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.