Thirty-eight years after the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, two of the four principals are dead, but the issues are still full of life. Thomas Blanton Jr. is one of two surviving Klan bombers, and after a jury convicted him in early May of murdering the four black girls that Sunday morning, former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley wrote a blistering Op-Ed for the New York Times accusing the FBI of concealing evidence and aiding the Klan for decades after the event. The FBI’s denial made page one the next day: “There’s no reason we would have done that,” a bureau spokesperson declared. The Times also published a letter from the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Birmingham office, calling Baxley’s Op-Ed “a disservice to all the agents who tirelessly investigated the 1963 bombing.”
Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home is a history of that bombing, of the FBI “investigation,” of the people responsible for it–high and low–and of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. She grew up there–she was 10 years old at the time of the bombing–and later she worried, because her father, who had fallen from an elite family, had spent many evenings attending what her mother called “civil rights meetings.” But Diane knew he had Klan literature around. Eventually she realized that her father could have been attending Klan meetings, and might even have been one of the bombers. Many years later she set out to find out the truth about him–and ended up writing this magnificent book.
Although the 16th Street Baptist Church served as a rallying point for demonstrators in the 1963 campaign, it was not a Movement church. McWhorter calls it “the snootiest black congregation in the city,” and its founding minister worked with the local industrialists to persuade blacks not to join the union. At services they didn’t sing gospel songs but rather “the sedate hymns of white Christianity.” And 16th Street Baptist was the only church in the city that charged the Movement for using its facilities.
The bomb was a huge one–perhaps a dozen sticks of dynamite. When the blast was heard across town, Klansman Ross Keith, almost certainly one of the bombers, told a friend, “I guess it’s somebody discriminating against them niggers again.” The four girls who were killed were in the women’s lounge, freshening up for their roles as ushers in the main service. Denise McNair was 11; the three others were 14: Carole Robertson, Addie May Collins and Cynthia Wesley–Wesley was wearing high heels for the first time, “shiny black ones bought the day before.”
There is a survivor who was in the women’s lounge with the other four: 12-year-old Sarah Collins, sister of Addie May. When they found Sarah in the rubble, her face was spurting blood. She was loaded into an ambulance–a “colored” one. On the way to the hospital she sang “Jesus Loves Me” and occasionally said, “What happened? I can’t see.” Today she is 50 and still blind in one eye.
Immediately after the four girls were identified, the authorities began “furious background checks on them, the search for some flaw deserving punishment.” But their records were clean: None, that is, had participated in the recent civil rights demonstrations. Thus, even the city fathers and the local press had to agree they were “innocent.”