As Virgil Ware, 13, soared down a lonely stretch of road outside Birmingham, Ala., perched on the handlebars of his brother's bicycle, he was happily unaware of the carnage downtown. It was Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963. At 10:22 that morning, four black girls had been killed by a dynamite bomb set by the Ku Klux Klan at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church was a focal point of Birmingham's civil rights turmoil that year, but that unrest hadn't touched Virgil and his coal-mining family, who lived in a modest, all-black suburb and rarely even saw white people. All Virgil had on his mind that day was the money he and his brothers were going to make with the newspaper route they had just secured.
Larry Joe Sims, 16, an Eagle Scout at Birmingham's all-white Phillips High School, wasn't preoccupied with the civil rights movement either. His family quietly sympathized with blacks' efforts to eat at regular lunch counters, attend integrated schools and vote without hindrance. His father, a manager at a Sears store, privately scorned Eugene (Bull) Connor, the police commissioner who turned fire hoses and attack dogs on black demonstrators, some as young as 7. Still, if the Simses lamented the injustices, they didn't challenge them. As a teen, Sims had girls, his guitar and the Beach Boys on his mind.
But by 4:45 that Sunday afternoon, as if caught on the billows of the church blast, Virgil Ware and Larry Joe Sims were hurtling toward another racial tragedy. Succumbing to peer pressure, Sims had gone along with friends to a segregationist rally that day--and now he was holding a revolver that his classmate, Michael Lee Farley, 16, had handed him as they rode home on Farley's red motorbike, its small Confederate flag whipping in the wind. As they passed Virgil and his brother James, 16, Farley told Sims to fire the gun and "scare 'em." Sims closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. Two bullets hit Virgil in the chest and cheek, hurling him into a ditch as the motorbike sped on. "I've been shot," Virgil said. "No you ain't," James said in disbelief. "Just stop tremblin', and you'll be O.K."
He wasn't. Instead, Virgil Ware became the sixth and final black person to be killed in Birmingham that Sunday. (Another youth had been shot in the back by police after he threw rocks to protest the church bombing.) Virgil was the last civil rights casualty of the summer of '63--when the defining social movement of 20th century America became a national concern and not just a Southern one. Network television brought the season's atrocities into U.S. living rooms along with the triumphs, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington 2 1/2 weeks earlier. Northerners, including President John F. Kennedy and his Attorney General brother Robert, enlisted in the struggle that would lead to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 the next summer.