In the draft he filed with the Nation desk back in New York, veteran reporter Joe Cumming began plainly enough: “The Birmingham police have had plenty of experience investigating bombings.” According to a departmental tally, no fewer than 31 blasts had shaken the city in just the past twelve years. And as one local put it to Cummings, dynamite was about as common as “bootleg whiskey.” “You can almost get it any of these little country stores,” the man admitted. “There are some restrictions on it but there’s hardly a farmer around that doesn’t have a store of eight or ten sticks.”
Still, this one was different. On the morning of September 15, 1963 a blast tore through the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, claiming the lives of four girls and changing the national debate over civil rights. In the wake of the bombing, the nation’s press converged on Birmingham to report the story and its aftermath, though few were as well prepared as Cumming and his colleagues at Newsweek. For the past decade, reporters from the magazine’s Atlanta bureau had fanned out across the South to cover “the race beat,” collecting in the process a wealth of hand-written notes, background material, memoranda, and draft copies, which today form the basis of MARBL’s Newsweek collection. Among the items Cumming and his colleagues gathered in Birmingham are two of particular interest: a booklet of Sunday School lessons for students that was retrieved from the church grounds, and, ironically, a pamphlet produced by the Chamber of Commerce urging locals to “talk good about Birmingham.” The Chamber’s efforts notwithstanding, Birmingham earned nationwide opprobrium for its combustible race relations as well as a moniker – Bombingham – that it hasn’t yet managed to shed. The grief and shock occasioned by the blast likewise had a galvanizing effect on the nation, increasing support for federal civil rights legislation which passed the following year.