Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., site of a racially motivated bombing that killed four African-American girls in 1963, was declared a National Historic Landmark on Monday.
On the morning of Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963 the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, which had gained national recognition as a nerve center for rallies and marches led by Martin Luther King.
Three 14-year-olds– Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley–and 11-year-old Denise McNair, died as they studied a Sunday school lesson. The attack became a worldwide symbol of racial hatred and helped galvanize support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in public places, such as restaurants, movie theaters and hotels.
“We preserve this place as a reminder that civil rights are a fundamental American promise,” U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said in a ceremony marking the official designation on Monday.
The church began the process of seeking recognition about a year ago and learned last week that Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton signed a proclamation adding the church to a list of about 2,500 places that carry the title of National Historic Landmark, according to the Birmingham News.
According to a National Parks Service Web site profiling historic places of the civil-rights movement, white strangers visited the grieving families to express their sorrow, and 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of both races, attended the service.
A week after the blast, according to a 1999 essay on Southern Baptist resistance to the civil-rights movement by historian Andrew Manis, the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee proposed a resolution to join the stricken congregation “in mourning your dead,” pledging “energetic efforts in healing the rift between the races” and promising “to encourage our people to contribute toward the restoration of your building.”
Not only did the Executive Committee defeat the resolution, Manis said, but it also instructed Southern Baptist state newspaper editors to remain silent on the debate on the resolution.
No charges were filed at first, but eventually three Klansmen were convicted of the blast, the last in 2002.
A 1997 documentary by Spike Lee, titled “4 Little Girls,” recounts the people and events leading up to what one Web site described as “one of the most despicable hate-crimes during the height of the civil-rights movement.”
National Historic Landmarks are designated “because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States,” according to the Department of Interior. Fewer than 2,500 places bear the distinction nationally. The church has been on the department’s National Register of Historic Places since 1980.
The ceremony took place amid a current rash of arsons, for reasons that are unclear, apparently targeting Baptist churches in rural Alabama.
Gonzalez said the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives established a tip line and reward for information to help crack the case.
“As long as houses of worship are targeted and attacked–for any reason–the Justice Department will enforce our lows to keep every church, mosque and synagogue safe from violent crime,” he said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.