Denise McNair, Carol Denise McNair

September 15, 1963

Carol Denise McNair (1951–1963), a student at Center Street Elementary School who held events to raise money for muscular dystrophy, was just 11 years old when she was killed on September 15, 1963, during a bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, carried out by four Ku Klux Klan member. It was the third bombing in eleven days and followed the federal order to integrate Alabama's school system. Three other young girls—Addie Mae Collins, age 14; Carole Robertson, age 14; and Cynthia Wesley, age 14—also lost their lives in the blast, and at least fourteen others were injured. When riots broke out in response to the bombing, two more young people—Virgil Ware, age 13, and Johnny Robinson, age 16—were also killed. The Sixteenth Street Church was a center for meetings of the civil rights movement.

President John F. Kennedy responded to the bombing, saying, "If these cruel and tragic events can only awaken that city and state—if they can only awaken this entire nation to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence, then it is not too late for all concerned to unite in steps toward peaceful progress before more lives are lost."

Although suspects were identified in 1965—Ku Klux Klan members Thomas Blanton, Herman Frank Cash, Robert Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry—charges were not filed, because witnesses did not speak up and physical evidence was lacking. In 1976, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, and Chambliss, then 73 years old, was indicted by a grand jury on four counts of first-degree murder, was convicted in 1977, and was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1985. In 1994, Cash died without being charged. In 1997, the FBI reopened the case and, in 2000, a grand jury in Alabama indicted Blanton and Cherry with eight counts of first-degree murder each—four counts of intentional murder and four counts of murder with universal malice. In 2001 and 2002, Blanton and Cherry, respectively, were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to four life terms each. Both died in prison—Cherry in 2004 and Blanton in 2020.

In 1997, Spike Lee produced the documentary film 4 Little Girls. In 2006, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was declared a national historic landmark. In 2013, fifty years after the bombing, Denise and her three friends who also died in the blast were posthumously awarded Congressional Gold Medals and a bronze and steel statue of the girls was unveiled at Kelly Ingram Park, at the corner of Sixteenth Street North and Sixth Avenue North, in Birmingham.

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