How Much Has Changed Since the Birmingham Church Bombing?

Is the nation getting any better at dealing with violence against black houses of worship?

Police officers stand guard at a roadblock at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 16, 1963. (AP)

"The climate of racial division across the country is extreme."

So said Deval Patrick, then-U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights. The year was 1996, and citizens and law-enforcement officials were struggling to reckon with a wave of arson across the south, mostly (though not exclusively) targeting black churches.

Those crimes connect to a long history of terrorist attacks against black houses of worship—a history as long as the United States, encompassing early post-colonial America, running through the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and continuing up to Wednesday’s shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. As the Baltimore Sun reported in 1996, “Since the end of the Civil War, when freed slaves began to erect their own churches, racist whites have attacked those houses of worship to stir fear in black leaders and to quash efforts by blacks to improve their lives.”

Today, as in 1996, as in 1963, it seems that the climate of racial division in the United States is extreme. The attacks are a reminder that white violence against black people remains a powerful presence in America.

“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history,” President Obama said during a brief statement Thursday afternoon. “This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked.”

But there are some hopeful signs in the ways the nation responds to such crimes. The immediate national reaction of sorrow and outrage, bringing with it a near-unanimous labeling of the attack as a racist hate crime, stands out from past incidents. So too does the united response across the political spectrum. Unlike in past incidents, local, state, and federal law-enforcement officials are already working carefully in concert, including the arrest of suspect Dylann Roof over the border in Shelby, North Carolina.

Almost as soon as the news of the Charleston shooting broke, people began reaching back to the example of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15, 1963. That attack killed four young girls and galvanized the nation, but that reaction was in many ways atypical. By the time four Ku Klux Klan members planted dynamite at the church, the Alabama city had long since been nicknamed “Bombingham.” Between 1947 and 1965, white supremacists planted more than 50 devices targeting black churches, black leaders, Jews, and Catholics. It was the size of the explosion and the massacre of young children that seemed to make it different. Even Governor George Wallace, one of the nation’s most outspoken and virulent segregationists, offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest of the bombers.

But many leaders rejected Wallace’s overture as calculated and false. “The blood of four little children ... is on your hands,” Martin Luther King angrily wired the governor. “Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.” The bombing was the climax of a tense period that began when a federal court ordered the integration of local schools. Wallace, backed by local authorities, refused to follow the order and said the state needed a few "first-class funerals"—a statement widely interpreted as encouraging the attack.

After the bombing, more violence struck the streets of Birmingham, as riots and battles between blacks and whites broke out. Two black children were shot, one by police and one by a white teen.

President John F. Kennedy spoke the day after the bombing, calling for racial justice and peace, and the attacks helped catalyze the passage of the Civil Rights Act that Kennedy would not live to see enacted. As Andrew Cohen recalled in 2013, there were some courageous reactions to the bombing. A young white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. laid out responsibility for the attack clearly on September 16:

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 talks about the "niggers" and 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. The "who" is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. 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.

And yet no perpetrator was tried or jailed for the church bombing until 1977—the delay in justice the result of, at best, a fractured relationship between the authorities charged with investigating the crime and, at worst, a conspiracy by officials—including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—to prevent a meaningful prosecution. Almost immediately, investigators focused in on four Klan members as perpetrators. Two were convicted of illegally possessing dynamite, fined, and given 180-day suspended sentences.

While the FBI named them as suspects, the case closed without prosecution in 1965, reportedly because of mistrust between local and federal authorities. It later emerged that some essential evidence gathered by the FBI had been ordered sealed by Hoover himself, the longtime lawman under whose direction the bureau once attempted to coerce King into suicide. In 1977, newly elected Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley convicted Robert Chambliss of the attack; Baxley had to threaten the FBI with revealing its obstruction in order to get evidence. The last of the four suspects was not convicted until 2002.

The ground had changed for the better, somewhat, 30 years later, when black churches across the south began going up in flames. President Clinton traveled to Greeleyville, South Carolina, the site of one arson, to speak out and promise justice. But despite the apparent political will, justice was again slow coming. The Sun noted that even though 27 churches burned in the first half of 1996 alone, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had made arrests in only five cases since January 1995.

Law-enforcement agents professed confusion. “The pattern to these crimes is that there is no pattern,” said Robert Stewart, chief of the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division. "There are a few cases where we can say definitively that race is the motive. But in most cases, it's not so clear-cut." The Sun reported:

As law enforcement officials across the South struggle for answers to explain why more than 60 black churches have been burned in the last year and a half, they find themselves taking into custody aimless teen-agers like [17-year-old suspect Robert Glenn] Emerson, who are looking for kicks. Nationally, very few arrests have been made of people who are members of white supremacy groups, making it harder for police to predict where and when the arson attacks will occur.

Clinton launched a special task force on church arson and signed a new law granting prosecutors special leeway in dealing with burning and desecration of houses of worship; many arrests and convictions were eventually obtained. Among those convicted were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Yet even then, there were some crucial differences. Several of the churches that burned were in North Carolina, which was at the time represented in the Senate by Jesse Helms, perhaps the last unrepentant racist to achieve a long and prominent career in national politics. Six years earlier, during his 1990 reelection campaign against a black Democrat, Helms had shamelessly appealed to white fears of black advancement in a TV ad—which was credited with vaulting him back into the lead and winning the race. In 1996, even as he spoke of Jim Crow laws and enduring black poverty in the South, Clinton implausibly tried to argue that the burnings were somehow not a political question: “We must keep this out of politics.” (Jesse Jackson, speaking at the same event, was not similarly fooled, and discussed “anti-black mania.”) Even so, Clinton was pilloried by the GOP:

The President's visit nonetheless brought criticism from some Republicans, who said he was using the misfortune of dozens of black congregations to serve political purposes. David Beasley, the Republican Governor of South Carolina, called the appearance "a political event," and said, "I only hope that the President is sincere." At a Washington news conference, Haley Barbour, the Republican national chairman, said the visit had been motivated by "transparent, shameless politics."

(It was Haley Barbour who, in 2010, would solemnly insist that 1960s white-supremacist Citizens Councils were a force for racial justice.)

That sort of backlash has been mercifully absent so far in the aftermath of the Emanuel shooting. Democratic Mayor Joe Riley and Republican Governor Nikki Haley stood side-by-side at a Thursday morning news conference in Charleston. Republican State Senator Larry Grooms choked up talking about Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel Church, one of Wednesday’s victims, and a Democratic state senator.

There’s no doubting that this attack was about race. A survivor reportedly said that suspect Dylann Roof said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” A picture on Facebook showed him wearing patches with the flags of apartheid South Africa and of Rhodesia, the white supremacist precursor of Zimbabwe. Unlike in 1963 or 1996, all information to this point suggests that Roof was acting on his own, rather than a member of the Ku Klux Klan, yet another case in which traditional institutions of violence seem to be weakening and giving way to “lone-wolf” terror attacks.

But South Carolina’s relationship with race remains difficult, just as it was 20 years ago. Although officials hastened to describe Wednesday’s shooting a hate crime, the state is one of few without a hate-crimes statute of its own on the books. In Columbia, the state capital, the Confederate battle flag flies over a memorial near the state house. It was moved there in 2000, having previously flown atop the building. It was first placed there in 1962—intended, some say, as a way to commemorate the Civil War centennial, though it’s impossible to overlook the coincidence of hoisting the flag in the midst of the civil-rights movement. Elsewhere on the grounds are statues of two South Carolina senators, of onetime Dixiecrat presidential candidate Strom Thurmond and “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a virulent white supremacist who spoke out in favor of lynch mobs. And Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back by a white policeman in April in North Charleston, less than 11 miles away from Emanuel Church.

It’s possible in this history to find hopeful signs that the United States is getting better at coming to grips with white-supremacist violence. Yet that progress stands alongside a history of attacks on black places of worship as old as the Constitution.