We the Teachers

Fifty Years Ago: A Shocking Crime Builds Momentum for the 1964 Civil Rights Act

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, photographed by John Morse (Wikimedia Commons).

In the early fall of 1963, a climactic year in the civil rights struggle, an event in Birmingham, Alabama shocked the national conscience: the bombing on September 15 of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Four young girls who were walking into Sunday school class were killed by a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan members near the basement assembly room. The targeted church had been a rallying point for civil rights activities that had led to an agreement with city leaders in the late spring to begin integration of public places.

Martin Luther King delivered the eulogy at the funeral service for three of the girls on September 18. He opened with words that shifted the moral emphasis away from outrage at the terrorists who set the bomb and toward a general examination of conscience, as he called on all Americans, ordinary citizens and officials, blacks and whites, to abandon passivity in the face of racial injustice—beginning with “every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows” (the bomb blast had blown out all but one of the stained glass windows in the church).

Read “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” Martin Luther King, Jr.,September 18, 1963.

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