Francine Heard It

Francine heard it. She told me when I came to work that morning that the explosion rattled the windows throughout South Highland Presbyterian Church. After all, the church is only about six or seven blocks from the New Woman All Women Clinic. As the windows shook, a police officer lay dying and a nurse was critically wounded and Eric Rudolph fled Birmingham in a gray pickup truck. It would be years before he was discovered in North Carolina, living as a hermit in the forest, scouring dumpsters for food, and then tried and convicted for his entire life.

But he is not the story.


The blast also rattled Francine. It shook her bad. Because she remembered another explosion: Sunday, September 15, 1963 at 10:25 a.m. She was going to church, not to the 16th Street Baptist Church where the dynamite was planted but to another predominately African-American church.


Francine, now dead, was a church lady. She wore fancy clothes to church with a matching hat – she was quite a sight as an adult when she went to church. I’m sure she was poor – that was a common denominator for blacks in Birmingham in the 1960s – but she was also proud even on the day of her funeral in her fancy, going-to-meet-God clothes. She loved the church, I’m sure she loved God, too, but she really loved her church. To see and be seen – to talk and be talked about: that was church. Francine was a trip – fun to be around but sometimes she just got talking and you didn’t know the difference between fact and fancy. Sometimes she didn’t know either.


She told me about the day the bomb went off that killed four girls in the church bathroom as they were prettying themselves for church upstairs. They never made it. Sticks of dynamite rocked the foundation of the church and of the Black community. The white community, too, was horrified for the most part. But Birmingham had already started its white flight to the new cities of Mountain Brook, Homewood, Vestavia Hills, and Hoover adjoining Birmingham.


I moved to Birmingham in 1995. That’s when I met Francine and a whole lot of others who were there in the marches, saw the dogs and the water cannons. Both Black and White – I talked with them and learned about their lives. Bill French told me about the day his shoeshine man said, “Mr. Bill, don’t go down that street this afternoon. There’s gonna be trouble down there.” Odessa Woolfolk ran the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for its first five years and I heard her tell of life in Birmingham – sometimes known back then as Bombingham – in the 1960s.


My wife worked at Woman’s Missionary Union up on New Hope Mountain next to six-lane Hwy 280. A couple of miles from WMU, Hwy 280 crosses the Cahaba River. The new Hwy 280 bridge parallels the old two lane bridge which connects a Target shopping center with HealthSouth corporate offices. Under that small bridge four men plotted to blow up a church. I don’t know nor do I want to know the details of their planning, what was going through their minds, or how much hate it takes to plan destruction. Whatever they talked about under that bridge changed Birmingham and America forever.


For decades the men were not prosecuted. In 2001, District Attorney David Jones, pulled all the pieces together and took Thomas Blanton to court. I met DA Jones earlier when he prosecuted a man who tried to break in South Highland Presbyterian when I was there. Small world.


Blanton was convicted and sent to prison where he died a few years later. I went to see an hour of his trial before a lunch recess was called. I passed through the metal detectors, entered the courtroom floor and found a seat on the second row. I was just a few feet from the accused. He was quiet, let his lawyer do the talking, and just sat there. I wondered what he was thinking – but I really didn’t care. He convicted himself by the actions that carried out his 1963 thoughts. I went because I knew this was Birmingham history and I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to see if this old man had any compassion or remorse. Thomas Blanton didn’t seem to care one whit.


A couple of years passed and I changed jobs to Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. It is in Homewood, about 10 miles from 16th Street Baptist Church. While I was there, the family of Denise McNair joined the church – Denise was killed at 16th Street Baptist. They were active members and involved in the life of the church. I didn’t get to know them before I left town – I just knew they were good church folk.


In forty years Birmingham has changed – an African-American family with a widely known name joining a mostly white congregation. Birmingham has come a long way – Dawson has had an African-American deacon chair. Birmingham is better but it still has a long way to go. It is a strange circle of ripples that I saw played out in front of me while I was there. I got to see people who were personally involved in the events of 1963. Four men and women – four girls – four ripples.


Lead On!



  1. Dell Shiell says

    It was good to have you flesh out the story more. Thank you.

  2. Curtis Doyle says

    The losses are their own ripples, too. They reach ever wider, and touch nothing, because their owners have been silenced. Thank you for the personalized reminder.