What the 1963 Church Bombing Taught Us

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

Funeral for victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 (Burton McNeely/Getty Images)
Funeral for victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 (Burton McNeely/Getty Images)

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.

It was also no coincidence, Potok argues, that supporters of Trayvon Martin — shot and killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman — often emphasized his youth. Trayvon was described as a beloved and average, unarmed teenager with normal hobbies and dreams who was killed after a trip to the store for Skittles and iced tea. “At the same time, Zimmerman’s supporters, who profess an aversion to racism but espouse an idea very popular with hate groups — there is good reason to universally suspect and surveil black men — did everything possible to recast Trayvon Martin as a dangerous, full-grown man,” Potok says.

The Specter of ‘Stand Your Ground’

Trayvon’s death and the trial outcome didn’t just conjure reasons for the grim safety lectures that black parents have long had to give their children. The case terrified many black parents because it made clear that race-related danger remains a threat, and successful prosecution far from assured, says ColorOfChange.org’s Robinson.

“I don’t think I can say with certainty that George Zimmerman is a domestic terrorist,” he says. “Some might call him a vigilante or a bumbling wannabe cop who followed and shot a young boy because of his racist suspicions. But we can say that he likely walked free because of laws sanctioned and bolstered by some of the country’s largest corporations, which also happen to sell a lot of guns. And that is no doubt petrifying for a lot of America.”

More than 30 states now maintain “Stand your ground” laws similar to Florida’s. A series of independent studies have shown that the number of justifiable homicides (pdf) — shooting deaths in which no one was prosecuted or served jail time — in these states has increased considerably. These laws have also produced another kind of unequal justice: substantial racial disparities in the prosecution of such homicides.

“Is it really any wonder that so many people are outraged and afraid right now, 50 years after four little girls lost their lives in Birmingham?” Robinson says.

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.