The Choirs Kept Singing of Freedom
16th Street Baptist Church Bombing
In the annals of racist terrorism, few acts were more hideous or cowardly than the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Sixty years ago — shortly before 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, September 15, 1963 — nineteen sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device blew out a hole two meters wide in the eighty year-old church’s back wall, and a half meter-deep hole in its basement. The blast knocked a passing motorist from his car, blew out windows blocks away and could be heard and felt across town.
Five girls were in the church’s basement at the time, preparing for a sermon entitled “A Rock That Will Not Roll.”
Four were killed:
Carol Denise McNair was eleven. Addie May Collins, Carole Rosamond Robertson and Cynthia Dionne Wesley were fourteen. One of the four was decapitated. Twenty-two others were injured, some of them grievously.
In the minds of the four Klansmen who committed the hideous crime, the 16th Street Baptist Church was a logical target. Since that Spring, it had been the epicenter of civil rights organizing aimed at registering black voters, desegregating downtown businesses and schools and confronting violence meted out by local Klansmen — violence committed with the support of Birmingham police.
Indeed, in the years leading up to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, almost two dozen Black-owned businesses and homes had been torched or bombed, earning the northern Alabama city its nickname — “Bombingham.”
With the encouragement and guidance of activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Congress of Racial Equality, Birmingham residents kicked off the Birmingham Campaign, centering around non-violent direct action and civil disobedience.
School kids were at the vanguard.
Over the course of two days in early May 1963, three thousand participated in the Childrens’ Crusade. On the first day, scores were arrested. On the second day, under the command of Birmingham’s notorious Commissioner for Public Safety, Theophilus Eugene (“Bull”) Connor, Birmingham police sicced attack dogs on the kids, and pounded them with fire hoses powerful enough to remove mortar from brick walls and bark from trees.
This was the sort of response Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders had anticipated. Police brutality against ordinary school children, some as young as four, became instant national TV news.
In response to the devastating media coverage (these were the early days of prime time evening news, when families gathered around black and white TV sets), President John Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, began crafting civil rights legislation that would culminate in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
On August 28, 1963, millions marched on Washington, listening, spellbound, to Martin Luther King and his I Have a Dream speech. The following week, desegregated classrooms opened up in Birmingham public schools.
For Denise McNair, Addie May Collins, Carole Rosamond Robertson and Cynthia Dionne Wesley, there would be little time to celebrate. Although the FBI would establish the identity of their murderers in 1965, the four Klansmen would run free for years. In 1977, Robert Chambliss was handed a life sentence for the murder of Carol McNair. Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry received life sentences in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Herman Frank Cash died in 1994.
Awful crimes have a way of bearing sweet fruit. Shortly after the cruel murder of Denise, Addie May, Carole and Cynthia, Irish-Cuban-American poet-songwriter Richard Fariña penned a song, in eight verses, based on the traditional Scottish ballad, I Once Loved a Lass (recently popularized by folk elder Ewan MacColl):
Come round by my side and I’ll sing you a song,
I’ll sing it so softly, it’ll do no one wrong;
On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine,
And the choirs kept singing of freedom …
Fariña devoted a stanza to each of the four murdered girls. Then, the sixth verse:
On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook the ground,
And people all over the earth turned around;
For no one recalled a more cowardly sound,
And the choirs kept singing of freedom.
The seventh verse of Fariña’s song was a riddle — a reworking of the famous riddle in that Scottish ballad:
The men o’ yon forest, they askit o’ me,
Hoo many strawberries grew in the saut sea;
But I askit them back wi’ a tear in my e’e,
Hoo many ships sail in the forest?
The men in the forest they once asked of me,
How many black berries grew in the Blue Sea;
I asked them right back with a tear in my eye,
How many dark ships in the forest?
Richard Fariña’s version of Birmingham Sunday would end up getting released in 1965, on an album featuring Fariña and three other emerging artists — Patrick Sky, Dave Cohen (aka David Blue) and Bruce Murdoch.
Joan Baez had already made the song famous in her October 1964 album, Joan Baez/5.
Always at the head of the pack (having listened to Ewan MacColl, Richard Fariña and Fariña’s sister-in-law Joan Baez), in his August 1964 ‘Another Side’ release, Bob Dylan took the sad song’s structure and melody in a completely different, deeply personal direction.
As for that old riddle, Dylan — now bored by popular protest — cast a jaundiced eye on mundane notions of freedom:
My friends from the prison, they ask unto me,
“How good, how good does it feel to be free?”
And I answer them most mysteriously,
Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?
The GPM spoke with Paul Kix, author of the book You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live – Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America.
Listen to our conversation here: