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It was September 15, 1963, Youth Day at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabamaa time when the young people of the church carried out the day's worship service. The church had been the center of civil rights demonstrations that April and May. But that fact was not likely on the minds of most church members that morning, especially not the four girls who were to be part of the Youth Day's activities. They had left their Sunday School class early and were preparing excitedly for their role on the morning's program. Suddenly a tremendous blast "shook the entire church and showered the classrooms with plaster." The four girls lay dead, buried beneath mounds of debris and mortar, and twenty-one others lay injured.
The explosion that took the lives of Denise McNair, eleven years old, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley, all fourteen, was one of the events which changed the nature of the Modern Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and in the South as a whole. Blacks had been killed before in the struggle for their rights. Medgar Evers, leader of the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had been assassinated that June. But the Birmingham demonstrations for the previous spring had not resulted in any deaths. Neither had any of the forty racial bombings that had taken place in Birmingham over the past years. What shocked blacks, and many whites, was that a church, a house of God, had been bombed, and four innocent children had been killed.
The days and hours immediately following the explosion revealed a city badly shaken by the events of September 15. To forestall violent retaliation on the part of blacks, Governor George Wallace ordered three hundred state troopers to the city. Businesses closed their doors. Black and white youths engaged in rock battles on Birmingham streets. Police restricted blacks to their neighborhoods; blacks acted as protectors of many of the homes of community leaders.
More important was the lasting impression the murders had on blacks and whites in the city. Initially, some whites expressed dismay over the tragedy, but gradually became fearful of possible black retaliation. Other whites apparently believed the bombing opened the door for further acts of violence against African Americans. Two blacks were killed by whites in the hours following the explosion, one by police, the other by white teenagers. The attack on the church also had disquieting effects in the black population. Some of the city's more conservative African-American elements saw the bombing as the result of a civil rights movement which had gone too far, too fast in its goals and tactics. Most African Americans were overpowered by the bombing's essential meaning: that despite the success of recent demonstrations in their community, they still faced an extremist element in their midst which was committed to carrying out any evil to maintain racial subjugation.
But courageous and insightful blacks and moderate and liberal whites were touched by the tremendous devastation and human suffering the explosion caused and some of these determined that such an act should not happen again. And the bombing persuaded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the civil rights group led by Martin Luther King Jr. that had organized the Birmingham demonstrations, to accelerate its efforts to ensure that blacks received the opportunity to live in a safe and just society.