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16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

The bells of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., tolled Monday in remembrance of the four girls who were killed when a bomb exploded at the church on this day 40 years ago.

The church is still grappling with its place in history, Melanie Peeples reports. Just last year, the last living man believed responsible for the attack, Bobby Frank Cherry, was convicted of the crime.

The bomb exploded mid-morning, during Sunday services. Carolyn McKinstry, who was 14 years old at the time, was secretary of her Sunday school class. She was taking attendance records into the sanctuary when the bomb went off.

"I heard something that sounded, at first, a little like thunder and then just this terrific noise and the windows came crashing in," McKinstry told NPR in 2001. "And then a lot of screaming, just a lot of screaming and I heard someone say, `Hit the floor.' And I remember being on the floor ... and it was real quiet."

The bomber had hidden under a set of cinder block steps on the side of the church, tunneled under the basement and placed a bundle of dynamite under what turned out to be the girls' rest room. The blast killed four girls: Cynthia Morris, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins — all 14 — and 11-year-old Denise McNair. More than 20 others were injured, including Addie Mae's sister Sarah, who lost an eye in the attack.

McKinstry says it was no accident that the Ku Klux Klan targeted the 16th Street Baptist Church.

"It was the largest black church in Birmingham, but because of its central location it was used for a lot of other things, all kinds of meetings, national, local and so forth," she recalls.

The Byzantine-style structure, with two domed towers and a roomy basement auditorium, served as the hub for the mass meetings of the civil rights movement, drawing leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Marchers would assemble at the church and then cross the street to demonstrate at Kelly Ingram Park, the site of violent clashes between Birmingham police and civil rights activists.

The brutal attack and the death of four girls rocked the nation and drew international attention to the violent struggle for civil rights in Birmingham.

But despite the outrage and an intense FBI investigation, no one was charged in the crime. That was the real horror of it, according McKinstry.

"These are friends of mine," she said. "And we come to Sunday school one day and they're gone. They're dead. They're just blown away and Birmingham goes on with business as usual."

It was more than a decade before state authorities took action. Then Attorney General Bill Baxley charged Klan leader Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss with murder. In 1977, he was convicted.

Chambliss died in jail, never publicly admitting to the bombing. Baxley left office before he could pursue charges against Chambliss' suspected accomplices. One of them has since died.

Thirty-eight years after the bombing, Thomas Blanton Jr. was finally convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. A year later, in May 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry was also found guilty for the deaths of the four girls, and given a mandatory sentence of life in prison.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 30, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this story as well as in a former caption, Cynthia Morris' last name was incorrectly given as Wesler. Her last name had been widely reported as Wesley, the family with whom she had been staying part time.