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Siblings of the bombing: Remembering Birmingham church blast 50 years on

12:16 PM, Sep 15, 2013   |    comments
  • Coffin being loaded into hearse among crowd at funeral for victims of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. (Photo by Burton Mcneely//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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Birmingham, Alabama -- Fifty years have passed since a bomb stopped the old sanctuary clock in Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, locking in a moment that would change a nation.

The four girls killed in the blast have been honored as civil rights martyrs, their names etched in history books.

But what of their siblings, including one who barely survived?

For the brothers and sisters of the four girls, it was an event that would rock their foundations and shape their lives. Some would go on to promote understanding and equality. Others still struggle, fighting the past half a century later.

Scattered across three states, they share an unthinkable tragedy. But they've moved through the world and made sense of the nonsensical in profoundly different ways.

It was 10:22 a.m. on Sunday, September 15, 1963, when a stack of dynamite hidden beneath an outside staircase by Ku Klux Klansmen left a massive hole and crater in one side of the church. The blast blew out windows, filled the place with dust and debris, and destroyed a ladies restroom in the basement -- killing the four girls and injuring nearly two dozen people.

Even before the bombing, the church -- in the heart of the city's black community -- had been a backdrop to the civil rights movement. It had drawn high-profile visitors, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It became a perfect spot for meetings, sitting catty-corner from Kelly Ingram Park, a staging ground for marches. Chilling photographs of young people being attacked with fire hoses and by dogs show the church steps in the background.

A grieving relative is led away from the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. Four black girls were killed and at least 14 others were injured, sparking riots and a national outcry. From left, 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley were killed while attending Sunday services. Three Ku Klux Klan members were later convicted of murder. Firefighters and ambulance attendants remove a body from the church. Cars parked beside the church were damaged by the blast. The 16th Street Baptist Church served as a rallying point during the civil rights movement. It was declared a national historic landmark in 2006. Sarah Jean Collins, 12, lost an eye in the blast. Her sister was one of the girls who died. Martin Luther King Jr. holds a press conference in Birmingham the day after the attack. He said the U.S. Army "ought to come to Birmingham and take over this city and run it." Family and friends of Carole Robertson attend graveside services for her in Birmingham on September 17, 1963. A man digs a grave for one of the girls. A coffin is loaded into a hearse at a funeral for the girls. An estimated 8,000 people attended the service. Mourners embrace at the funeral. In his eulogy, Dr. King said, "These children -- unoffending, innocent and beautiful -- were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity." 1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombing1963 Birmingham church bombingHIDE CAPTION<<< 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 >>>
Photos: 1963 Birmingham church bombing

50th anniversary of church bombing Bombs in this Southern city weren't new. The nickname "Bombingham" was earned for good reason. By the time this one hit, there had been scores of unsolved -- and uninvestigated -- bombings in the city, says Carolyn Maull McKinstry, 65, who was in the church that day.

Explosions were part of life, part of the landscape, and could be heard from her family's front porch, says McKinstry, who was friends with the four girls and wrote about the bombing in "While the World Watched." Sometimes the blasts would make the earth move.

"Terrorism is not new to us," she says from a room inside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the historic church. Her community knew terrorism -- and, she adds, figures like Trayvon Martin -- long before the world did.

This attack upped the tensions and the ante. It killed innocent children in a sacred space, which helped make it the bomb heard around the world. It happened a couple weeks after the March on Washington, as those who didn't share King's dream dug in their segregationist heels.

It would be more than a decade before an ounce of justice was served. One suspect was convicted for murder and slapped with a life sentence after the case was reopened in the 1970s. Two others wouldn't pay until 2000 and 2001, after the case was reopened a second time. By then, a fourth suspect had died and would never face the court.

The bombing ignited horror and change. It was a pivotal moment that helped prod the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Killed that morning as they primped after Sunday school class were Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, all 14.

They have been remembered in films, books and songs. They've been memorialized in plaques, statues and artwork. Their headstones include phrases like "martyr," "She died so freedom might live," and "She loved all -- but a mad bomber hated her kind."

Earlier this week, in the U.S. Capitol, they were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Among those accepting the honor were surviving siblings, all with stories of their own.

One pair of sisters, born after the bombing, grew up in the shadow of a figure they longed to know. Another, already grown and out of the house when she got the news, would guard her identity and never move back South.

Another sister was adopted by a victim's family to help fill a void, while that victim's biological brother still struggles to find where he fits in.

And then there's the sister who was with the four girls that day. She was horribly injured, physically and in spirit, her anger and sense of injustice still palpable.


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