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Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case

Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case

by Frank Sikora

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Frank Sikora has used the court records, FBI reports, oral interviews, and newspaper accounts to weave a story of spellbinding proportions. A reporter by profession, Sikora tells this story compellingly, explaining why the civil rights movement had to be successful and how Birmingham had to change


Frank Sikora has used the court records, FBI reports, oral interviews, and newspaper accounts to weave a story of spellbinding proportions. A reporter by profession, Sikora tells this story compellingly, explaining why the civil rights movement had to be successful and how Birmingham had to change

Editorial Reviews

Deborah J. Barrow
UNTIL JUSTICE ROLLS DOWN is a fascinating account of the story behind the fourteen year quest to find the Klansmen responsible for the tragic bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 that took the lives of four young black girls. Frank Sikora, undoubtedly aided by his long term experience as a journalist with the Birmingham NEWS, uses a descriptive approach reminiscent of Richard Kluger's SIMPLE JUSTICE to portray with great success the intensity of the war against desegregation that rocked Birmingham in 1963. More important, Sikora uses this technique like a good artist, building with each line a graphic portrait of the racial hatred that forms a vivid social- psychological profile of the members of the Klan and their families. Against the backdrop of explosive events such as George Wallace's stand in the school house door to prevent integration at the University of Alabama, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decisions calling for desegregation in the Birmingham schools and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s targeting Birmingham which he called the most segregated southern city for intensive protest, the Klan and other white supremacists engaged in a spree of violence that was perhaps the worst of the 1960s. On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, five teenage girls were in the women's lounge located in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church's tieing one another's sashes, washing their hands and freshening up before joining the congregation upstairs in their special role that day as ushers. Just minutes before they were expected upstairs, a bomb, containing as many as 15 sticks of dynamite that had been placed under exterior steps near the entrance to the basement, exploded killing all but one of the girls. The bomb had shattered a thirty-inch wall of brick and stone, mutilating the bodies of the young girls. Over the next five years the FBI launched "the most intense probe since the search for gangland figure John Dillinger in the 1930's" (p.20). Despite the effort, no one was charged with the bombing and because the FBI's jurisdiction was triggered under a Reconstruction Act for civil rights violations, the FBI closed its investigation in 1968 when the statute of limitations became effective. Sikora spends time in the first third of the book taking the reader through the tragedy itself, making real the families and their grief. For the remainder of the story he does an equally compelling job of bringing the reader to understand the people who ultimately would confront one another in a dramatic trial. The first of these personalities, and the one responsible for resuming the closed case and obtaining the requisite permission for the FBI files, was William J. Baxley. As the newly-elected Attorney General of Alabama in 1971 Baxley focused his attention immediately upon reopening the case. Baxley had made a pledge to himself in his last year of law school as he witnessed the depth of racial hatred around him and then heard the news of the bombing that he "was going to do something about it" (p.39). Page 22 follows: True to his vow, once in office he not only hired the first black attorney and the first black woman attorney to serve with the state attorney general's office as well as the first black assistant attorney general, Myron Thompson, who would later become a federal district judge, but he also made resolution of the 1963 bombing case a top priority. Indeed, the case became "the controlling force in Baxley's life" (p.40). Good intentions and efforts notwithstanding, the case languished unresolved for another six years. All of this would change when Baxley hired an attorney in 1976 named Bob Eddy. In January 1977, Eddy checked into the Holiday Inn in Birmingham and when he left ten months later he had -- through dogged persistence and a remarkable talent for sleuthing, bolstered by a persuasive yet unassuming style -- successfully unraveled the mystery surrounding the incident. In the course of the year Eddy entered into the bizarre and clandestine world of the Ku Klux Klan. The odyssey brought him face to face with the individuals whose pathos were the essence of the hatred preached by the organization as well as victims who lived closely to it either from ignorance or fear. Eventually, Baxley and Eddy, with the help of a courageous witness, were able to obtain the conviction of seventy-three year old Robert Chambliss, marking the first racially-motivated murder conviction in a southern state. In the process of putting together the Chambliss case, Baxley's office also obtained enough evidence against avowed white supremacist J.B. Stoner to convict him as well. Although Eddy knew that others were involved, after 14 years Chambliss was the only one against whom a case could be made. Sikora's book is not an analytical treatment of its subject, so one would not want to read it with that expectation. However, it is an exceptionally well-told account of a very significant episode in the history of the struggle for racial equality in the South. The book also does more than preserve a slice of history. It gives great insight into the mind set of white supremacists and the nature of the organizations that advance that cause. That in itself makes the book important because ironically, the bulk of Klan cases taken to federal court along with the success in dismantling these organizations has occurred since the time of the Chambliss trial.
From the Publisher
“A lyrically moving description of the victims' last hours. . . . Until Justice Rolls Down is a story about intrepid prosecutors in pursuit of evidence.”—Diane McWhorter, New York Times Book Review

Sikora captures the hatred of the Klan, the hope of the civil rights movement, the pain of the tragic bombing, and the courtroom drama that ultimately caused ‘justice to roll down like water.’ It is a fascinating read.”—Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center

“Sikora tells a sad tale well. Until Justice Rolls Down details the frustration of the seemingly hopeless investigation. . . . Everyone interested in American history should buy this book.”—Tom Wagy, Florida Historical Quarterly

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Fire Ant Books
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Addie Mae Collins
Denise McNair
Carole Robertson
Cynthia Wesley

Sunday, September 15, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama

When they had first started walking to church that day, their behavior had been proper, befitting young girls on their way to praise the Lord. Addie Mae Collins, age fourteen, often walked the sixteen blocks to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church with her older sister Janie and younger sister Sarah. But this time, before they had gone more than two blocks, they began playing football, using Addie's purse as the football and giggling and laughing as they ran for passes and dodged about. The route to church was along streets lined with dogwood, oak, and mimosa; the near northwest side of the city was a lower- middle-class, mostly black neighborhood, where frame houses mingled with small stores and other businesses. A number of girls at the church, including Addie, were to be ushers that day. All were wearing white dresses.

    At her house, fourteen-year-old Cynthia Wesley was ready to go out the door with her father, Claude, when she was stopped by her mother. "Young lady, your slip is hanging below your dress," said Gertrude Wesley. "You just don't put your clothes on any way when you're going to church, because you never know how you're coming back." Cynthia had hurriedly made the necessary adjustments before running out the door. She and her father would arrive before the start of Sunday school, 9:30 A.M. Her mother would never see heragain.

    Meanwhile, Cynthia's closest friend, Carole Robertson, also fourteen, had already arrived at church, driven by her father, Alvin C. Robertson.

    The last of the four to arrive was eleven-year-old Carol Denise McNair, who was known to her family and friends as Denise. The day before, Denise and a friend from across the street, Barbara Nunn, and some other children had been playing kickball and a game they called four-square. "It was just a game we made up, I guess," Miss Nunn would say in later times. "Denise was just a kid, just a girl who liked to have fun and play, like all kids. She had a dog she called Whitey. She really loved that dog."

    On that Sunday morning Denise was going to go to church early and planned to ride with her father, Chris McNair, a photographer. But he was a member of another church and was running late that morning. So she had told him, "That's okay, Daddy, go ahead." She waited and rode with her mother, saying goodbye to her dog before leaving.

    After the hot summer, the day was refreshingly cool, with morning temperatures in the low sixties. Behind a cloud bank, the sun was a silver blur as it edged up above the hump of high hills along the eastern edge of this industrial city of 340,000.

The year 1963 had not been kind to Birmingham; racial discord had projected the city onto the front pages of newspapers around the world, as well as in the eye of TV cameras. City authorities had used dogs and fire hoses to dispel crowds of blacks, and the homes of some black leaders had been bombed.

    Martin Luther King, Jr., had announced early in the year that he had selected Birmingham as a target of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's effort to overcome racial barriers. He called it the most segregated city in the South.

    Birmingham had undergone political upheaval in late 1962 and early 1963, changing its form of government from a three-member commission—one of the commissioners had been Eugene "Bull" Connor—to a mayor-council system. Connor, a hard-line segregationist, had fought the change, but after he failed to block it he entered the race to be the city's new mayor. The election was held March 5; Connor and another candidate, Albert Boutwell, got the most votes but neither received a majority. They faced each other in a runoff on April 2. Boutwell, a soft-spoken racial moderate, won the runoff by more than eight thousand votes, but Connor refused to leave office, filing a court challenge.

    Against this backdrop, King came to town. "He was not welcome," recalled The Birmingham News, in a commemorative story twenty years later. The News had blasted Connor's police department in 1961 for its mishandling of the Freedom Riders who were beaten by klansmen, and in 1963 it also blasted King in an editorial: "His very presence will be upsetting to whites familiar with his Albany [Georgia] record. King has made shocking statements in the past, of personal unwillingness to say in advance whether he would accept court orders—even though he expects whites to do so. His `non-violent' policy is violated every time he promotes demonstrations or turmoil not related to achievement of justice under the law.... He should stay out of Birmingham."

    King and the local leader of the Birmingham drive, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who headed the Alabama Christian Movement, waited until April 3, the day after the runoff, to begin their challenge to the city's laws and customs embracing segregation. On that bright, warm Wednesday, The News carried a story on the front page that captured the mood of the day for many people: "This, happily, is a new day for Birmingham. There's a new feeling in the air. There's a new spirit of optimism." The story was signed by the mayor-elect, Albert Boutwell.

    On that same day, King and Shuttleworth sent a group of blacks to obtain service at Britling's Restaurant; fourteen were arrested. Simultaneously, other groups went to lunch counters at some of the city's larger department stores—Pizitz, Loveman's, Kress, and Woolworth's. The blacks found "Closed" signs at each of them, but Birmingham's new day had begun.

This was a city where blacks found little in the way of steady employment, other than cleaning up offices or homes, cooking in restaurants, or toiling in the iron and steel foundries; the few black professionals were teachers or preachers. There were no black store clerks, secretaries, police officers, librarians, or firefighters. This was the Birmingham that still posted "White only" signs over water fountains and restrooms; black people could not sit at lunch counters or in the main sections of theaters.

    King brought his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Birmingham to marshal a challenge to legal segregation. Although he held rallies at several churches in the black community, the chief rallying spot was the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, chosen for its size, its history, and its location. The church, a yellow-brown structure built in the Byzantine style, had a membership of more than four hundred, including many prominent black citizens: lawyers, teachers, dentists. It sat cater-corner from Kelly Ingram Park, a one-square-block area of trees and grass that was an ideal place to mobilize an army of marchers and send them down Fifth Avenue to the downtown, just four blocks away. At the church King preached harmony: "I don't like the way Mr. Bull Connor acts, but I love him, because Jesus said love is greater than hate." It was here in Birmingham that the civil rights movement adopted its anthem, "We Shall Overcome."

    Marches began in April and resulted in thousands of arrests; "Never have so many gone to jail in the cause of freedom," said King. Fire hoses and snarling police dogs were used against large groups of spectators who gathered to watch the marches.

    On May 9 King and his top aides, Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy, reached an agreement with Birmingham business leaders to desegregate lunch counters, drinking fountains, and restrooms, and to begin hiring blacks as sales clerks. King hailed it as "the most significant victory for justice that we have seen in the Deep South." The agreement was announced on May 10, and on the next day Bull Connor angrily denounced it as King's "lyingest, face-saving" act. That night bombs exploded at the black-owned Gaston Motel and at the home of King's brother, A. D. King. The bombings triggered a riot by twenty-five hundred blacks; fifty persons were injured. President John F. Kennedy sent federal troops to Alabama, staging them at Fort McClellan, near Anniston, and at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. But the troops never moved into Birmingham, and a strained calm settled over the city. On May 20 Bull Connor, having lost his court challenges of the elections, left office.

    The church rallies began to dwindle, and blacks and whites alike tried to return to a more normal life. Then, as autumn approached, the city was again jolted by racial turmoil. Federal judges in Alabama had ordered twenty-four blacks enrolled at previously all-white schools. Five of those black students were in Birmingham. Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, who had made his stand in the schoolhouse door at The University of Alabama in June, vowed to fight the desegregation of the state's public schools.

    On the night of August 20, 1963, the home of black attorney Arthur Shores was bombed, but no one was hurt. Shores had been involved in the desegregation of The University of Alabama and in efforts to invalidate Birmingham's ordinances maintaining residential segregation. As the opening day of school neared, white resistance mounted. Crowds of whites waving Confederate flags protested desegregation orders and rode motorcades through the city. On the night of September 4 another bomb exploded at Shores's home, this time slightly injuring his wife, Theodora. Blacks reacted in anger, boiling out into Center Street near the Shores home, in the city's near west side. Police hurried to the scene; shots were fired. A black man was shot and killed as he reportedly ran from a house firing a gun. That night, twenty-one persons were injured, including some officers who were struck by bricks, rocks, and bottles.

But on this Sunday morning of September 15, 1963, the din of the desegregation effort had been stilled. At the church, the lesson for the day was "The Love That Forgives."

    At 9:10 A.M. church members William and Mamie Grier, both schoolteachers, neared the church in their new blue and white Buick Electra. About two blocks from the church Mrs. Grier pointed at another car and said, "Look at that." What had, caught her attention was the Confederate flag that fluttered from the car's whiplike radio antenna. Mrs. Grier would later tell the FBI that the car appeared to be a 1955 Chevrolet, greenish in color. It had been driven by a lone white man, she said. Confederate flags had been common on cars during the early 1960s, and many blacks viewed them as a symbol of the bad old days, when whites went to war for the right to keep blacks in slavery. The Griers had followed the car; it turned on Sixteenth Street, passed the church, then continued on. They watched until it passed from view. Then they turned into the church parking lot. There had been some anxiety among church members because of the rash of bombings in Birmingham in recent weeks, and only the Sunday before, the church secretary, Mary Buycks, had received a phone call from a man who said, "This is the KKK. Your church will be bombed tonight." It had turned out to be a hoax.

Iberville's Gulf Journals

By Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville
Translated by Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams
Edited by Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1981 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Frank Sikora is a career journalist who retired recently from the Birmingham News. He is author of The Judge: The Life and Opinions of Alabama’s Frank M. Johnson, Jr., Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: A Memoir, and, with Sheyann Webb and Rachel West Nelson, Selma, Lord, Selma.

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