Alabama Public Television remembers the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings and the unresolved murders of four Black girls. Read the story from Un(re)solved, a multiplatform experience examining a federal effort to grapple with America's legacy of racist killings from FRONTLINE.
On Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, members of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young Black girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Morris Wesley — and blinding a fifth, Collins' sister Sarah.
The bombing was far from an isolated event, Un(re)solved advisory council member Jerry Mitchell said in a 2021 panel with Lisa McNair, Denise's younger sister, that was hosted by the Mississippi Book Festival and moderated by FRONTLINE's director of impact, Erika Howard.
"American terrorism was taking place in Birmingham," said Mitchell, an author and journalist whose reporting with the Jackson, Mississippi newspaper The Clarion-Ledger helped reopen multiple civil rights era murder cases. "They were bombing African American homes, neighborhoods … so many in one neighborhood [that it] became called Dynamite Hill."
Those other, less well-known bombings went unsolved, Mitchell said. And for years, accountability for the four girls' murders also remained elusive.
"Being a child, you watch TV, and on TV, when someone commits a crime, they get arrested. They go to jail," Lisa McNair said. "So it just seemed odd to me that we were not afforded that."
One man was convicted of murder in 1977 for his role in the four girls' deaths. Mitchell's reporting helped bring about the conviction of another man decades later.
"It’s all about truth," said Mitchell. "And the reason we need truth is we can’t get justice without truth. And even if we can’t get justice, if for some reason justice is impossible, we can still have truth."
With today marking the 60th anniversary of the bombing, listen to the panel discussion, held in partnership with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, about the search for truth and justice and the reasons why, in many civil rights era cases, neither has been found.
Other stories honoring civil rights and Black resistance from FRONTLINE
Un(re)solved and the documentary American Reckoning will be exhibited at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History Conference, which runs Sept. 20-24 in Jacksonville, Florida. The organization's membership includes Black historians and academics from across the nation.
During the conference, Florida-based civil rights era cold cases will be highlighted (like those of Harry and Harriette Moore). So will American Reckoning, the Emmy-nominated documentary component of Un(re)solved, which explores the unsolved murder of Wharlest Jackson Sr. The documentary also sheds light on how members of a Black-led armed resistance and self-defense group, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, protected marchers and enforced a 1965 NAACP-led boycott in Natchez, Mississippi, a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity.