Martyrs of Birmingham
(d. 1963)

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Martyrs of Birmingham

On the morning of September 15, 1963, someone tossed a packet of dynamite through the basement window of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Moments later an explosion took the lives of four young girls and seriously injured twenty others. The slain children were Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all fourteen, and Denise McNair, eleven. At the moment of the blast they had just finished their Sunday school lesson and were changing into their choir robes.

The bombing was a terrible rejoinder to the uplifting spectacle, only weeks before, of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” In Birmingham, it followed an intense summer of demonstrations to challenge the rigidly enforced policies of racial segregation. All this seemed to culminate in the explosion on this Sunday morning. The awful symbolism of such a massacre in church, and the innocence of the young victims, underscored the spiritual character of the forces engaged in the Birmingham struggle—literally a battle between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.

Reverend King delivered the eulogy at the girls’ funeral, calling them “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity,” and expressing hope that their deaths would awaken the conscience of Birmingham and the nation and so douse the flames of hatred and division.

“These children—unoffending, innocent and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious, heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”

—Martin Luther King Jr.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.