The Stark Reminders of the Birmingham Church Bombing | History | Smithsonian
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(Albert Watson)

The Stark Reminders of the Birmingham Church Bombing

These stained glass shards recall the tragic day that saw four girls killed in Alabama

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On September 15, 1963, 14-year-old Cynthia Morris Wesley and three other members of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church youth choir left their Sunday school class to freshen up for their roles as ushers in the main service. The lesson for the day had been “The Love That Forgives.” Eleven-year-old Denise McNair met Cynthia and her classmates in the women’s lounge, in the northeast corner of the basement.

Carole Robertson, 14, was the most mature of the girls. She was wearing medium-high heels for the first time, shiny black ones bought the day before. Carole’s mother had gotten her a necklace to go with the shoes and put a winter coat on layaway for her.

Also in the lounge was 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins. One of eight children, Addie was a little on the shy side, but she looked radiant in her white usher’s dress. Cynthia and Carole also wore white. The three ushers were standing with young Denise by the window, which looked out onto Sixteenth Street at ground level. So elegant was this church that even the restroom window was made of stained glass.

Addie’s younger sister Sarah Collins stood at the washbowl. At the request of a Sunday school teacher, 15-year-old Bernadine Mathews came into the lounge to encourage the girls to return to their classrooms. Cynthia said she needed to push her hair up one more time. “Cynthia,” Bernadine chided her, “children who don’t obey the Lord live only half as long.”

At 10:22 that morning there was a resonant thud, as if someone had hit the world’s largest washtub, followed by a ripping blast that sent a streak of fire above the church. Closed doors flew open, and the walls shook. As a stale-smelling white fog filled the church, a blizzard of debris—brick, stone, wire, glass—pelted the neighborhood. Some of those inside believed the Russians were coming.

A motorist was blown from his car. A pedestrian calling his wife from a pay phone across the street was whooshed, receiver still in hand, into the Social Cleaners, whose front door had been whipped open.

Pastor John Cross moved toward the fog that clung to the northeast side of his church. There was a 7- by 7-foot hole in the wall of what had been the women’s lounge. The bomb had made a crater 2 1/2 feet deep and 5 1/2 feet wide, demolishing a foundation that had been a 30-inch-thick mass of stone facing over a brick-and-masonry wall.

Cross walked through the gaping hole. Some deacons and civil defense workers began digging into the wreckage. Strewn about were blood-spattered leaflets printed with a child’s prayer: “Dear God, we are sorry for the times we were so unkind.”

A gingerly excavation uncovered four bodies. They were stacked horizontally, like firewood. Cross had no idea who they were. They looked like old women, and he knew that the basement had been filled with Sunday school children.

“Lord, that’s Denise,” said Deacon M.W. Pippen, owner of the Social Cleaners. Denise McNair was Pippen’s granddaughter. Only then did Cross realize the corpses were girls. Pippen had recognized Denise’s no-longer-shiny patent-leather shoe. The clothes had been blown off the girls’ bodies.

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