The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, while a fictional story, is set on the edge of an actual act of horrific violence, The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in September of 1963.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was organized in 1873, the first black church in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, which had been founded just two years before. The current structure, built in 1911, was designed by a black architect and built by a black contractor. As one of the primary black institutions in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church has hosted prominent visitors throughout its history. W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, and Ralph Bunche all spoke at the church during the first part of the 20th century. During the 1950s and 1960s, the church was a center for Civil Rights activism.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, white terrorists, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted a bomb at the church, set to explode as people gathered for Sunday worship. The explosion blew large holes in the church’s walls, destroyed the rear steps to the church, and blew a passing motorist out of his car. Several other cars parked near the site of the blast were destroyed, and windows of properties located more than two blocks from the church were also damaged. All but one of the church’s stained-glass windows were destroyed in the explosion.
Dozens of people were seriously injured in the blast, and four girls were killed: Denise McNair, age 11; Carole Robertson, age 14; Addie Mae Collins, age 14; and Cynthia Wesley, age 14.
Across the country, people were outraged by the loss of these young lives. Today, many historians contend that the church bombing was among the pivotal events that helped the nation to focus on the need to protect the rights of all its citizens, leading to passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Although four suspects were identified by the FBI within nine months of the bombing, there were no trials or convictions in the case until 1977, 2001, and 2002. A fourth suspect died of cancer in 1994 without ever coming to trial.
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