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16th Street Baptist Church
16th Street Baptist Church, located in Birmingham, AL, is a Baptist church made up of a congregation composed both of black and white members. The church is most well-known for its involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement and more specifically as being the site of one of the most notable acts of racially motivated violence during that time.
The church was first founded c. 1873 as the First Colored Baptist Church. It was renamed 16th Street Baptist in 1914 at a meeting where the church voted to move to a bigger building, thus bringing more of their people closer to them. A new building was erected under the supervision of Reverend Robert T. Harlan, who had taken over leadership of the church in 1916.
On Sunday, 15 September 1963 at 10:22 AM local time, dynamite planted by Ku Klux Klan members exploded under the steps of 16th Street Baptist Church. The explosion killed four black girls—Carole Robertson (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Addie Mae Collins (14) and Denise McNair (11)—and injured 22 people.
The victims were Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, who were in Sunday School at the time of the blast; and Sarah Collins (17), Johnny Robinson (16), William Hawkes (19), and Cuba Ray (17), who were in the church basement preparing for the 11 o’clock service.
This tragic event was a major catalyst for the passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Following the bombing, all area hospitals refused to treat the victims due to their race. Only after police and firefighters arrived were Robertson, Wesley, Collins, McNair and Robinson taken to Birmingham’s University Hospital on two city buses commandeered by the police. The other victims were driven to the hospital by members of the black community.
Nowadays, the church is a central landmark of Birmingham. It has been renovated several times and today remains a functioning house of worship, serving as a visible reminder both of the Civil Rights Movement in general and of the tragedy that occurred there on 15 September 1963 in particular.
Rosemary A. Cheney, an assistant professor of history at Eastern Illinois University, wrote a book about the bombing in 2003, titled “Death in a Promised Land,” in which she argues that the Ku Klux Klan members who planted the bomb received much more lenient treatment from law enforcement officials compared to black suspects.