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Remembering dark chapter in civil rights history: 16th Street Baptist Church bombing

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is in Birmingham, Ala. today for events marking 60 years since the Ku Klux Klan bombed a church on a Sunday morning, killing four Black girls. It's an opportunity for us to recall the history and the meaning of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. NPR's Debbie Elliott is in Birmingham. Debbie, good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Always a pleasure to talk with you. Let's talk here about the history. What happened on September 15, 1963?

ELLIOTT: Sure. 16th Street Baptist Church was an important place during the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement in 1963. This was where all those young Civil Rights marchers would gather and they would do their training and then they would go marching through downtown. This particular day, September 15, was supposed to be youth Sunday, and the bomb exploded right near the ladies' lounge where girls were primping and getting ready for this important day. The bomb killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds - Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins. And then Collins' younger sister, Sarah, was also in the restroom that day. She was wounded in the attack and lost an eye. It was just tragic, and it sent shockwaves around the world showing just how far people were willing to go to maintain white supremacy in the American South.

INSKEEP: How did people across the country respond to those shockwaves?

ELLIOTT: You know, many credit the events in Birmingham - along with Medgar Evers' assassination in Mississippi that same year - with galvanizing support for the Civil Rights Act. Bombing survivor Sarah Collins Rudolph says she takes solace in that.

SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH: Our history changed things. You know, the Civil Rights Bill was passed, and those girls did not die in vain. And I thank God for that.

INSKEEP: What are some other things people are saying 60 years later in Birmingham?

ELLIOTT: You know, the message that I've been hearing this week is that there are lessons for America today. Carolyn McKinstry was 15 years old at the time. She was the Sunday school's secretary and had actually answered a phone call that morning where a man simply said three minutes and hung up, and then the bomb went off. She has made it her ministry to retell this story. She had been so traumatized that she was silent about it for 20 years. Here's what she says now.

CAROLYN MCKINSTRY: Sixty years later, I see things that are frighteningly reminiscent of what happened in the 1960s.

ELLIOTT: She says she's concerned that hate crimes are on the rise and that not enough people are speaking out - the same way it was back then. She's also concerned politicians - some politicians are trying to squelch this type of history - talking about this type of history. McKinstry says she's going to keep telling her story to remind people that racial violence and hate can only lead to what she says is devastation.

INSKEEP: What does it mean to people in Alabama that Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is in town to emphasize this history?

ELLIOTT: You know, I talked with former Alabama Senator Doug Jones about that. He was the federal prosecutor who brought two of the Birmingham bombers to justice nearly 40 years later. He is going to introduce the Justice today. And here's what he thinks about her standing in that historic pulpit.

DOUG JONES: I don't think in 1963 people fully appreciated what we lost with those lives of those four girls and the potential that they had. She is the embodiment of that. She is what those girls could have been. She is what those girls should have been.

ELLIOTT: Now, during the service today, church bells throughout Birmingham are going to ring in unison at the time that the bomb exploded 60 years ago.

INSKEEP: Debbie, thanks. It's always a pleasure to hear your voice. Thank you.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Debbie Elliott is in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.