On the 60th anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing, the victim’s sister and suspect’s daughter are urging people to stop hating

Bombed church

FILE – Firefighters and rescue workers recover a covered body from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, after a deadly explosion triggered by members of the Ku Klux Klan during the service. (AP Photo, File)

By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

Sixty years ago today, a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan members destroyed a church in Birmingham, killing four little girls as they prepared for Sunday services.

Lisa McNair’s sister Denise was one of the girls who lost her life. Tammie Fields’ father was questioned as a possible suspect in the church bombing but was never charged. Decades after the bombing, the two women met at a Black History Month event and formed a seemingly unlikely connection and friendship.

The two are bound by tragedy – they emerged on opposite sides of one of the civil rights movement’s most horrific events – but share a common message of speaking out against hate. As the country marks the 60th anniversary of the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing on Friday, McNair said she wants people to remember what happened and think about how they can prevent it from happening again.

“People killed my sister just because of the color of her skin,” McNair said. “Don’t think of this anniversary as just another day. But what are each of us going to do as individuals to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again,” McNair said.

The dynamite was placed under a staircase in front of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The girls were gathered in a downstairs washroom before Sunday service when the blast exploded. The explosion killed 11-year-old Denise McNair, as well as Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14. A fifth girl, Sarah Collins Rudolph, Addie Mae’s sister, was in the room and was seriously injured – she lost an eye in the explosion – but survived.

The bombing occurred at the height of the civil rights movement, eight months after then-Gov. George Wallace promised “segregation forever” and two weeks after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.

16th Street Baptist Church

FILE – Visitors look at 16th Street Baptist Church on July 29, 2016 in Birmingham, Alabama. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves, File)

Three Ku Klux Klan members were eventually convicted in the blast: Robert Chambliss in 1977; Thomas Blanton in 2001; and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002.

Fields’ father, Charles Cagle, was one of three men, along with Chambliss, arrested for questioning shortly after the bombing. Cagle was never charged. He was convicted of illegal possession of dynamite. But his conviction was later overturned.

Fields, now 64, was a toddler at the time of the bombing. She said she remembers her father, who died several years ago, being full of hatred and bitterness toward black people. Racial slurs were commonplace, she said, and she remembers being encouraged to hate black classmates. She praises God for bringing her preaching grandfather into her life and showing her a different path.

“The most important thing to me is that my children will never experience the hatred that I experienced,” Fields said.

McNair, 58, was born a year after her sister’s death and said her parents lived with unimaginable grief.

“When we were little, my mom used to take us to the cemetery and sometimes she would just be there and cry, other times she would just sit there and stare,” McNair said.

She wrote about her life after the bombing in her book “Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knew.”

She said she first heard about Fields when she learned they both wanted to attend the same church program and that Fields wanted to meet her. McNair hesitated.

“Originally I didn’t really want to meet her,” McNair said. “I was a little nervous about it, even though she didn’t do it. In a way, it was almost like meeting the person who killed your sister. “You’re trying to figure out how I’m supposed to feel about this?”

60th anniversary of the church bombing

FILE – Graveside services are held September 18, 1963, for Carol Robertson, who died in a bomb explosion a few days earlier at an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama. (AP Photo, File)

The two eventually met at another church where Fields was speaking. McNair listened from a bench. When she finished, the two women hugged and cried, McNair wrote in her book.

“I was extremely, extremely nervous. She had every right not to accept me, but she did,” Fields recalled.

McNair said she saw that Fields was real. Fields, now a grandmother with black children and biracial grandchildren, said she hadn’t spoken about the bombing in a long time but now thinks it’s important. “How will the world ever change if we aren’t honest?” she said.

McNair is concerned about the current political climate, in which she says politicians are intentionally stoking division. There is a lesson for today from what happened 60 years ago, she said.

“So much hate, so much racism is emerging again. That’s what upsets me and makes me sad, that we should have moved forward. I think we’re going backwards instead of forward,” McNair said.

Her grandmother kept a small box of the items she had found at Denise’s home—patent shoes, a purse, a dainty handkerchief—that she had given to the family from the funeral home. During a recent speech in Montgomery, Alabama, McNair showed a photo of another item from the box. It was a rock-sized lump of concrete that drilled into Denise’s head and killed her.

“It shows that racism can kill. Hateful words can kill. And that’s a tangible part of it,” McNair said.

(Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Brian Ashcraft

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