Sixty years ago today, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, reeled from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the latest attack in a period of terrorism against the Black community that had begun in 1949. Four children were killed while changing into choir robes: Addie Mae Collins, aged fourteen; Carol Denise McNair, eleven; Carole Rosamond Robertson, fourteen; and Cynthia Dionne Wesley, fourteen. At least twenty others were injured (the FBI site states “more than 20”) in the dynamite attack, including Sarah Collins, Addie Mae’s sister.
The next day, a white lawyer named Charles Morgan, Jr. was scheduled to give a speech to the Birmingham Young Men’s Business Club. His career up to that point had already made him a target of the Ku Klux Klan—representing Black clients in both criminal and civil cases had brought him to their attention and made him the target of threats. His speech on that day was one written that morning “from anger and despair, from frustration and empathy. And from years of hopes, hopes that were shattered and crumbled with the steps of that Negro Baptist Church.”
Morgan’s life changed after giving it—after warnings and death threats, he fled with his family and established the Southern Regional office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
It would take fourteen years for the first Klansman to be tried and convicted for the bombing, and thirty-seven years for the remaining two to be sentenced to a life term for each child murdered (a fourth suspect was never arrested and died in 1994.)
Below is an annotation of Morgan’s speech, with relevant scholarship covering the historical, social, and political history of the Birmingham Campaign, the larger Southern Civil Rights Movement, and their continuing relevance to current events. As always, the supporting research is free to read and download.
A mad, remorseful worried community asks, “Who did it? Who threw that bomb?” The answer should be, “We all did it.” Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and the ones last month. Last year. A decade ago. We all did it.
A short time later, white policemen kill a Negro and wound another. A few hours later, two young men on a motorbike shoot and kill a Negro child. Fires break out, and, in Montgomery, white youths assault Negroes.
And all across Alabama, an angry, guilty people cry out their mocking shouts of indignity and say they wonder “Why?” “Who?” Everyone then “deplores” the “dastardly” act.
But you know the “who” of “Who did it?” is really rather simple. The “who” is every little individual who spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter.
It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren’t really like they are.
It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law.
It is all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence. It is the coward in each of us who clucks admonitions.
We are ten years of lawless preachments, ten years of criticism of law, of courts, of our fellow man, a decade of telling school children the opposite of what the civics books say.
We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry and stand indicted before our young. We are cursed by the failure of each of us to accept responsibility, by our defense of an already dead institution.
Yesterday while Birmingham, which prides itself on the number of churches, was attending worship services, a bomb went off and an all-white police force moved into action, a police force which has been praised by city officials and others at least once a day for a month or so. A police force which has solved no bombings. A police force which many Negroes feel is perpetrating the very evils we decry.
And why would Negroes think this? There are no Negro policemen. There are no Negro sheriff’s deputies. Few Negroes have served on juries, few have been allowed to vote, few have been allowed to accept responsibility or granted even a simple part to play in the administration of justice. Do not misunderstand me—it is not that I think that white policemen had anything whatsoever to do with the killing of those children or previous bombings.
It’s just that Negroes who see an all white police force must think in terms of its failure to prevent or solve the bombings, and think perhaps Negroes would have worked a little bit harder.
Birmingham is the only city in America where the police chief and the sheriff in the school crisis had to call our local ministers together to tell them to do their duty. The ministers of Birmingham, who have done so little for Christianity, call for prayer at high noon in a city of lawlessness, and in the same breath, speak of our city’s “image.”
Did those ministers visit the families of those Negroes in their hour of travail? Did many of them go to the homes of their brothers and express their regrets in person, or pray with the crying relatives? Do they admit Negroes into their ranks of the church?
Those four little Negro girls were human beings. They had lived their fourteen years in a leaderless city; a city where no one accepts responsibility; where everyone wants to blame somebody else.
Birmingham is a city in which the major industry, operated from Pittsburgh, never tried to solve the problem. It is a city where four little Negro girls can be born into a second-class school system, live a segregated life, ghettoed into their own little neighborhoods, restricted to Negro churches, destined to ride in Negro ambulances, to Negro wards of hospitals or to a Negro cemetery. Local papers, on their front and editorial pages, call for order and then exclude their names from obituary columns.
And who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States. Every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag. Every citizen and every school board member and schoolteacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.
What’s it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has, and no one will, until this city becomes part of the United States.
Birmingham is not a dying city; it is dead.
[Speech transcribed from a reading by Charles Morgan III: The Morgan Project: Charles Morgan, Jr.’s powerful speech to YMBC after 1963 church bombing]