Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

The City of Fear

Martin Luther King once called Birmingham "the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country." Alabama had been a breeding ground for the Klan since the Lawrence County raids began during the 1860s. In 1948, the Federated Ku Klux Klan was formed under the leadership of a Dr. E. P. Pruitt. In Wade's book on the Klan, he quotes Pruitt, "The Klan don't hate nobody! In fact the Klan is the good nigger's best friend my nigger maid washes my Klan robe for me." In city politics, the terrible specter of Klan power was always felt. If an elected official didn't conform to the racist philosophy of the secret society, he or his family was threatened in a variety of ways. Most often, it was a phone call in the middle of the night or an anonymous letter. If the official didn't go along with the wishes of the Klan, his home was bombed or burned.

During the 1950s, the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam in America which directly threatened the survival of the Klan and the mythological image of Southern life it claimed to represent. The Supreme Court had endorsed school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the beginning of the end of white supremacy had begun. The anger and frustration of those who clung to the segregationist view of the Old South quickly turned to violence.

From the period of 1948 up to 1957, there were 48 unsolved racial bombings in Birmingham alone. An old industrial city of 350,000 people, Birmingham was the largest and most volatile city in Alabama. Its black population was severely segregated in every way, economically, socially and especially in the labor market where they were confined to menial, low-paying jobs. Under Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, an admitted supporter of segregation, the bombings had virtually no chance of being solved. Klansmen sometimes rode along with city police on patrol. Even the police officers who were not members were afraid to react lest they become the next target of the fanatical Klan.

Governor George Wallace
Governor George Wallace

During only one month in 1957, four black churches were bombed in Birmingham as well as at least seven private residences. Most of these attacks took place in the Fountain Heights section, where black families were moving into a predominately white neighborhood. These bombings were so commonplace that the neighborhood became known as "Dynamite Hill." Even the city's newspapers used the term in print. Klan terrorism reached epidemic proportions. Violence seemed to be everywhere. On Labor Day in 1957, four Klansmen abducted and tortured a black handyman. They were arrested and received long prison terms. When George Wallace later became governor, he pardoned all four men without explanation. Such was justice in Alabama.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr.

The terror continued into the 1960s as the tide of civil rights reform pushed on. In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Birmingham to organize a protest movement against city government. What he found there moved him to tears. "Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality," he wrote from the city's jail, "there have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than any other city in this nation."

President John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy

Dr. King was able to win concessions from local businesses to take down the "whites only" signs and begin hiring blacks for more meaningful jobs. But Chief "Bull" Connor called King a liar and a self-promoter. That same night, bombs exploded at a local hotel and in the home of King's brother. A riot broke out in the black community as several thousand blacks took to the streets. President Kennedy sent federal troops to Alabama as a warning and the violence soon stopped.

More bombings followed. In August, several bombs exploded on "Dynamite Hill." No one was killed, but again, fighting quickly erupted. A black man was shot and killed by the Birmingham Police and dozens of others were injured or arrested. Cops were pelted with bricks and bottles. Stores were looted while young people, both black and white, roamed the streets, eager to vent their anger and frustration on the first victim that crossed their path. "Most of us felt we were caught in a war zone," wrote Elizabeth H. Cobbs in her book, Long Time Coming. "We could feel the battle bearing down upon us." This wave of lawlessness persisted throughout the summer of 1963. And at the core of this chaos was the mysterious Klan, unseen, unknowable, seemingly limitless in power and able to strike at anytime, at any place.

It was into this poisoned atmosphere of racial hatred, in a city of fear where no one was safe and everyone was suspect, that four little girls, who knew nothing of civil rights, attended a Sunday service at the Sixteenth Street Bethel Baptist Church.

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