What the 1963 Church Bombing Taught Us

The deaths of four little girls in Birmingham 50 years ago were a wake-up call.

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When the Young and Innocent Die

When the Alabama attorney general requested the FBI's evidence and brought the first charges against the Klansman involved in the church bombing more than a decade later, prosecutors emphasized that the bombing wasn't just a violent attack on a place of worship that injured 22 people and killed four. The people who died had been "four little girls."

"I think there is no question that this country has a long and not-at-all storied history of racial violence and domestic terror that has cost an untold number of people their lives," says Mark Potok, one of the country's leading experts on hate groups. Potok is editor-in-chief of the SPLC's quarterly journal, the Intelligence Report, as well as its Hatewatch blog and its investigative reports that track hate groups. Potok has also mapped the way that language and ideas originated by hate groups have wormed their way into the mainstream.

"What the hell is the Klan if not a terrorist group?" he says. "But the sad reality is that I think the bombing at 16th Street Baptist and the murder of those four little girls finally focused white America's attention on those facts."

 

The Birmingham church bombing drew the attention of the nation's major newspapers and magazines. In black America, the 1955 torture and death of Emmett Till and the unusual decision by Emmett's mother and Jet magazine to publish pictures of the once-handsome boy's disfigured corpse had already provided a stirring testament to the violence that blacks in the South faced daily, says Brooks.

The reason: For most Americans, even the most prejudiced among them, children are more sympathetic victims, Potok says. But the girls killed at 16th Street Baptist weren't just young. They were also not involved in civil rights protests and had not confronted the white power structure in a way that had been used to temper outrage about the deaths of other civil rights martyrs.

Their innocence was almost as significant as their deaths, Potok argues.

As proof, he points to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The explosion killed 168 people, 19 of them young children. But the most iconic picture of the tragedy is that of a firefighter carrying the limp and injured body of a small child.

Before Oklahoma City, young, disaffected white men deeply interested in guns and a return to a different kind of America, like bomber Timothy McVeigh, were seen as ordinary, Potok says. After the bombing, many more white Americans came to see them and the militia groups they formed as potentially dangerous.