Alpha Robertson, 83; Her Daughter Died in 1963 Church Bombing

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Alpha Robertson, who lost her youngest child in a racist church bombing in 1963 and testified decades later against two Ku Klux Klan members convicted in the blast, died Sunday in Birmingham, Ala. She was 83.

Robertson, who had battled cancer and other illnesses, was hospitalized two weeks ago and suffered her third stroke.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 15, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 536 words Type of Material: Correction
Bombing victim--In Tuesday’s California section, the obituary of Alpha Robertson, mother of a black teenager killed in the 1963 bombing by Ku Klux Klan members at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., gave the wrong age for one of the victims. Denise McNair was 11.

She was the mother of Carole Robertson, 14, who was among four black girls killed when 10 sticks of dynamite exploded outside the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963.


Robertson testified about that Sunday morning during the recent trials of Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, the last two suspects in the bombing considered the deadliest crime of the civil rights era.

“It was just an awful sound, like something shaking the world all over,” Robertson, testifying in a wheelchair, said during Cherry’s trial in May.

Both Blanton and Cherry were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. A third Klansman was convicted in 1977 and died in prison, and a fourth suspect died without being charged.

Robertson was at home getting ready for church on that September morning almost 40 years ago when the bomb went off.

Her daughter was primping in the church basement with three friends--Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, all 14--when the explosion brought down part of the brick and concrete church on top of them.

A friend called Robertson and gave her the news that the church--a gathering spot for activists, who often had to dodge fire hoses and police dogs to get there--had been attacked. She finished dressing and rushed over, only to be sent home by her husband, who had gone to the church earlier with their daughter.


It was hours before the girls’ bodies were removed from the rubble. They were wounded so badly that they could only be identified by their shoes.

The girls’ deaths drew international attention to the Klan’s violent tactics and galvanized opposition to it. But the failure of the police and the FBI to prosecute anyone at the time sealed Birmingham’s reputation as a bastion of racism.

Although the FBI identified four suspects within days, no charges were filed because then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said an Alabama jury--probably all white men--would never convict the Klansmen.

Dianne Braddock, Robertson’s surviving daughter, said she was glad her mother lived to see the men found guilty.

“She had lived the courage of her conviction. She was forgiving,” Braddock said. “She fought a valiant fight considering all the struggles she’s had in her life.”

Special prosecutor Doug Jones called Robertson an “amazing lady.”

“We referred to her as the moral center of the universe,” he said. “She just had that presence and aura that brought you in and cradled you.”

Robertson, a retired school librarian, was featured in “4 Little Girls,” director Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary about the bombings. She appears showing a string of Girl Scout merit badges Carole had earned, and a worn Bible that her daughter had in her pocketbook the day of the bombing.

Lee told the Chicago Tribune in 1997 that the heroism of Robertson and the other parents was the heart of the film. He cited Robertson’s courage and belief in God as particularly inspiring.

Robertson’s husband, Alvin, died in 1974. Besides her daughter Dianne, she is survived by a son, Alvin Robertson Jr.; three grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.