The Stark Reminders of the Birmingham Church Bombing

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

(Albert Watson)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Samuel Rutledge, looking for his 3 1/2-year-old son, instead found a female buried alive, moaning and bleeding from the head. He carried her through the hole toward the street. “Do you know who she is?” people asked one another. Again, Cross thought she had to be 40 or 45 years old. But Sarah Collins was only 12. After being loaded into an ambulance (colored), she sang “Jesus Loves Me” and occasionally said, “What happened? I can’t see.” The ambulance driver delivered Sarah to University Hospital and returned to pick up his next cargo, the corpse of her sister Addie Mae.

Approaching her father in the crowd on the sidewalk, Maxine Pippen McNair cried, “I can’t find Denise.” M.W. Pippen told his daughter, “She’s dead, baby. I’ve got one of her shoes.” Watching his daughter take in the significance of the shoe he held up, he screamed, “I’d like to blow the whole town up.”

Word of the bombing reached Martin Luther King in Atlanta as he was about to step up to the Ebenezer Baptist Church pulpit. “Dear God, why?” he had silently asked. Then he appealed to secular powers, writing President John F. Kennedy that unless “immediate federal steps are taken,” the “worst racial holocaust this nation has ever seen” would come to pass in Alabama. His telegram to Gov. George Wallace charged, “The blood of our little children is on your hands.”

King prepared to go back to Birmingham, to another riot scene. The now-familiar assortment of law enforcement officials stood guard with their shotguns at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church while two FBI lab men flown down on a military jet sifted through the debris.

One of the stained-glass windows had survived the explosion. Only the face of Jesus had been blown out.

Prosecutions in the killings of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Morris Wesley and Carole Robertson were delayed by the reluctance of witnesses and a dearth of physical evidence. One suspect died in 1994 without having been charged; three others were convicted of murder between 1977 and 2002.

From Carry Me Home, by Diance McWhorter. Copyright © 2001 by Diance McWhorter. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Diane McWhorter is the author of Carry Me Home, an account of “the climactic battle of the civil rights revolution” in her hometown in 1963, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus