Remembering 4 Little Girls: The 50th Anniversary of The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

God still has a way of wringing good out of evil…And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

 

4 Little Girls Killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Sept. 15, 1963: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair
4 Little Girls Killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Sept. 15, 1963: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair

Tomorrow, Sunday Sept. 15 marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four little girls as they were putting on their choir robes prior to that morning’s worship service.

As a reporter for The Birmingham Post-Herald (1998-2001) I was assigned the task of covering the re-opening of the case when authorities, in May 2000, discovered new evidence implicating two ex-Klansman who had been long-time suspects of the crime.

I preached a sermon last year about confronting evil in which I shared my experience interviewing Thomas Blanton Jr. in August 2000, eight months before he was convicted of the bombing.

Reporting on Sixteenth Street Bombing case  and interviewing those who were connected to the event in 1963 and 2000-2001 was an eye-opening experience. I was immediately thrust into the history that shaped my hometown of Birmingham and the deep South, and ultimately my identity as a pastor and a Jesus-follower who believes whole-heartedly in justice, equality and love for others, regardless of race, creed, culture, gender and sexual orientation.

Carolyn McKinstry from her book "While The World Watched" Tyndale House Publishers (Feb. 1, 2011)
Carolyn McKinstry from her book “While The World Watched” Tyndale House Publishers (Feb. 1, 2011)

My faith and belief that the Light will always shine in the darkness is strong because of the encounters I had with those who lived through the African-American Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. One of those individuals who served as an inspiration to me as a reporter and whose words echo in my life and ministry today is Carolyn McKinstry, the author of While The World Watched (2011) in which she reflects on the day of the Sixteenth Street bombing, her friends who were killed that day, the Civil Rights movement, and her life since.

On Tuesday May 1, 2001, a few hours after Blanton received a guilty verdict in the Sixteenth Street Bombing, I had the privilege of interviewing Carolyn McKinstry outside the church.

Here is the story as published in the Wednesday May 2, 2001 edition of The Birmingham Post-Herald:

………………………

Church member glad to see chapter end

by Andy Acton

Birmingham Post-Herald

Carolyn McKinstry awoke Tuesday morning feeling unsettled. She was still feeling restless when she went to her job as a consultant with Accenture. Throughout the day she had a hard time concentrating on her work. The restlessness wouldn’t subside.

Later that afternoon, after stopping briefly by Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where she is a member, she went home. Ten minutes later she received a phone call from friend Antoyne Green, a reporter at WBRC-6. Green told her that Thomas Blanton Jr., an ex-Klansman, was found guilty of murder in the bombing that killed her four childhood friends 37 years ago. The verdict came a week to the day after the trial started.

“I felt this surge, and it was this overwhelming relief that we can move forward with our lives and the church can move forward with what it needs to do,” said McKinstry, who was 14 years-old and sitting in the sanctuary of the church on Sept. 15, 1963 when a bomb exploded beneath her. Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were killed in the blast.

On Tuesday, Blanton, 62, became the second man in 24 years to be convicted of murder in the bombing that turned the nations eyes to the civil rights struggle that had inflamed racial tensions in the South. Former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Chambliss was convicted in 1977.

McKinstry, now 51, said after Green told her the verdict, she was silent for a few minutes, what she described later as shock. While standing outside the church Tuesday evening, McKinstry said she and others who were close to the four girls were not expecting another guilty verdict.

“I think we had emotionally detached ourselves because we didn’t want to be disappointed,” said McKinstry.

There was a look of both relief and reflection on McKinstry’s face as she stood in front of the church steps. Her eyes welled with tears as she talked about the verdict.

“Now it has an ending. It has a final chapter, a chapter we can live with, an ending we hope will help the family have some feeling of closure,” she said.

McKinstry said friends and family members were surprised the verdict came so quickly. “We felt like we’d get 1963 repeated,” she said, recalling the feeling that the bombers never would be brought to justice.

A vice president of the church’s board of directors, McKinstry said the bombing and its aftermath will be a “great teaching tool” to share around the world and with future generations.

“This story was all about hatred and racism….These were four very beautiful young girls, and they will always be missed by their family and church,” she said. “We want to make sure the events that led to their deaths aren’t repeated.”

Memorial window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, given as a gift by Wales not long after the bombing.
Memorial window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, given as a gift by Wales not long after the bombing.

McKinstry said the church will remember the four girls with a special service Sunday. “We will reflect on those times and God’s goodness,” she said. McKinstry said the church will also open it’s doors today through Friday for anyone who wants to pray and reflect on the bombing. By Tuesday, about 50 people had come inside the church’s sanctuary to pay their respects to McKinstry and other members, she said.

The story of the bombing may have one more chapter left. The trial of Bobby Frank Cherry, a 71-year-old ex-Klansman, who was to be tried with Blanton, has been postponed pending a medical evaluation.

“Our position has always been that we left things in the hands of God,” McKinstry said. “If the system says he is fit to stand trial. If the system says he is guilty, then he should go to jail. We leave that in their (the system’s) hands and God’s hands. …We will remain low-key and reverent. A lot of our posturing (throughout the Blanton trial) has been out of respect for the families.”

……………………………….

For those of you who are reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing or learning about it for the first time, check out the extraordinary documentary 4 Little Girls by Spike Lee and to read all the mainstream news articles you can find on this tragedy, including this excellent piece from Time Magazine: “Fifty Years After Bombing, Birmingham is Resurrected”

I also encourage you to lift up prayers for the families of Cynthia, Carole, Addie Mae, and Denise who long for the day they will see their girls again; for Carolyn McKinstry; for the congregation of Sixteenth Street; for the city of Birmingham that continues to move forward toward equality; the victims of racism, slavery and other forms of injustice today and the men, women and youth who fight hate and intolerance through peaceful and non-violent means.

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