John Shearer: 1963 Birmingham Church Tragedy Followed Closely In Chattanooga

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - by John Shearer
Chattanooga Times editorial page after 1963 Birmingham church bombing
Chattanooga Times editorial page after 1963 Birmingham church bombing

 This year I have regularly been looking in the Chattanooga newspapers from 1963 on microfilm to see how some of the historic civil rights events and other news happenings from that memorable year were covered locally.

I was particularly interested in viewing how the tragic bombing at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963 – exactly 50 years ago this past Sunday – was played up.

As many now know, a then-unknown person was spotted dropping off a package on some steps of the back of the church that Sunday morning, and then law authorities determined a time-delayed dynamite blast went off at about 10:22 a.m. central time.

A special youth Sunday under the Sunday school theme of “The Love That Forgives” was being held at the time, but the youngsters and other church members soon heard a lesson of hate, not love, with the unfortunate blast.

And when the smoke cleared, some of Birmingham’s most innocent and vulnerable population – four young girls – had died. They were identified as Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair. All were 14 years old, except Miss McNair, who was 11.

Due in part to the later efforts of Alabama attorney general Bill Baxley, Robert Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985 while maintaining his innocence.

In more recent years, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were tried and convicted. Mr. Cherry died in prison in 2004, while Mr. Blanton, who is now 83, is in a Springville, Ala., lockup facility. A fourth man was also considered a suspect, but he died in 1994.

While both the Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga News-Free Press ran detailed stories and photographs at the top of the front pages of their newspapers for several days after the horrific Sept. 15, 1963, event, the most interesting aspect of the coverage to me in 2013 is the 50-year-old comments on the editorial pages.

Although the Times and Free Press editorial pages then – or most anytime – did not always agree on political topics, they were one in denouncing the tragedy, which had come less than three weeks after the watershed “March on Washington” civil right event.

Stated the News-Free Press, which was probably longtime editor Lee Anderson, “Those who set the bomb were most assuredly twisted in their sense of values, deformed in their judgment, degenerate in their thinking.”

He then went on to say that if the tragedy of the day before could be undone, millions of people would step forward to take the necessary action.

However, he did say that the future presented an opportunity to prevent such additional tragedies.

“Let us rise in new resolve today to bring about in this great-but-troubled nation a universal pledge that our Constitution and law will be supreme in governing the affairs of men, that our land and our people may be in peace and mutual respect, despite differences,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, the Chattanooga Times, whose editor in 1963 was Martin S. Ochs, made an even stronger denouncement of the killings.

“The worst tragedy in the near decade of the desegregation crisis has struck in troubled Birmingham,” the Sept. 16 editorial said. “Four persons, whose only connection with the struggle was that they were Negroes, have been murdered at crazed, fanatical hands.

“A deathly pall hangs over a once-proud city. A nation mourns.”

At the time, Chattanooga had plenty of good local stories to follow. Soddy-Daisy High School student Janette Lasley was named Fairest of the Fair at the popular Chattanooga-Hamilton County Interstate Fair at Warner Park, a giant drive-in theater was being proposed for the Tiftonia area off Highway 11 by the Martin theater company, and architect Harrison Gill unveiled plans for what would become the Holiday Inn in the Golden Gateway.

And then there was a little observation planned for a local event that had occurred 100 years earlier – the Civil War Battle of Chickamauga.

Chattanoogans also had a chance to read about a new television channel that was coming called “Educational TV,” which of course would later become known as the Public Broadcasting System, or PBS.

Despite all that good local news, eyes continued to be focused on the sadness in Birmingham. – an event that would be featured in documentaries and other shows on PBS in subsequent years.

Associated Press reporter Jim Purks, who apparently arrived at the church not long after the bombing, described all the broken glass scattered over the wooden pews, piano and organ of the main worship hall of the 750-member church. He also mentioned a clock that had stopped at 10:22.

Although the children and youth had been in different parts of the church, those who were killed had been in the basement, said Mr. Purks.

Behind the pulpit was a room littered with debris and where a church deacon answered a continuously ringing phone, telling people in a soft voice that he did not yet know the names of those killed.

Crowds also gathered outside, although law enforcement tried to disperse them to prevent any potential rioting.

One distraught black man was shouting, “My baby is in there. She was putting on her robes. She’s in there.”

Another younger male outside identified one covered body that was brought out as his sister, and, in an obviously sad scene, he was put in an ambulance to help escort her body.

Yet another angry church member was shouting, “Let me at them,” regarding the bombers, while one woman claimed, “My God, a church. Oh Jesus, they bombed our church.”

The day after the bombing, Chris McNair, the father of victim Denise McNair, printed off at his photo studio pictures of his daughter for newsmen, while his wife told of learning about her daughter. She said she had been upstairs in the church when she heard a large blast. Almost hysterical, she went downstairs and outside before learning the news that her daughter had been killed.

Mr. McNair, now 87 years old, would eventually become a Jefferson County councilman in Birmingham, but would later have to serve bribery-related jail time before being released within the last month.

Birmingham had experienced varying degrees of unrest for several months in 1963 as blacks and a few others pushed for full civil rights. It was certainly not the first bombing incident in recent weeks, only the most tragic.

Three Birmingham schools – Ramsey and West End high schools (still open in 2013) and Graymont Elementary (now closed but still standing) – had just been integrated that fall, and chaos appeared likely throughout town.

However, some calm – relatively speaking – came over the town. Students went back to attending those three schools after many did not show up on Monday, and the city collectively mourned at the funerals for the four children.

On Tuesday, the first funeral was held for Carole Robertson. Since 16th Street Baptist Church was unusable, a crowd packed into St. John AME Church two blocks away, and about 1,000 stood outside in the streets in solidarity.

Several white people, including a number of clergymen and City Councilman Allen Drennan and his family, attended the service.

The theme of the funeral was to encourage mourning, non-violence and perseverance, and the Rev. C.E. Thomas, the minister at St. John, urged everyone to keep cool heads.

The Rev. John H. Cross, the pastor of 16th Street Baptist, quoted the apostle Paul in saying, “For we know that all things work together for good for them that love the world.”

Mr. Cross went on to say that the tragedy affected all races. “Somehow the whole world has shaken,” he said. “People of all races died along with them.”

The next day, a crowd of black and white people – including countless clergy from throughout the city – jammed into the larger Sixth Avenue Baptist Church across town for the funeral for the other three.

Delivering the eulogy was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Atlanta.

“They did not die in vain,” he told the mourners. “God still has a way of bringing good out of evil. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force for this city.”

Later he said, “In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter.”

Roy Wilkins of the NAACP also spoke.

As the funeral concluded, an unusual-but-uplifting scene took place outside. Some black youths following a funeral procession for one of the bodies began waving small American flags and singing freedom songs.

This singing caught on with a number of others standing outside until a black man named James Lay appeared with a bullhorn and said that Dr. King thought silence would be more fitting for a funeral.

But the tragedy had already spoken loudly, and the black Birmingham residents, a few whites and others would continue to push forward with even more determination to see the country made whole.

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