The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: The Response from the White House
Topic: Interplay of Individuals, Groups and the Federal Government during the Civil Rights Movement
Grade Level: 9-12
Subject Area: US History after World War II - History and Government
Time Required: Two 50-minute class periods
Key events in 1963, such as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, brought national attention to a local conflict. During the crisis, the president had to decide how to respond to the needs of diverse individuals and groups directly involved in the situation while working towards making progress on civil rights as a nation.
In this lesson plan, students act as civil rights advisors to the president. They examine a variety of responses to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and assess what different groups believed should be done to address the situation. They examine the president’s response, its strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of the federal government, and reflect on how it might contribute to making progress on civil rights.
Essential Question: What were the interests and needs of diverse groups and individuals in regards to making progress on civil rights and how did President Kennedy respond to these often conflicting needs?
Connections to Curricula (Standards)
National History Standards
US History, Era 9
Standard 3B: The student understands the "New Frontier" and the "Great Society."
Standard 4A: The student understands the "Second Reconstruction" and its advancement of civil rights.
Common Core State Standards
RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
RH.11-12.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
RH.11-12.3: Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
RH.11-12.6: Evaluate authors' differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors' claims, reasoning, and evidence.
RH.11-12.8: Evaluate an author's premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
W.11-12.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
W.9-10.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
SL.11-12.1: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
SL.11.12.4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.
- analyze primary source documents
- examine the responses of a variety of groups and individuals to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing
- analyze and evaluate President Kennedy’s response to the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing
September 15, 1963 Telegram to President Kennedy from Martin Luther King Jr. in which he expresses outrage at the church bombing and promises to “plead with my people to remain non violent” but fears that unless there is some response by the federal government we shall “see the worst racial holocaust this nation has ever seen…”
September 19, 1963 Telegram to President Kennedy from Reverend C. Herbert Oliver, secretary of the Inter-Citizen’s Committee in Birmingham, in which he decries the absence of safety after the church bombing. He provides a list of bombings and other forms of violence that have occurred in 1963 and makes a plea for the intervention of federal troops (after he sends a second letter in October he receives a response dated November 6, 1963 from Assistant Special Counsel Lee White.)
September 16, 1963 Letter to President Kennedy from Francis Kornegay, Executive Director of the Detroit Urban League in which he calls for the impeachment of Governor Wallace and calls for the president, as Commander-in-Chief, to take control of Birmingham.
September 16, 1963 Telegram from Roy Wilkins to President Kennedy describing the “dastardly bombing.” He blames Alabama and the actions of the Governor for the tragedy. He warns that if the federal government does not address the problem, there will be consequences.
September 21, 1963 Letter to President Kennedy from Neil Sivert, a white citizen in Birmingham, believes that his city government is making progress, and is worried that the crisis will push white voters to elect more leaders who will undo the progress that has been made. He asks for the president’s help and influence to “prevail on the negroes to lift their demands in Birmingham.”
September 21, 1963 Letter to President Kennedy from Wallace Lovett, a white minister in Birmingham who is horrified by the church bombing. He is, however, convinced that forcing integration is not the answer.
October 21, 1963 Letter to Senator Sparkman from Denson Franklin, a white minister in Birmingham who blames Martin Luther King Jr. for the lack of progress in his city. He asks Senator Sparkman to use his influence with Kennedy so that the president can “keep Dr. King out of Birmingham for awhile.”
September 16, 1963 Statement by the President on the Sunday Bombing in Birmingham in which he expresses outrage and grief about the bombing and outlines the first steps of the federal response.
September 19, 1963 Statement by the President in which he acknowledges communication with black leaders and announces his meeting with white leaders. He also announces that he is sending representatives to help the city overcome “fears and suspicions which now exist.”
September 23, 1963 Statement by the President describes support by both black and white leaders for the Royall-Blaik mission.
- September 19, 1963 Audio recordings (Part 1, Part Two, Part 3) and transcript of Kennedy’s meeting with black leaders. Excerpts from a longer meeting in which black leaders express the desperate need for federal intervention to restore a sense of hope and provide protection in the black community following the church bombing.
- September 23, 1963 Audio recordings (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6) and transcript of Kennedy’s meeting with white leaders. Excerpts from a longer meeting in which President Kennedy pushes white leaders to take some action to restore a sense of hope in Birmingham before things become more “radical.”
- Handout: Responses to the 16th Street Church Bombing (included in downloadable lesson plan)
- Handout: Meetings with the President (included in downloadable lesson plan)
Note on audio excerpts:
The excerpts from the meeting with black leaders are posted in three parts on the website, which total about 10 minutes. The excerpts from the meeting with white leaders are posted in six parts which total about 17 minutes. This lesson plan provides PDF versions of transcripts of both meetings. The excerpts are selected from longer meetings. A more complete description and additional excerpts can be found in Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapes by Jonathan Rosenberg and Zachary Karabell.
During his time in office, President Kennedy recorded 248 hours of meeting conversations and 12 hours of dictabelt conversations on a system that remained a closely held secret even from his top advisors.
Historical Background and Context
By the end of the summer of 1963, civil rights groups had organized a massive nonviolent movement. Their actions had, in large part, turned the attention of the nation, and of President Kennedy, to fighting racial injustice in the United States. Kennedy’s approach to civil rights had evolved since his first days in office. Having narrowly won the 1960 election, he was at first cautious and reluctant to alienate powerful southern leaders who supported segregation. During his first two years in office he took, what was seen by many civil rights supporters, as limited action: he issued executive orders banning discrimination in federal hiring and federal housing, and he established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. In addition, the Justice Department, under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, actively promoted school integration, obtained an Interstate Commerce Commission ruling to enforce desegregation on interstate travel, and launched five times the number of lawsuits resulting from voting violations than the previous administration.
However, after witnessing large-scale demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963, and the violent backlash from segregationists, Kennedy became convinced that racial injustice was no longer tolerable. In a landmark speech on civil rights on June 11, 1963, he called racial inequality a “moral issue” and announced his plans to submit legislation to help end racial discrimination. On June 19, the president submitted civil rights legislation to protect all Americans’ voting rights, legal standing, educational opportunities, and access to public facilities. Passing this legislation became the focus of Kennedy’s approach to addressing civil rights issues.
In Birmingham, there was hope for progress, too. In May 1963, after weeks of massive demonstrations, arrests, and a violent police response, black leaders met with a group of white business leaders who recognized the economic impact of the boycotts and demonstrations, and the decline of Birmingham’s national reputation. They agreed to desegregate lunch counters and hire black clerks in department stores. Also, just prior to the demonstrations, Birmingham’s citizens elected a new government structure and a new mayor, Albert Boutwell, who proclaimed his support for a more moderate approach, and had made promises to change the unfair customs of the city. However, the election results had been contested and die-hard segregationists still held great power in the city. By the end of the summer, basic demands that had been agreed upon had yet to be fulfilled.
In the week following the August 28 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Birmingham made headlines as a segregation stronghold once again on September 3, as Governor George Wallace attempted to close schools to block desegregation. On the following day, a bomb exploded (the second in two weeks) at the home of Albert Shores, a black lawyer who had been fighting for the desegregation of the Birmingham schools. Riots erupted in the city following the bombing and Wallace persuaded the mayor to close the schools. The brutality of the police response crushed hopes for progress.
When the schools re-opened on September 9, Wallace commanded the National Guard to block the entry of African American students. President Kennedy seized control of the Guard through an executive order and commanded the soldiers to leave. Over the next week, protests for and against integration sprang up around Birmingham. On September 15, an event occurred that changed the history of the city, and the history of the civil rights struggle.
Another bomb exploded, this time at the 16th Street Baptist Church, a spiritual center for the black community and the very place where young demonstrators had prepared for marches that spring. It was yet another attack on black residents by Ku Klux Klan members. The city had already earned the name “Bombingham,” after 47 explosions had taken place since 1947, none of which had been solved. But this one was different. Four young girls were killed: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Birmingham to calm the shattered black community, but young and old were enraged, and police responded brutally to citizens. Later that day, two black boys were shot and killed, one by a police officer and another by a white youth.
The horrific tragedy drew national attention, with a third of the messages sent to the White House calling for federal troops to be sent to Birmingham. President Kennedy was reluctant to send troops and decided on a different course of action. The day after the bombing, he released a public statement, in which he expressed “a deep sense of outrage and grief over the killing the children” in the bombing. In the statement, he announced that Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall “has returned to Birmingham to be of assistance to community leaders and law enforcement officials.” He also directed Federal Bureau of Investigation bomb specialists to “lend every assistance in the detection of those responsible” for the crime.
At the request of Martin Luther King Jr., he met with King and several black leaders from Birmingham on September 19, 1963 to hear and respond to their needs. They expressed the deep sense of frustration and fear rampant in the black community. Facing bombings, killings, and other acts of police brutality, they insisted that federal intervention was essential; they pressed the president to send in federal troops cancel federal contracts with businesses that practiced racial discrimination. They feared that if the federal government did not take steps to restore hope and protection for blacks in Birmingham, the civil disorder would escalate into race riots. That same day, he announced that he was sending a committee of two, “the Royall-Blaik mission” -- General Kenneth Royall who had served as Truman’s secretary of war and Colonel Earl “Red” Blaik, a retired football coach at West Point, “to represent me personally in helping the city to work as a unit in overcoming the fears and suspicions which now exist.”
Four days later, at the request of Birmingham’s mayor, Albert Boutwell, the president met with white business and clergy leaders from the city, and listened to their perspective. They explained that their local leadership needed time and calm to make progress. They pointed to outside “agitators” such as King whom they believed were the main problem in Birmingham. The president challenged their position and pushed them to take action on hiring practices to ease tension in their volatile city. These two meetings reveal the needs of these groups, as well as President Kennedy’s approach to dealing with them. We know much of what happened at these meetings because they were recorded at the White House, two of many conversations that Kennedy secretly recorded during his time in office. This primary source serves as the main focus of this lesson. It provides unique content for students to investigate the question: how does a president respond to needs of conflicting groups while working towards goals he has set for the country?
- In this assignment, students consider how the president responded to the needs of different groups after the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. In responding to the situation, Kennedy had to consider the needs of the groups involved, but also the needs of the nation and the priorities of his administration. He had concerns such as passing an omnibus civil rights bill, keeping the crisis contained, and adhering to the Constitution. These national concerns impacted the course of action in response to to the crisis in Birmingham.
- Review the historical background leading up to and including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Explain that over the next two days, students will be acting as civil rights advisors to the president. They will research the needs of various interest groups involved in the Birmingham conflict as well as the response of the federal government. As advisors to President Kennedy, they will write a summary report on the federal response, including its strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of the federal government, and its impact on making progress on civil rights.
- Homework: Have students read the chapter summary of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing on the 1963: The Struggle for Civil Rights website and review the “Pressure” subchapter. For the written component of the homework, students will use documents in the “Shockwaves,” “Aftermath,” and “Public Opinion” subchapters. Have each student investigate responses to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by one of three groups:
Group 1: Civil rights supporters, including black leaders in Birmingham and white allies nationwide
Group 2: White citizens in Alabama, including clergy and business leaders in Birmingham, concerned about demands from blacks
Group 3: Federal government
After reviewing primary source material from their group, have students select one document that represents the group and complete the sheet, Responses to the Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Group 1: Civil rights supporters, including black leaders in Birmingham and white allies nationwide
a. September 15, 1963 Telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Kennedy
b. September 19, 1963 Telegram from Reverend C. Herbert Oliver to President Kennedy
c. September 16, 1963 Letter from Francis Kornegay to President Kennedy
d. September 16, 1963 Telegram from Roy Wilkins to President Kennedy
Group 2: White citizens in Alabama, including clergy and business leaders in Birmingham, concerned about demands from blacks
a. September 21, 1963 Letter from Neil Sivert to President Kennedy
b. September 21, 1963 Letter from Minister Wallace Lovett to President Kennedy
c. October 21, 1963 Letter from Denson Franklin to Senator Sparkman
Group 3: Federal Government
a. September 16, 1963 Statement by the President on the Sunday bombing in Birmingham
b. September 19, 1963 Statement by the President
c. September 23, 1963 Statement by the President
- In class, have representatives from each group form a committee to discuss the needs and interests of each group, and how they see the role of the federal government.
- Debrief as a whole class. What did they discover about the needs of various groups? How did they differ? How did they see the role of the federal government? Did they identify any common ground?
- Explain that they will now have an opportunity to hear first-hand audio excerpts of two meetings that took place in the White House following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church: one with black leaders representing civil rights groups and business and clergy leaders in Birmingham, and one with white business and clergy leaders of Birmingham. Distribute the handout, Meetings with the President, along with transcripts from the meetings. The handouts will guide students to listen to and analyze Kennedy’s response to different interest groups.
Play the audio recording from the meeting that took place on September 19, 1963 between President Kennedy and black leaders. Using the questions from the handout, discuss students’ responses to the meeting.
- During the following class, have students use the handout and guiding questions to listen to the second audio tape, the September 23, 1963, meeting with white business and clergy leaders from Birmingham. Use the following questions to guide students to compare and contrast the two meetings. We have included possible responses here for teacher use.
How did President Kennedy’s response to the groups differ? (He explains why he cannot send federal troops in the first meeting and in the second, he challenges the leaders to explain why progress is not being made.)
What did he emphasize in the first meeting? (He explains there is no legal ground to send in federal troops, thinks it more advisable for local leaders to take responsibility, he says if his actions do not work, he will consider more federal intervention.)
What was his focus in the second meeting?
(He pushes white leaders to take some action to show progress – hiring Negro police or store clerks. He explains that communication between groups is important and counteracts claims that King and Shuttlesworth are the problem.)
How did he explain the role of the federal government to each group? (In the first meeting he claims that he has no legal grounds to send in troops and that it does not help the local leaders face the problem. In the second meeting, he acknowledges that neither he nor the meeting attendees want federal intervention. He references the civil rights legislation. He explains that the federal government has no power to remove civil rights leaders.)
What do students think of Kennedy’s responses to the different groups? (Students’ opinions)
What are alternative responses he might have made in the meeting, or alternative courses of action he might have taken to address the situation? (He might have brought in the federalized National Guard; selected different people for the mission; taken steps to solving the bombing.)
What might the outcomes have been to those alternatives? (Troops might have escalated the conflict and polarized local and federal government even further; different representatives might have had a better chance of bringing different leaders together in Birmingham; devoting more resources to solving the crime could have restored hope in the black community but it could also have escalate anger among some whites.)
As civil rights advisors to President Kennedy, have students write a summary report to the president on the response of the federal government to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The report should include a description of the federal response and its strengths and weaknesses from the perspective of the federal government. It should also address how the response might impact making progress toward civil rights.
Guide for teachers: Possible responses for students’ summary reports:
1) The federal response
- President’s public statement on bombing
- Sent Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall to Birmingham
- Involvement of FBI bomb specialists
- Met with black and white leaders
- Sent Royal-Blaik mission
- Statement was made fairly soon after bombing. President took a stance on bombing (outrage, grief), and supported black leaders in calling for nonviolence
- Brought in federal assistance and support in form of sending Burke Marshall, FBI bomb specialists, and two representatives
- Royal-Blaik would have good chance of having respect from much of Alabama’s white community, including Governor Wallace
- Did not involve federal troops in a situation where it would be difficult to remove them
- Listened to representatives of both black and white groups and communicated federal position to them
- Did not address needs expressed by black community of the danger in the city and needing more protection
- Royal and Blaik were unfamiliar with situation in Birmingham and may not have understood needs of the groups involved
- Did not insure significant civil rights progress on a local level
2) Will it contribute to making progress on civil rights?
- Makes federal stance clear: violence will not be tolerated
- Will probably not escalate crisis, could help in working with groups
- Allows for continued work on passing legislation
- Probably contributed to some, but limited progress in Birmingham
- Will need to assess progress of Royal and Blaik mission
- Have students research the administration’s efforts to pass an omnibus civil rights bill. How might these efforts have impacted President Kennedy’s course of action in response to the church bombing?
- Have students research the president’s response to other crises in civil rights. How do these actions compare? How were they different?
- Although students have been studying the responses of different groups, these groups were not monolithic. White citizens of Birmingham had a range of responses to the bombings, and to integration, as did members of the black community. How did responses vary within different groups? Using the meeting with white leaders of Birmingham, and the letters from Wallace Lovett and Denson Franklin, discuss the different responses of white citizens in Birmingham.
- What was the result of the Royall - Blaik committee? Have students research what they did, who they spoke with, and how their work impacted civil rights progress. Have students consider whether the committee was an effective response through different perspectives of constituencies in Birmingham.
- Have students research how the church bombing affected civil rights civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth. How did it impact strategies for continuing to make progress on civil rights?
- Have students research the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and its aftermath. It was not until 1977 that “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was convicted of the crime. It would take over twenty years for two more Klansmen to be convicted: Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, members of the Cahaba Boys, a Ku Klux Klan splinter group. Why did the convictions take so long? How did the FBI handle the investigation?