Birmingham Bombing: 50 Years Later, A Different America?

It's been half a century since the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. The blast killed four little girls and was a turning point in the civil rights movement. Host Michel Martin revisits that era with historian Taylor Branch.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, many American students who misbehave in class are being labeled as needing therapy or medication. We'll hear from a writer who says that's not the best solution for the kids or their teachers or for the country. That's in just a few minutes.

First, though, we want to remember a significant turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the bomb attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That attack killed four little girls. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley - all 14 years olds - and 11-year-old Denise McNair were just preparing for Sunday school. Last week, they were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Here is Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell speaking at that event.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE TERRI SEWELL: They died at the hands of a system that remained silent - silent about blatant violent acts of hatred. Well, today, 50 years later, we remained silent no more.

MARTIN: We wanted to know more about the importance of this particular event. So once again, we've called on Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch. He's written many books about this time period, including a series of well-regarded biographies on Martin Luther King Jr. called "The King Years," and he's with us once again. Taylor Branch, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: We're reminded that - you were with us just three weeks ago to talk about the March on Washington, and this attack came just three weeks after that event, which was such a moment of celebration for the people who put it on. Can you just talk about what was the response when this thing happened on a Sunday morning?

BRANCH: Shock. The response was shock to people's bones. This wasn't really the first time that this had happened in the civil rights era that a hopeful event, a legal event, like the Brown decision, was followed very shortly by the murder of Emmett Till, the lynching in Mississippi. And here you had the hopeful March on Washington, nine years later, answered only 18 days later by this unspeakable crime. But the Birmingham church bombing - it can be healing and it can be instructive to look at because, like the discussion you were just having about Syria, it really went to the heart of what is the relationship between violence and democracy, and how do we respond when there's violence that we don't know what to do with. And the Civil Rights Movement found a constructive response to that in dealing with something that is still mind-numbing to this day, to think that a church could be blown up early on a Sunday morning.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, you write in the book, you say, since the Montgomery Bus Boycott, civil rights veterans had learned to anticipate harsh reprisals in the wake of any hopeful celebration. But surely, they didn't anticipate this. I mean, I want to play a short clip from Martin Luther King Jr. This is his first statement after the bombing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: What murdered these four girls? The apathy and the complacency of many Negro who will sit down on their stools and do nothing and not engage in creative protests to get rid of this evil system.

MARTIN: So he's calling for a challenge for other peoples who are, let's say, the bystanders. But what about people like President Kennedy? What about white national leaders, what was their response?

BRANCH: Well, that is chastening even to this day for Americans who admire President Kennedy. His response was to send the football coach at West Point - the ex-football coach - and a lawyer down there to hold segregated meetings in Birmingham about whether there was any hope. And he said, otherwise, the solution was up to the people of Birmingham. So it was more or less a hands-off, there's not much the federal government can do, which in retrospect is kind of shocking.

MARTIN: The other thing that was shocking that I learned from your book was that there were reprisal killings immediately thereafter of black people. For example, that there were two, what, 13-year-old boys who were shot by two Eagle Scouts in the wake of this. Could you talk a little bit more about that? Like...

BRANCH: Well, there were two shootings - one by the police. The one by the Eagle Scouts is a moment that just hangs there. The Eagle Scouts were at a segregationist rally that was interrupted by the word that the church had been bombed and they left. But a preacher was exhorting the people to resist integration, and these Eagle Scouts left and they saw a black boy riding by on his bicycle. And they had a pistol and they just - they said they had no idea what made them do it. They just shot at him and hit him in the head and killed him.

So there is a randomness about violence and a mystery about it that still comes, but the question always is, what do we do about it? And the Birmingham church bombing is - the great lesson from that is that people from the Civil Rights Movement went to Martin Luther King and said we have to answer this crime with something in nonviolence that's on the same scale with the evil.

And Diane Nash, a leader from Nashville, presented Martin Luther King with what became the blueprint for Selma, saying if we can win the right to vote for black people in Alabama, we could end crimes like this because we know that this one is not going to be treated seriously. And so...

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Why was that the response? The Selma March and the movement toward voting rights came after this, but why was that - strategically - why was that the focus?

BRANCH: Why did she pick that as the focus?

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly.

BRANCH: Well, she stayed up all night breaking furniture and crying. She had had something to do with the marches by children out of that church. She felt responsible for it in the spring. It's no accident that it was the 16th Street Baptist Church that was bombed because it was out of that church that all the marches in the spring, when Dr. King was writing the letter from Birmingham Jail occurred, and that children marched out of the church. That was the great breaking point in the emotional resistance that had happened in May.

So here's this bombing in September. Diane felt responsible because kids were - paid the price for marches that she had supported by children, that were very controversial. And she stayed up all night. She told me that they actually considered trying to do a vigilante response, that you can't trust the system. So we know who did these bombings, let's find some people to go and exact vigilante justice.

But she finally said - they stayed up all night and decided they wanted to try to find something - was there anything in the tradition of nonviolence that was strong enough to answer an evil of this magnitude? And what they said was that if we could form a nonviolent army to try to shut down Alabama until it granted black people the right to vote, that you would no longer be able to slough off these crimes the way they always had been.

You know, Birmingham was called Bombingham because it had had so many unsolved bombings - over 50 of them in the previous decade. And she came up with the idea that trying to mount a movement for the right to vote was of a scale. And, of course, she harassed Dr. King until he went into Selma. When she took the plan to him, he said, Diane, we finally got a segregation bill before the Congress. We can't tell them we've changed our mind and we want to go on voting rights. And she said, I understand, but you have to give people an outlet that is constructive when they're ready to die and witness after an event like this. So she presented this blueprint and hounded him until a year later - a year and a half later, he mounted the drive for - the Selma drive for the right to vote.

MARTIN: How do you want us to think about this day? I mean, we spent so much energy and time talking about the March in Washington, this huge, commemorative event -what would you want us to think about when we think about what happened on this day in Birmingham, 50 years ago?

BRANCH: Two things. Number one, that it came out of history. It was because that church had been so pivotal in mobilizing the nation, really breaking down people's resistance to the idea that this was something they should deal with. When people saw the dogs and fire hoses loosed on small children marching out of that same church in May, all around the country and, indeed, all around the world, they said, you know, this racial segregation is something that I have to do something about. And...

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now.

BRANCH: OK.

MARTIN: Taylor Branch is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. His latest book is "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement," and he was with us from Baltimore, Maryland. Taylor Branch, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

BRANCH: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you.

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