History of Investigations

The Bombing

1997 Janet Reno Speech

Boston Busing Violence

For Sale:

Long Time Coming: An Insider's Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World.

Behind the Stained Glass: A History of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case

4 Little Girls: 1998 Spike Lee Documentary

From the July 24, 1997 issue of Workers World newspaper

The FBI & the Birmingham church bombing

By Monica Moorehead

One of the most heinous terrorist acts of the civil-rights or any era has been resurrected in the national news. And deservedly so.

On Sept. 15, 1963, on a Sunday morning in Birmingham, Ala., a powerful bomb was thrown into the basement of the all-Black Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Sunday school was in session.

The explosion instantly killed 11-year-old Denise McNair along with Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Robertson, all 14 years old. Scores of others were injured.

On the eve of the 34th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Birmingham bombing, filmmaker Spike Lee has made a moving, extraordinary feature-length documentary movie entitled "Four Little Girls." And in early July the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced it is reopening the bombing case based on "new information."

Lee's documentary includes interviews with the surviving family members, friends and acquaintances of the four murdered children, with leaders and foes of the civil-rights movement, and with news analysts. These interviews are interwoven with historic footage of some of the most dramatic images of the civil-rights movement, especially highlighting the role of young people.

Lee's film provides an incredible glimpse into the lives of these four girls and how those who knew and loved them have heroically dealt with the terrible pain of their losses.

The documentary will be shown on HBO next February. It is in limited theatrical release for only two weeks in a handful of cities.

It is no accident that the bombing took place at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.


Birmingham, the state's industrial hub, was seen as the center of the civil-rights movement. A number of Freedom Rides went from Birmingham to Montgomery. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the civil-rights movement's main organizing center.

Activists--especially Black youths--came there to map out strategies for reaching out to high-school students to get involved in the struggle for winning basic democratic rights for Black people.

This is how Harrison Salisbury, a New York Times reporter, described Birmingham--or Bombingham as it was called in civil-rights circles--in 1963: "Whites and Blacks still walk the same streets. But the streets, the water supply and the sewer system are about the only public facilities they share.

"Ball parks and taxicabs are segregated. So are libraries. A book featuring black rabbits and white rabbits was banned. A drive is on to forbid `Negro music' on `white' radio stations.

"Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, reinforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state's apparatus."

The city was run by the notorious police chief, Eugene "Bull" Connor. He ordered the Fire Department to turn its fire hoses full-force against Black demonstrators. He carried out mass arrests, ordering his Nazi-like storm troopers to beat Black people senseless and sic their vicious dogs on young children and adults.

This is exactly what happened on May 3, 1963.

Martin Luther King had called for a mass march in Birmingham. Thousands from the Black community came out in the streets.

Fifteen hundred young people overflowed the jails within three days.

In response to this brutal repression, Black people pelted the police with rocks, bricks and bottles. A full-scale rebellion had erupted in Birmingham--which scared the racist local authorities, and forced President John Kennedy to address the country about Birmingham.


The neo-fascist J. Edgar Hoover, one of the civil-rights movement's biggest enemies, ran the FBI during this period. Hoover was the mastermind behind Cointelpro-- Counterintelligence Program--whose main goal was to destroy every national-liberation movement inside the United States.

In order to infiltrate the civil-rights movement, the FBI cooperated with racist state and local authorities throughout the South, including Birmingham. In the book "Agents of Repression," authors Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall write: "Hoover dubbed King `the most notorious liar in the country.' At the same time agents in Birmingham, Ala., actually were passing information to the Ku Klux Klan, via a police liaison they knew to be a Klansman, facilitating physical attacks on civil-rights workers, thus going way beyond what King had asserted in theory."

A KKK member, Robert Chambliss, was the only person convicted of the Birmingham bombing. That was in 1977. He died in prison. But there were always assertions that he was not the lone mass murderer.

In fact, in light of the insidious role the FBI played during the civil-rights era, everyone should seriously question why the Bureau is reopening this case almost 34 years later--when it already knows all the guilty parties that were involved in this crime, starting with itself.

The fact that the FBI is reopening this case is tantamount to a fox guarding the chicken coop. What is really needed is an independent investigation into the bombing, and a demand that the FBI make public all its records--not only on the bombing, but on the FBI's sordid role in working hand in hand with "Bull" Connor and the racist Birmingham administration.

The FBI claims there is no direct correlation between its reopening the case and the release of Lee's "Four Little Girls." But of course, the FBI knew when Lee started filming the documentary and when it would be released.

The FBI wanted to put this bombing behind it. Now a whole new generation of progressive activists and organizers will know what happened on a Sunday morning on Sept. 15, 1963, in Birmingham, Ala. And they will never forget.

Copyright Workers World Service: Reprinted with permission from the July 24, 1997 issue of Workers World newspaper
Buy the Spike Lee Documentary, "4 Little Girls"

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