City leaders and civil rights activists immediately condemned the crime. Martin Luther King Jr. cautioned, “We must not harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith with our white brothers.” The Birmingham News reported that Mayor Albert Boutwell wept when he heard the news: “I never could conceive that anyone existed with such universal malice.” For many white citizens, the bombing reinforced the need for interracial cooperation. Cooper Green, Vice President of Alabama Power and former mayor, advised, “This is a time for all the people of this community to work together to establish and maintain a necessary peace.” Another former mayor, Arthur J. Haynes, agreed: “Birmingham is a great city of great people and there is room for all to live and work together.” Pres. John F. Kennedy also used the opportunity to call for joint action on civil rights legislation, noting that the deaths demonstrated “the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence” and asking blacks and whites in the city to “promote justice and tranquility.” In the following week, Kennedy invited a number of local and national leaders, white and black, tothe White House to discuss the situation in Birmingham.
Amidst calls for cooperation, however, some blamed a culture of violence created by activists like King and Fred Shuttlesworth. In its first editorial after the bombing, the Birmingham News condemned the “Negro community [which] has af fronted the white community in past weeks with open, law-violating street demonstrations” (though the editors also admitted that African Americans deserved clear answers for such an unjustified crime). Arch-segregationist Bull Connor called the bombing “the worst thing I can remember in all my years,” but he specifically blamed “King’s crowd” for “violence and rioting.”
On Tuesday, September 18, two thousand mourners packed the sanctuary of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church for the funerals of three of the four victims. (The Robertson family had held a separate funeral for their daughter at St. John’s AME Church a day earlier.) Four thousand more surrounded the church, unable to fit in the crowded building. The 16th Street Baptist pastor gave the sermon for the service, consoling listeners that “[a]ll things work together for good in them that love the Lord.” The minister reminded his congregation that the events of Sunday had an impact that reached beyond community and city limits, a fact understood by the thousands of locals who had taken part in the spring struggle on the streets of downtown Birmingham. Although Martin Luther King Jr. was not in Birmingham for the funeral, his presence remained strong, and his leadership and advice were often referenced. Fred Shuttlesworth took the podium to speak for King, using the opportunity to place the lives of the four girls in perspective: “Grief will not prevail. You, by your suffering, have paid another installment in this great thing called freedom.”
As hearses left the service, the thousands outside grew restive. Many sang freedom songs and waved American flags, though emotions calmed when word spread that King asked that no protests coincide with the memorial service. The outburst signified a deeper frustration with the direction of civil rights in the city. In the weeks prior to the bombing, activists clashed with segregationists as young African Americans attempted to follow a federal court order to integrate Birmingham’s public high schools. The week before the attack, President Kennedy had federalized state troopers in an attempt to prevent Governor Wallace from using them to protect segregated facilities. Confrontations intensified after the church bombing. On Sunday night, sporadic acts of violence, crackling gunfire, and dispersed fires kept policemen and fire companies busy. The next night, actions escalated. When fire trucks arrived at burning buildings, crowds pelted the vehicles with rocks. In Bessemer, black and white teenagers fought at a popular hamburger stand. Blocks away from the memorial service on Tuesday, a man was arrested with a loaded pistol, threatening to fire into the funeral procession. An outpouring of pent-up anger, the myriad acts of violence in the wakeof the bombing spoke as loudly as the counsel of black and white community leaders. As Carolyn Maull McKinstry, then a young African American girl who knew the four victims, remembered, the bombings exacerbated the existing feeling of uncertainty for Birmingham blacks: “I was afraid. I was frightened. And it seemed there was no control. There was no way to stop what they were doing. There was no way to protect yourself.” Without legislation expressly guaranteeing the civil rights of Birmingham’s black community, no citizen could truly feel safe.