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Social Issues
Remembering the Birmingham Bombings, 50 Years On
September 15, 2013
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(Photo: AP Photo)

50 years ago today a bomb went off at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11. Twenty-two other people were also injured in the blast.

The killing of the 4 girls galvanized the growing civil rights movement. Earlier that year the city had seen a series of major anti-segregation sit-ins and marches, some of them led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was imprisoned in Birmingham Jail for his involvement. But the killing of four innocent girls attending their church's Youth Day and the injury of 22 others helped galvanize the movement.

The next day, president John F. Kennedy declared:

If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and state -- if they can only awaken this entire nation to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost.

Peaceful progress was not immediately forthcoming -- two more black teenagers were killed within hours of the bombing -- but less than a year later, on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which ensured equal rights for African Americans before the law.

Justice for the families of the victims took a little longer. In 1973, former Ku Klux Klan member Robert Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder. And it wasn't until 2001 that two of his accomplices were convicted as well, after the FBI reopened the case.

The bombings have resonated widely throughout popular culture in the U.S. Joan Baez famously recorded the song "Birmingham Sunday" on her 1964 album Joan Baez/5 and in 1997, Spike Lee released the Academy Award-nominated documentary 4 Little Girls. References to the bombing also show up in everything from Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon to Bruce Springsteen's "We Are Alive."

Earlier this month, the U.S. Congress honoured the four victims with the Congressional Gold Medal, the country's highest civilian honour.



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