Klans of America targeted the church because it had served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders. The explosion also came in the wake of voting rights campaigns conducted by King’s SCLC and CORE, and the dispatch of National Guard units to enforce a desegregation order for Birmingham schools. King often discussed future demonstrations at the 16th Street church. Alabama Gov. Wallace had been exploiting racial tensions to enhance his popularity with white voters, and one week before the explosion The New York Times published an interview in which Wallace said that the state needed a “few first-class funerals” to stop the civil rights protests.

Much of the white community was shocked by the tragedy, but later that day, two white Eagle Scouts fired a newly acquired pistol at two African American boys riding together on a bicycle, killing a thirteen-year-old who had been sitting on the handlebars. As blacks and whites began displaying handguns and rifles, Wallace sent in state troopers to keep the peace. One trooper fatally shot a fleeing African American man in the back of his head.

Carole Robertson’s family wanted a private service, but the other three girls had a joint public funeral on September presided over by King. “At times life is hard, hard as crucible steel,” King said. In an atmosphere of high tension and continued bombing threats, 8,000 mourners attended the service, including 800 black and white Birmingham pastors. As the historian Taylor Branch notes, the service was the largest interracial meeting of ministers in the city’s history.

It took until November 1977 for the bomber, Robert Chambliss, to be found guilty and sent to prison. Three accomplices also were eventually sent to prison. King, however, blamed Wallace, writing to him, “the blood of four little children ... is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder." Sorrow and anger over the bombing did, however, intensify the effort to pass major civil rights legislation in 1964.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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