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16th Street Baptist Church

The 16th Street Baptist Church was organized as the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham in 1873. It was the first black church to organize in Birmingham, which was founded just two years before. The first meetings were held in a small building at 12th Street and Fourth Avenue North. A site was soon acquired on 3rd Avenue North between 19th and 20th Street for a dedicated building. In 1880, the church sold that property and built a new church on the present site on 16th Street and 6th Avenue North. The new brick building was completed in 1884 under the supervision of its pastor, William R. Pettiford, but in 1908, the city condemned the structure and ordered it to be demolished. Pettiford was pastor from 1883 to 1904.

The present building, a "modified Romanesque and Byzantine design" by the prominent black architect Wallace Rayfield, was constructed in 1911 by the local black contractor T.C. Windham. The cost of construction was $26,000.

As one of the primary institutions in the black community, the 16th Street Baptist Church has hosted prominent visitors throughout its history. W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson and Ralph Bunche all spoke at the church during the first part of the 20th century.

Civil Rights Era

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the 16th Street Baptist Church served as an organizational headquarters, site of mass meetings and rallying point for African Americans protesting widespread institutionalized racism in the South. The reverends Fred Shuttlesworth, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)) leader Martin Luther King Jr., and SCLC leader James Bevel, who initiated the Children's Crusade and taught the students nonviolence, were frequent speakers at the church and led the movement.

On Sunday, September 15, 1963, Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Robert Edward Chambliss, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of the church. At 10:22 a.m., they exploded, killing four young girls - Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair. Twenty-two other victims suffered injuries. They were there preparing for the church's "Youth Day". A funeral for three of the four victims was attended by more than 8,000 mourners, white and black, but no city officials.

This was one of a string of more than 45 bombings within the decade. The neighborhood of Dynamite Hill was the most-frequently targeted area during this time. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church increased Federal involvement in Alabama. President Johnson passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act the following year; and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, making literacy tests and poll taxes illegal.

Following the bombing, more than $300,000 in unsolicited gifts were received by the church and repairs were begun immediately. The church reopened on June 7, 1964. A stained glass window depicting a black Jesus, designed by John Petts, was donated by citizens of Wales and installed in the front window, facing south.

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