Today is the 71st birthday of the domestic terrorism victim Addie Mae Collins. An innocent little girl killed because adult men were afraid of things they didn’t know or understand. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Addie Mae Collins
BIRTH DATE: April 18, 1949
DEATH DATE: September 15, 1963
DID YOU KNOW?: Three men were convicted of murdering Addie Mae Collins long after her death, in trials held between 1977 and 2002.
PLACE OF BIRTH: Birmingham, Alabama
PLACE OF DEATH: Birmingham, Alabama
BEST KNOWN FOR: Addie Mae Collins was a 14-year-old murder victim whose 1963 death focused public attention on racial violence in the South.
Addie Mae Collins was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 18, 1949. She attended the 16th Street Baptist Church with her parents, Julius and Alice, as well as her six siblings. On the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, 14-year-old Collins was in the church basement room with a group of other children.
At 10:22 a.m., a bomb exploded under the steps of the church. Collins was killed in the blast along with Denise McNair, 11, and Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, both 14. In addition to the four fatalities, more than 20 people were injured. One of these was Addie Mae’s younger sister, Sarah Collins, who lost an eye and sustained other serious injuries.
The bombing at killed Collins and her friends was a racially motivated hate crime. It occurred in the context of social upheaval in the city of Birmingham, which earned the moniker “Bombingham” after a spate of terrorist activities.
In the months leading up to the church bombing, the Civil Rights Movement had made strides in the city of Birmingham. In May 1963, city and civil rights leaders negotiated the integration of public spaces, sparking widespread violence. The 16th Street Church, frequently used as a meeting place for leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph D. Abernathy, was an obvious target for this activity.
Collins’s murder remained officially unsolved until the 1970s. Robert Chambliss, a member of a Ku Klux Klan group seen placing the dynamite under the church steps, was arrested in 1963, but tried only for illegal possession of explosives. The case remained dormant until 1971, when Attorney General William Baxley reopened it. Baxley obtained FBI files containing substantive information, including the names of suspects, which had been withheld by J. Edgar Hoover in the ’60s. In a later statement, the FBI stated that their investigation had been impeded by the lack of witness cooperation in Birmingham.
In 1977, a 73-year-old Chambliss was convicted of the murder of Addie Mae Collins and sentenced to life in prison. Two other perpetrators—Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry—were convicted in 2001 and 2002, respectively. A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994, before he could be charged.
Collins and her fellow victims became symbols of racial violence, styled as martyrs in the struggle for civil rights. In 2013, the United States Congress awarded each girl the Congressional Gold Medal.
The Collins family appears in the 1997 Spike Lee film 4 Little Girls, a documentary on the bombing and its political significance. In 1998, the Collins family requested that Addie Mae’s body be exhumed and moved to another cemetery. Her body was not in the spot where it was presumed to be. After decades of neglect, the cemetery records were found to be incomplete and the location of the body had been lost.