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16th Street Baptist Church


The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is a large, predominantly African American Baptist church in Birmingham in the U.S. state of Alabama. In September 1963, it was the target of the racially motivated 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls in the midst of the American Civil Rights Movement. The church is still in operation and is a central landmark in the Birmingham Civil Rights District. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2006.


The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was organized as the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham in 1873. It was the first black church to organize in Birmingham, which was founded just two years before. The first meetings were held in a small building at 12th Street and Fourth Avenue North. A site was soon acquired on 3rd Avenue North between 19th and 20th Street for a dedicated building. In 1880, the church sold that property and built a new church on the present site on 16th Street and 6th Avenue North. The new brick building was completed in 1884, but in 1908 the city condemned the structure and ordered it to be demolished.


The present building, a "modified Romanesque and Byzantine design" by the prominent black architect Wallace Rayfield, was constructed in 1911 by the local black contractor T.C. Windham. The cost of construction was $26,000. In addition to the main sanctuary, the building houses a basement auditorium, used for meetings and lectures, and several ancillary rooms used for Sunday school and smaller groups. As one of the primary institutions in the black community, Sixteenth Street Baptist has hosted prominent visitors throughout its history. W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson and Ralph Bunche all spoke at the church during the first part of the 20th century.


During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church served as an organizational headquarters, site of mass meetings and rallying point for blacks protesting widespread institutionalized racism in Birmingham, Alabama and the South. The reverends Fred Shuttlesworth, who was the chief local organizer, James Bevel, SCLC leader who initiated the Children's Crusade and taught the students nonviolence, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were frequent speakers at the church and led the movement.


On Sunday, September 15, 1963, Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Robert Edward Chambliss, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of the church. At 10:22 a.m., they exploded, killing four young girls–Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair–and injuring 22 others. They were there preparing for the church's "Youth Day". A funeral for three of the four victims was attended by more than 8,000 mourners, white and black, but no city officials.


This was one of a string of more than 45 bombings that for more than a decade had terrorized progressive agitators as well as citizens who did nothing more than buy a house in a new neighborhood. (Dynamite Hill, a neighborhood in transition, was the area of numerous house bombings.) The taking of indisputably innocent lives shocked the city, the nation and the world. The bombing is credited with increasing Federal involvement and helping the passage of civil rights legislation. President Johnson secured passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act the following year.


Following the bombing, more than $300,000 in unsolicited gifts were received by the church and repairs were begun immediately. The church reopened on June 7, 1964. A stained glass window depicting an black Christ, designed by John Petts, was donated by the citizens of Wales and installed in the front window, facing south.


In 1980, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1993, a team of surveyors for the Historic American Buildings Survey executed measured drawings of the church for archival in the Library of Congress. Because of its historic value in the moral crusade of civil rights, on February 20, 2006, the church was officially designated as a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior.


As part of the Birmingham Civil Rights District, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church receives more than 200,000 visitors annually. Though the current membership is only around 200, it has an average weekly attendance of nearly 2,000. The church also operates a large drug counseling program. The current pastor is Reverend Arthur Price. Across from the church at Kelly Ingram Park is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which plans events that teach and promote the history of human rights.


Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is engaged in a $3 million restoration of the building. It has had persistent water damage problems and faces failure of the brick exterior. As of February 2007, the first phase of restoration, mainly below-grade waterproofing, had been completed, and work on the exterior masonry was begun. Additional funds are being sought to handle unexpected problems uncovered during the work and to provide for ongoing physical maintenance.


© John R. Taylor

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