Members of an Alabama church that was bombed early in the civil rights movement observed the 48th anniversary of the attack Thursday by dedicating a stone marker at the site of the blast that killed four black girls.
Maxine McNair, the mother of one of the young victims at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, joined hands with others as a crowd sang "We Shall Overcome" at the dedication. Bells tolled, the girls' names were read out loud and a group of about 100 people went outside to view a stone tablet etched with the names of the victims and a Bible verse. The marker was erected along an outside wall at the spot where the powerful explosive was planted.
Church spokeswoman Carolyn McKinstry said tens of thousands of visitors stop each year at the church and often ask where the bomb was placed. The girls' deaths shocked the nation and came to symbolize the depth of racial animosities in the South at the time of the nascent civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"Not a day goes by that we don't have people coming by to ask," said McKinstry, a childhood friend of the slain girls.
The bomb went off just before a Sunday morning worship service on Sept. 15, 1963, killing Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. Two more black youths, Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, were shot to death later that day in violence that ensued.
The bombing occurred during a period when civil rights demonstrators were trying to end legalized racial segregation in Birmingham's schools and other public areas. Three members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted years later in the bombing, and one remains imprisoned.
At a ceremony in the sanctuary attended by about 100 people, the church bell tolled as Rev. Arthur Price read the names of the victims.
"Just as 9/11 has become a day of remembrance for our nation ... the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church reminds us of the state of emergency that our nation was in in 1963," Price told those gathered for the dedication.
The church is located across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and draws many interested in the history of the civil rights era.
With the approach of the 50th anniversary of civil rights protests that saw authorities unleash fire hoses and police dogs on black youths marching for equal rights, the city has installed signs along a downtown Birmingham walking tour that include photographs taken during the demonstrations, some of which were led by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"There is just a fascination with all the things that took place in Birmingham," McKinstry said.