BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Nearly a century of wear and an infamous civil rights-era bombing have cracked the walls of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and water leaks are destroying its ground floor.
A campaign to raise $2.6 million to repair the historic downtown structure starts today, two days ahead of the 41st anniversary of the powerful bombing that killed four young black girls and rocked the church's foundation.
"There is an immediate need to move forward and secure the water issue and secure the cracks left over from the blast," said Dick Pigford, a project architect.
Officials say more than 200,000 tourists visit the church annually.
Two former Ku Klux Klansmen are serving life sentences for the bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, when Birmingham's public schools were being desegregated. The explosion killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair 11, who were in a women's lounge getting ready for a special Sunday morning youth program. The church had been used for mass meetings and as a rallying spot for civil rights demonstrators.
The bombing shocked the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement, coming months after Birmingham police used dogs and fire hoses to drive back black marchers.
The blast blew out part of the building's thick, stone-and-brick exterior wall. Cosmetic repairs were made soon afterward, but other damage combined with years of day-to-day wear require repairs estimated at $3.8 million, officials say.
Limited repair work was performed last spring, when water damage became too advanced on the ground floor, said church member Carolyn McKinstry, a leader of a committee that has raised $1.2 million for the project.