ORANGE, NJ — On Sept. 15, Orange recognized the 58th anniversary of the 1963 terrorist attack that killed four innocent young girls attending church. That morning, a bomb exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Prior to the bombing, the church had been used by Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy Sr. and Frederick Lee Shuttlesworth for civil rights organizing activities.
Hilton Head, S.C., resident Jan Billingsley, who was a contemporary of the murdered girls, married her husband in1976 at the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was just across the street from her family’s restaurant.
In commemoration of the anniversary, Billingsley took Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren and Councilwoman Adrienne Wooten back to that horrible time of civil rights strife through her vivid recollections during a phone call.
“It was disturbing because the fight for civil rights remained so real,” Billingsley said Sept. 19. “I was 13 years old when the bombing happened on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963. At about 10:20 a.m., a loud explosion was heard for miles, and, at that time, our family lived in Birmingham’s Smithfield section, which was quite a distance from the 16th Street Baptist Church. Birmingham at that time was the most segregated and the most racist city in the country. Bombings had occurred for many months in several prominent black sections. The homes of several civil rights leaders were bombed or firebombed, so it was instantly known that it was happening again, but this time it was a big explosion, and it was extremely terrifying.”
The four murdered girls — 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair, 14-year-old Carole Rosamond Robertson and 14-year-old Cynthia Dionne Wesley — were changing into robes in the basement of the church, which had served as a hub for the civil rights leaders.
“The 16th Street Baptist Church had been the meeting place for the movement, and the pastor at the time, the Rev. John Cross, had joined the Southern priest and leadership movement (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and the church became a meeting place for organizing the protests, rallies and marches,” Billingsley said. “My family attended the rallies, and, when we were there, hope seemed like it could be forthcoming if we just protested. On the day of the bombing, in our neighborhood, we gathered outside and learned that dynamite had been placed under the church steps, resulting in the killing of the four girls. But other people were hurt in the bombing, including Addie Collins’ sister, who we thought was blinded but is now blind in one eye. They were able to restore her sight.”
Billingsley recalled the fear of more bombings in the area.
“I felt really afraid to go back to school or the church,” Billingsley said. “Our family owned a jazz club that was just across from Kelly Ingram Park and the 16th Street Baptist Church. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other SCLC members would come to town, they were fed in the restaurant. The section also had blocks of black business owners, and it was feared that those businesses could also be bombed. Denise McNair’s father had a photography business in that location, and he was the official photographer for many schools. The AG Gaston Motel and restaurant was also bombed after Dr. Martin Luther King stayed there, and it was close to the church.
“The perpetrators were known, but no one was charged. Other incidents happened, but this was the most traumatic in Birmingham and I remember as a kid thinking, ‘What have we ever done but exist for these white people to hate us so much?’”
In 1977, Robert Chambliss was found guilty of the murder of Carol Denise McNair and sentenced to life in prison; he died in 1985. In 2001, Thomas Edwin Blanton was found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison; he died in 2020. In 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry was also found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison; he died in 2004.
Billingsley and her husband, Morris, who grew up in Orange and attended Orange public schools, married 13 years after the bombing at the same church. Traveling back and forth from New Jersey to Alabama, the couple kept a home in Orange; they were co-owners of the Peppermint Lounge in Orange from 1983 to 1992.
Looking back, Billingsley said she was very fortunate in Birmingham, because, even though the area was so segregated, she and her family lived and maneuvered in all black sections. She said her first interaction with white people was when she attended Kentucky State College.
“Structural racism happened then, and it continuously is happening now. Houses of worship continue to be the target. The shooting of the Charleston, (South) Carolina, nine church members (in 2015) certainly caused me to be reflective of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing,” she said. “The country continues to be divided, and we continue to fight for civil rights. We cannot be complacent; we have to know our history, and we must press on with the struggle.”
Photos Courtesy of Adrienne Wooten