16th Street Baptist Church: Site of tragedy galvanized a movement

AJC Sepia Black History Month

The importance of the 16th Street Baptist Church in the annals of African-American history can’t be overestimated.

Not only was it the first black church to organize in Birmingham, Ala., it was the target in 1963 of the racially motivated bombing that killed four young girls and galvanized the civil rights movement.

As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, the Rev. Arthur Price Jr. often heard bits and pieces of that history. Like the Liberty Bell in his birthplace, 16th Street remains for him “a symbol of freedom, justice and reconciliation for the world,” Price said.

But Price, who was named pastor of the iconic place of worship in 2002, said 16th Street is far more than its history.

It’s the place where people hear his story, the story of Jesus Christ, Price said.

Credit: TOM SELF

Credit: TOM SELF

MORE: Read the AJC's full Black History Month series

From its beginning in 1873, 16th Street Baptist Church had served as the centerpiece of the city’s African-American community, functioning as a meeting place, social center, and lecture hall. Because of its size, location, and importance to the community, it served as headquarters for civil rights mass meetings and rallies in the early 1960s.

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was the chief local organizer, the Rev. James Bevel, the SCLC leader who initiated the Children’s Crusade and taught the students nonviolence, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were frequent speakers at the church. Indeed, nearly every march started at the church’s steps.

And yet, more than any single event, 16th Street is known for what happened on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963. That day, Ku Klux Klan members Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Robert Edward Chambliss planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of the church. At 10:22 a.m., they exploded, killing Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, who were there preparing for the church’s “Youth Day.” Twenty-two others were injured.

Credit: AP file

Credit: AP file

RELATED |A Flower for the Graves

Donations poured in from all over the world to restore the damaged church, and it reopened for services on June 7, 1964. A special memorial gift — a large stained-glass window of the image of a black crucified Christ designed by John Petts — was given by the people of Wales. The window is located in the rear center of the sanctuary at the balcony level.

By the time Price arrived there in 2002, 16th Street, which sees some 40,000 visitors a year, had fallen into disrepair, and its membership was down to fewer than 100. The church had seemingly lost its way.

Credit: Johnny Crawford

Credit: Johnny Crawford

For those reasons, Price said he found the call to one of the most famous churches in the world both “daunting and challenging.”

In addition to increasing the church’s membership to nearly 500, Price launched a restoration and preservation campaign that garnered some $3.2 million to fix structural issues caused by persistent water damage.

“With that, we were able to solidify national historic landmark status in February 2006,” Price said.

His vision for 16th Street is simple: create a Bible-centric ministry that would make Jesus the main attraction and a witness of God’s goodness to Birmingham, this country and to the world.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.