50 Years Ago, JFK Expresses Outrage and Grief over Birmingham Bombing.

In a horrific racial hate crime, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963. The explosion at the African-American church killed four girls, marking a turning point in the U.S. 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 2005

The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had been a rallying zone for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963. The church was used as a meeting-place for civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. Tensions were escalated when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) became involved in a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham. Still, the campaign was successful. The demonstrations led to an agreement in May between the city’s African-American leaders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to integrate public facilities in the country.

Martin Luther King Jr.

In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, near the basement. At about 10:22 a.m., twenty-six children were walking into the basement assembly room to prepare for the sermon entitled “The Love That Forgives,” when the bomb exploded. Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), were killed in the attack, and 22 additional people were injured, one of whom was Addie Mae Collins’ younger sister, Sarah. The explosion blew a hole in the church’s rear wall, destroyed the back steps and all but one stained-glass window, which showed Christ leading a group of little children.

Victims of the Heinous Attack

President Kennedy condemned the senseless violence in this statement.

I know I speak on behalf of all Americans in expressing a deep sense of outrage and grief over the killing of the children yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama. It is regrettable that public disparagement of law and order has encouraged violence which has fallen on the innocent. If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and State–if they can only awaken this entire Nation–to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost.

The Negro leaders of Birmingham who are counseling restraint instead of violence are bravely serving their ideals in their most difficult task–for the principles of peaceful self-control are least appealing when most needed.

Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall has returned to Birmingham to be of assistance to community leaders and law enforcement officials–and bomb specialists of the Federal Bureau of Investigation are there to lend every assistance in the detection of those responsible for yesterday’s crime. This Nation is committed to a course of domestic justice and tranquility–and I call upon every citizen, white and Negro, North and South, to put passions and prejudices aside and to join in this effort.

Sadly, JFK himself would become the victim of a senseless crime two months later when he was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dealey Plaza, Dallas.

JFK’s Motorcade through Dallas

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