A Symbol in Civil Rights History: The 16th Street Baptist Church
By: Melissa Mitchell
It was Sept. 15, 1963. Nothing was out of the ordinary that day when 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins and her sister, 12-year-old Sarah Collins, rose from their slumber and put on their Sunday best. They always attended church alongside 200 other Sunday school members at 16thStreet Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Upon their arrival, the Collins sisters entered into the downstairs ladies’ lounge when all of the sudden….BOOM! In that minute, at 10:22 a.m., time seemed to stop.
Shards of glass and pieces of the tan brick building were flying. The explosion was so loud that it took a few minutes for Sarah Collins to hear the ringing in her ears before hearing ambulances.
Questions raced through her head: What happened? Who is responsible for this? Where is my sister?
History of the 16th Street Baptist Church
The Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the 16thStreet Baptist Church since 2002, said the 16thStreet Baptist Church was originally organized as the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham on 12th Street in 1873. This was the first African American church in Birmingham. In 1880, the church relocated to 16thStreet until the city of Birmingham ordered the removal of the building in 1908.
A short time after in 1911, black Architect Wallace Rayfield, in partnership with contractor T.C. Windham, designed the present-day building. The church was somewhat quiet until the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak in the 1960s. It was used as a location for mass meetings to discuss civil rights efforts.
Just 18 days after the March on Washington, four Ku Klux Klan members – Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry- planted a bomb made of dynamite sticks underneath the church steps.
The racially motivated attack injured 14 people, one of whom was Sarah Collins. She had 21 pieces of glass embedded in her face, causing blindness in her right eye. She was hospitalized for several months and was there when she received the news that her sister, Addie Mae, died in the explosion with Carol McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.
A funeral was held for three of the four young girls where people of different races attended, but no city officials were there.
Impact of Church Bombing
Rev. Price said the horrific explosion levered financial support for the church from all over the world. Collectively, more than $300,000 was donated to the church for restoration, and it was opened again as a symbol of strength in 1964. A stained-glass window was installed in remembrance of the tragedy and lost lives.
The attack most importantly served as a call to action to rid Birmingham of racial hate crimes. It contributed support to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, laws that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. They banned segregation in schools, employment, voter registration and other public accommodations.
“People were sick and tired of what was going on. They learned to lift up their voices and make a change,” Rev. Price said.
Although the passage of these new laws was a sign of progress, there was no justice for the white supremacists responsible for the bomb until 1977, when Chambliss was imprisoned. It wasn’t until much later in 2001 and 2002 that Blanton and Cherry were found guilty of first-degree murder, respectively. Cash died without charges.
Today, 55 years later, Sarah Collins Rudolph shows that she is more powerful than the bomb that stole her eye and her sister’s life by forgiving the bombers. She is working with writer Tracy Snipe on a book titled, “The Fifth Little Girl: Soul Survivor of the 16thStreet Baptist Church Bombing.” She also travels to share her story and provide insight about race relations.
“Whenever I hear a loud noise, I still jump. But because of the bombing, people began to speak up about hate in the community, which sparked change,” Rudolph said. “I’ve been going around the world trying to teach people the right way to love each other.”
The Director for the Auburn Center of Educational Outreach and Engagement, Stacey Nickson, said she has looked up to the Collins sisters her whole life because of their heroism.
“It’s not about history, it’s about a feeling. I feel like Addie Mae and Sarah are my sisters and what happened to them affects me as much as it affects the people directly involved,” Nickson said.
Rudolph visited Auburn University as part of a series sponsored by the Caroline Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities, titled “Becoming the Beloved Community.” Auburn University Visiting Assistant Professor Dr. Joan Harrell facilitated a conversation and open forum about race relations with Rudolph.
“There are issues we need to discuss if we want to see change,” Harrell said. “If we’re not talking to each other, we will continue to see bombings and shootings and racism will continue to exist.”
Location Serves as Hope for Beloved Community.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community is centered on inclusivity and love triumphing over hate. Although his idea of the beloved community is still unfolding, the 16thStreet Baptist Church serves as inspiration to work toward this goal and overcome the evil that the bombing victims faced.
The church and its surrounding area, next to Kelly Ingram Park and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in downtown Birmingham, continue to be recognized as historic places in civil rights history.
In February 2006, the 16thStreet Baptist Church was declared as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior. This department also granted $500,000 for the church’s preservation, repair and restoration in March 2018.
In 2013, on the 50 years anniversary of the church bombing, the four young girls were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, and a bronze statue of them was unveiled in Kelly Ingram Park.
In honor of MLK Day 2018, the church was recognized as part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. The purpose of the trail is to preserve historical sites that were important to the Civil Rights Movement.
There are currently 72 trail sites within 13 Southeastern U.S. states, including the Martin Luther King Jr. birthplace home in Atlanta, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
The recent distinction of the 16thStreet Baptist Church attracts visitors from all over the world. Rev. Price said the church offers tours Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or on Saturdays by appointment. These tours educate visitors about the church’s history and also shed light on the topic of current race relations in society.
“I was in grade school when this happened and remember seeing the bombing on television,” Birmingham visitor Tom Young said. “It’s very moving to see the 16thStreet Baptist Church because it is a reminder that we should accept everyone for who they are. It’s your abilities and who you are that counts, not where you’re from.”
As the American society continues to find ways to be more accepting, Sarah Collins Rudolph said the solution is to spread love. Birmingham local and 16thStreet Baptist Church saxophone player Glenn Gregg said he believes in order to become the beloved community, we must learn to put religious values into action as well.
“As a child, I built a lot of anger and hatred in my heart, which took me a long time to resolve,” he said. “We need to look at all people as family and strive to be more like God. We cannot move forward until that is a shared understanding.”
Rev. Price added, “We can become the beloved community by recognizing that differences are not deficiencies, but the differences we each bring to the table are valuable. We need to continue to look at ourselves in the mirror as a country, and when something happens out of place like shootings and racial tension, we need to fix it.”