This Day in Black History: Sept. 15, 1963

Four Black girls died after Klansmen detonated a bomb in the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. 

Posted: 09/14/2014 12:00 AM EDT

Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley (Photo: / Associated Press / SL)

On Sept. 15, 1963, four Black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, were killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, after a member of the Ku Klux Klan detonated a bomb under the steps of the church.

The girls were attending Sunday school in the church’s basement when the bomb exploded. Fourteen others were also injured in the blast.

Although the Ku Klux Klan was suspected to be involved, no one was initially arrested for the crime. It was later revealed that then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover identified four suspects immediately after the blast, but prevented agents from passing the information to prosecutors.

After the investigation was reopened in 2000, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry surrendered after they were indicted on first-degree murder charges. Blanton was sentenced to life in prison at age 62. Cherry was also sentenced to life in prison and died while incarcerated from cancer in 2004 at age 72.

The deaths of the girls sparked riots around the city and were especially poignant given Birmingham’s designation as America’s most segregated city at the time. Just days before the bombing, Birmingham schools were federally ordered to integrate and that same year, Gov. George Wallace physically kept two African-American students from entering the University of Alabama.

In 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was a well-known hub of civil rights activity and leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth organized demonstrations at the church.

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