The society is coming apart at the seams. What good is it doing to force these situations when white people nowhere in the South want integration? What this country needs is a few first-class funerals…1
— George Wallace, September 5, 1963
Richard Pearson Thomas’s opera, Blood of Angels, dramatizes the political life of George C. Wallace set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. To be elected governor of Alabama, George Wallace discards his original belief in equality and embraces the language of segregation. His rhetoric has disastrous effects, evidenced by the brutal beatings of The Children’s March and the deaths of four young girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.2
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was a turning point in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and was a catalyst for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. An act of white supremacist terrorism, the bombing occurred Sunday, September 15, 1963, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted sticks of dynamite underneath the front steps of the church.3
Described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,”4 the explosion at the church killed four young girls and injured 22 others. The explosion was so intense that one of the girls’ bodies was decapitated and so badly mutilated in the explosion that her body could only be identified through her clothing and a ring, whereas another victim had been killed by a piece of mortar embedded in her skull. The then-pastor of the church, Reverend John Cross, would recollect in 2001 that the girls’ bodies were subsequently found “stacked on top of each other, clung together.”5
The four girls killed in the attack were Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carole Robertson (age 14), Cynthia Wesley (age 14) and Carol Denise McNair (age 11).6 Some civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama and an outspoken segregationist, for creating the climate that had led to the killings. (One week prior to the bombing, Wallace said in an interview with a The New York Times journalist that, in order to stop racial integration, he believed Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals.”7).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. indeed informed Wallace via telegram of his belief that “the blood of four little children …is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”8
Photo Credits: 1, Stock photo of George Wallace, 1964; 2, Associated Press; 3, Corbis Images; 4, Horace Cort / AP