55 Years Later, Survivors of 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing Recall a Day That Changed the Fight for Civil Rights

A view of the 'Four Spirits' statue and the 16th Street Baptist Church, Nov. 19, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala.. The statues memorialize the four victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. (Drew Angerer, Getty Images)
A view of the ‘Four Spirits’ statue and the 16th Street Baptist Church, Nov. 19, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala.. The statues memorialize the four victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. (Drew Angerer, Getty Images)

The decades that have passed since the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was bombed 55 years ago Saturday — on Sept. 15, 1963 — have not made the memory of that day any easier.

“I will never stop crying thinking about it,” Barbara Cross, now 68, told TIME in an emotional phone conversation. Her father, John Cross, was the pastor at the church, which was Birmingham’s largest African-American congregation; she was 13 and in its basement the day that Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb under the building’s stairs. The blast was strong enough to send stone shooting into cars parked across the street and to knock people off their feet in nearby buildings. And inside the church, things were worse.

The bombing killed four of Cross’ classmates who had gone to the bathroom: three 14-year-olds, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, and 11-year-old Denise McNair. (Sarah Collins Rudolph, often referred to as the “Fifth Little Girl,” lost an eye but survived her injuries.)

“Addie wanted me to come with her, but then the teacher stopped me and gave me a writing assignment that saved my life,” Cross recalls.

Soon after, she heard “the most horrific noises I had ever heard in my life.” That was followed by the smell of smoke.

Her first thought was that Birmingham had been attacked by Cuba, she says. “The building shook, and I was hit in the head with a light fixture. I remember everything getting dark,” she says, “and I thought the United States was being attacked.” A church official led her and her younger sister and brother out by the hand. Somehow, she made her way home, and stayed the night at the home of a neighbor who was a nurse, who removed the glass fragments from her scalp and treated the area.

Dale Long, now 66, was 11 and in the basement that day too. “Some of us boys should have headed upstairs [to services] by then, but we got carried away talking about who’s going to have the best football team,” he recalls. “Suddenly, the big floor-to-ceiling bookcases started moving, and we looked at each other and ran. Even though it was dark and dusty and smoky, I knew how to get out. I could see my dad running down the street. I had never seen my dad run before. He hugged us unlike anything I could ever remember and said we’ll be alright. He took us to his office in the motel, where reporters who were staying there were arguing over the two pay phones in the lobby that they were trying to use to report stories back [to their bureaus].”

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SOURCE: OLIVIA B. WAXMAN 
TIME