Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Caseby Frank Sikora
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
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
Read an Excerpt
Addie Mae Collins
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 commissionone of the commissioners had been Eugene "Bull" Connorto 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 orderseven 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 storesPizitz, 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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