In two months much will be said about the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four girls as they prepared for church services on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963. Dozens of others in the church that morning were injured, including Sarah Collins, sister of one of the victims, who spent over a year in hospital. She’s been forgotten. So have two other black children killed that day: James Ware and Johnny Robinson. Who remembers them?
The deaths of these girls brought international attention to Birmingham and to the depravity, cruelty, and evil of those eager to kill rather than see extended to blacks the civil rights granted — at least on paper — by the Constitution.
Would their deaths still be remembered if the girls had been killed in a bombing at a roller rink the previous night? Or if it had been four deacons killed rather than four children? Who knows?
But in setting a bomb to detonate in a church on a Sunday and by killing four girls, the bombers broke two taboos: you don’t bomb churches on Sunday mornings and you don’t kill girl children.
What will be remembered this fall, I expect, is the worldwide outrage at this atrocity. What will be forgotten is the aftermath.
Four girls are murdered in an American church. What response would be expected other than for local, State, and National law enforcement and the citizenry to demand that the murderers be identified, prosecuted competently, and punished appropriately?
This didn’t happen. It could have happened in 1963, but the first conviction of one of the four men who executed the attack did not happen for 14 years, in 1977. Two others were convicted in 2001, 24 years after the first and 38 years after the crime.
What kind of society does not even bring to trial those who kill children?
As early as October 1963, Elizabeth Cobbs was working with the FBI to build a case against her uncle by marriage, Robert Chambliss. She knew what the Ku Klux Klan did to informers. She was a single mother of a young son, struggling to get by, and she cooperated fully with the authorities. After months of risking her life meeting with agents, J. Edgar Hoover dropped the case. She knew what had happened but could do nothing more.
Then in 1977 Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, and to make a long story short, Elizabeth Cobbs’ testimony was finally heard in court and Robert Chambliss became the first man convicted for the bombing.
In 1994, Elizabeth H. Cobbs, now Petric J. Smith, published Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing That Rocked The World. It is out of print, its publisher defunct.
This is a story that shouldn’t be forgotten, and so Smith’s son and I have posted an electronic version of the text as a book blog here at WordPress: http://longtimecoming1963.wordpress.com/. It’s a story of the moral courage of one individual and the active participation of the powerful in sheltering those who were evil and who did evil things.
This spring President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to the four girls killed. A great photo op, a nice symbolic gesture. But if he really wants to honor their memory, may I suggest he turn to the last chapter of Long Time Coming and choose any one of its questions about what happened in Birmingham, in Alabama, and in Washington DC in the months following September 15, 1963, and get to work on finding the answers and holding those responsible who chose not to do their jobs. A few are still alive. I guess there isn’t an equivalent opposite of a medal to be awarded posthumously to those who aided and abetted murderers.
By the way, in case you are wondering about the other two children killed in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, Cobbs/Smith can tell you:
During the afternoon two more black children died in other incidents in Birmingham: James Ware was shot on his bicycle by two white youths on a motorcycle, and Johnny Robinson was shot in the back by a policeman for throwing rocks at a car loaded with catcalling white youths displaying Confederate flags.
The juveniles who killed Ware were identified from photos taken at an NSRP rally that afternoon. One pleaded guilty to manslaughter; the other was convicted at trial. They each received seven-month suspended sentences.
Officer Jack Parker said he was firing at the feet of Johnny Robinson and his companion — with a shotgun — at 100 feet, and he was surprised when the youngster “appeared to stumble and fall.”
The Wales Window, which was donated to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church by the people of Wales to replace a window destroyed by the 1963 bombing of the church.