Sept. 15, 1963

The four girls killed in the bombing (clockwise from top left) Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; Carole Robertson, 14; and Carol Denise McNair, 11. Credit: Wikipedia

Members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four young girls, Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14. Collins’ younger sister, Sarah, was blinded by the blast, which also injured 22 others. 

That same day, police shot and killed 16-year-old Johnny Robinson after a group of kids reportedly threw rocks. Virgil Ware, 13, was shot to death while riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle. (The teens who killed him got no jail time.) 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Dear Mr. President, I shudder to think what our nation has become when Sunday school children … are killed in church by racist bombs.” 

Days later, he told a crowd of 8,000 at the girls’ funeral service, “The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to the city.” 

The bombing became a turning point in generating broader sympathy for the civil rights movement. On the same day of the bombing, James Bevel and Diane Nash began the Alabama Project, which later grew into the Selma Voting Rights Movement.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.