Who Was Carole Robertson?
Born on April 24, 1949, Carole Robertson grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. A good student who loved reading and dancing, she attended the city's 16th Street Baptist Church. On September 15, 1963, a 14-year-old Robertson was killed, along with three other young victims, when her church was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Their tragic deaths led to more support for the Civil Rights Movement.
Born on April 24, 1949, Carole Rosamond Robertson grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where her family had deep roots. With her father, Alvin, her mother, Alpha, an older sister, Dianne, and an older brother, Alvin Jr., Carole lived in Birmingham's Smithfield neighborhood, an African-American section of the city.
Alvin was an educator with an interest in music, and Carole was a musical child herself. She sang in the chorus at Wilkerson Elementary School, played the clarinet and was a member of Parker High School's marching band. In addition to reading and studying—Carole was a high-achieving student—she participated in Saturday dance lessons, the science club, Girl Scouts and Jack and Jill of America, a civically minded youth and family organization (in addition to working as a school librarian, Alpha Robertson served as a regional director for the group).
Bombing in Birmingham
Having seen 50 racially targeted bombings since 1945, Carole Robertson's hometown was sometimes called "Bombingham." Though her parents wanted to protect their daughter, not allowing her to go out alone at night, the family also continued to lead a regular existence. One part of their routine was attending services at the 16th Street Baptist Church, a nerve center for the city's African-American community that had also served as a gathering place for leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
On September 15, 1963, a Sunday, Carole went to church and attended a Sunday school class. While she was preparing for a "Youth Day" service, a bomb went off at 10:22 a.m., killing the 14-year-old. Three other young girls were killed in the blast—14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, and 11-year-old Denise McNair—and more than 20 other people were injured. Horrified by the attack, protests followed in Birmingham, during which two African-American boys were killed, one by a police officer.
After identifying his daughter's body, Alvin Robertson came home and broke a porch door in his grief. Though the three other victims had a funeral service together, Carole's family chose to hold a private service on the Tuesday after the attack—as her sister, Dianne, later explained, "The world was upset and hurt, but it was our family's grief." The bombing had shocked the entire country, and in its aftermath support grew for the Civil Rights Act, which became law in 1964.
Wait for Justice
Ku Klux Klan member Robert "Dynamite" Chambliss was arrested after the bombing, but was only found guilty of possessing dynamite. Years later, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley had Chambliss charged with murder. Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and died in jail in 1985.
In 2000, the FBI arrested two other Klan members for the bombing. Thomas Blanton Jr. was convicted in 2001. A year later, Bobby Frank Cherry was found guilty. Both received life sentences; Cherry died in prison in 2004. Herman Frank Cash, a fourth suspect, died in 1994, before he could face charges.
Alpha Robertson passed away in 2002, after testifying at both Blanton's and Cherry's trials. Though the verdicts did not bring closure to the Robertsons, it was a relief for Alpha "that even after all that long time, they were brought to justice," according to Dianne.
In the years that have passed since the bombing, Carole Robertson continues to be remembered. Dianne, who had been pregnant at the time of her sister's death, chose to name her daughter after Carole. Jack and Jill of America instituted Carole Robertson Day; every September, the organization honors Carole while building awareness of issues related to human rights and racial equality. The Carole Robertson Center for Learning, located in Chicago, Illinois, was also set up in her honor.
Thirty years after the bombing, activist Angela Davis, a friend of Dianne's who had thought of Carole as a younger sister, declared, "I would like to remember not only the terror that claimed [Carole Robertson's] life and that of her Sunday-school friends, but also the positive lives they claimed for themselves as teenage girls."
On September 10, 2013, Robertson, McNair, Collins and Wesley received a Congressional Gold Medal—one of the highest civilian honors in the United States.
We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!