Johnny's Death: The Untold Tragedy In Birmingham It was 47 years ago this week that four black girls died in the bombing at a Baptist church in Alabama. But there was another killing that day. A 16-year-old black boy was shot in the back by a white police officer. His story's now being told.
NPR logo

Johnny's Death: The Untold Tragedy In Birmingham

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Johnny's Death: The Untold Tragedy In Birmingham

Johnny's Death: The Untold Tragedy In Birmingham

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


A bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on this day 47 years ago. The explosion killed four little girls, and became a tragic marker in civil rights history. Racial violence broke out on the streets that afternoon, and it claimed the life of teenager, Johnny Robinson.

NPR's Carrie Johnson takes us back to that day.

CARRIE JOHNSON: For four decades, the circumstances surrounding Johnny Robinson's death remained a mystery. The family didn't talk about what happened to Johnny on the streets of Birmingham a few hours after the bomb went off at the Baptist church. His sister, Diane Robinson Samuels, heard her brother was hurt, and arrived at the hospital in late afternoon.

Ms. DIANE ROBINSON SAMUELS: My mama was coming out the door and she said, your brother dead, your brother dead. I think it was about four or five cops was there. And she was just beating on them with her fists, just beating. Y'all killed my son: Y'all killed my son.

JOHNSON: Her older brother, Johnny, had been shot in the back by a white policeman. FBI files in the archives of a Birmingham library offer more detail about what happened that afternoon.

Johnny Robinson was hanging around with a few other black teenagers near a gas station on 26th street. It was a tense scene. White kids drove by, waving Confederate flags and tossing soda pop bottles out of car windows. They exchanged racial slurs with Robinson and his group. FBI agent Dana Gillis works on civil rights cases in the South.

Mr. DANA GILLIS (FBI Agent): There was a lot of back-and-forth that you might expect between individuals that were sympathetic to the death of the girls and their families, as opposed to these individuals that had no feelings whatsoever for what was being done.

JOHNSON: Witnesses told the FBI in 1963 that Johnny was with a group of boys who threw rocks at a car draped with a Confederate flag. But the rocks missed their target and hit another vehicle instead. That's when a police car arrived. Officer Jack Parker, a member of the all-white police force for a dozen years, was sitting in the back seat with a shotgun pointed out the window. The police car blocked the alley. Dana Gillis reviewed the FBI files. He describes what happened next.

Mr. GILLIS: The crowd was running away, and Mr. Robinson had his back - as he was running away - toward the police vehicle, and the shot hit him in the back.

JOHNSON: Three other policemen in the car offered explanations for the shooting. One said it could have been an accident because the driver slammed on the brakes, and that commotion could have accidentally shot off the gun. Another said the car might have hit a bump in the road.

But several other witnesses with no ties to the police said they heard two shots and no advance, verbal warnings. News reports at the time concluded -mistakenly - that the kids had been tossing rocks at the police. A local grand jury reviewed the evidence back in 1963, but declined to move forward with any criminal prosecution against the white police officer.

Doug Jones grew up in Birmingham. He prosecuted two men responsible for the church bomb. And he says he's not surprised the Johnny Robinson case went nowhere.

Mr. DOUG JONES (Former Prosecutor): Those cases involving the excessive force or discretion of a police officer are very, very difficult to make, even in today's world - much less in 1963, when you would have an all-white, probably all-male jury who was going to side with that police officer, by and large.

JOHNSON: The four little girls who died in the church basement attracted worldwide attention. But Johnny Robinson's death, six hours later, mostly went unrecognized - that is, until the FBI reopened the investigation a few years ago as part of its effort to figure out whether it could prosecute old civil rights cold cases from the 1960s.

Jones, the former prosecutor, says that day rocked the entire city.

Mr. JONES: There'd been a lot of racial violence. There'd been the marches in Birmingham with the fire hoses and the dogs. But here you had a church - I mean, this is the Bible Belt, and you had the church that was blown up, a Sunday morning, and to what clearly was designed to hurt or maim or kill somebody.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department and the White House expressed some interest in the Johnny Robinson case at the time. A civil rights leader, C. Herbert Oliver, called Washington to say the government wasn't doing enough to protect black children.

Mr. LEON ROBINSON: I was just so thankful that I wasn't with him that day, 'cause I probably would have ended up getting killed, too.

JOHNSON: That's Leon Robinson, Johnny's younger brother. He says the family never heard concern from any one at the White House or even the Birmingham police.

Mr. ROBINSON: Nah, nah, nah, nah. That wasn't going to happen - not here in Alabama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: Dana Gillis, of the FBI, came to their neighborhood a few months ago. He knocked on their door and gave them a real picture of what happened to their 16-year-old brother. Diane Samuels says the news came too late for their mother.

Ms. SAMUELS: We didn't hear nothing else about what was going on with him 'til that FBI came here. We didn't even know it was no cold case or nothing. Then he came to our house and sit down to tell us what had happened - me and my brother now. They didn't tell us while my mama was living. My mama died in '91.

JOHNSON: The Robinsons say their brother Johnny was a good kid, but the family had troubles. Their father died in a fight. The younger kids went to live with an aunt. In the years after the shooting, their mother didn't want to discuss it. She struggled with mental illness, and ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a while.

Leon Robinson says the family never really talked about what happened. In fact, he says, he and his sister went to school the day after the shooting.

Mr. ROBINSON: Back in those days, parents wouldn't - we didn't discuss that. They didn't set down and talk to us like we talking now. Kept everything inside, you know, and so we had to just deal with it ourselves. That's what we did.

There could be another reason why Johnny Robinson's case never got a lot of attention. It's in the FBI files. Johnny Robinson had a juvenile record, and served some time in detention. He'd been picked up by the Birmingham police in 1960, when he was 13 years old, on suspicion of burglary and grand larceny. And the police were plenty busy around that time. They were fighting, among other things, a proposal to integrate the force.

Jack Parker, head of a Fraternal Order of Police lodge and the same man who shot Johnny Robinson, signed an ad in the newspaper shortly after Robinson's death, arguing against integration of the police force. Jack Parker died in 1977.

The FBI and the Justice Department finally told the Robinsons they couldn't move forward with a possible case of excessive force or hate crimes against a dead man. The FBI's Dana Gillis says he's sorry it took so long for the family to get information about their brother's death.

Mr. GILLIS: When you look at the history of that day and age, that was just the loss of a life. And it may not have been a life that had value on the part of the institutions that were in place at that time.

JOHNSON: In the last few years, the Robinsons have started to get some local recognition. The city of Birmingham proclaimed Johnny Robinson a foot soldier in the civil rights movement. But Diane Samuels says her brother never really got the attention he deserved.

Ms. SAMUELS: And they shouldn't have just focused on them little girls, you know, the big wheels. I guess you had to be in the big league, you know. But in my heart, me, I am a big wheel, and that was my brother.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.