Robert Chambliss, 81; Klansman Killed Girls in ’63 Church Bombing

From Times Wire Services

Robert Edward Chambliss, a former Ku Klux Klansman convicted of killing four black girls in a 1963 church bombing that became an epochal part of the civil rights movement in the Deep South, died Tuesday in a prison hospital at the age of 81.

Chambliss had been serving a life sentence in isolation at St. Clair Correctional Facility at Odenville. He had been taken to Lloyd Nolan Hospital on Monday because of a history of heart problems, a prison system spokeswoman said.

He had been kept in a special cell “separate from everybody--blacks and whites,” Debbie Herbert said.


Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder in the Sept. 15, 1963, dynamite explosion that rocked the 16th Street Baptist Church during a period of racial turmoil in Birmingham.

Police said the bomb was made of up to 15 dynamite sticks and placed in an outside stairwell of the church that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had made his Birmingham headquarters. It exploded as the four girls were changing into choir robes in a basement restroom area.

Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carol Robertson, all 14, were killed.

The bombing went unsolved for more than a decade, but an investigation was reopened in the mid-1970s by Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Baxley, who personally prosecuted the Chambliss case and several other civil rights cases that had lain dormant. Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison. There was no death penalty law in Alabama at the time of the bombing.

Critical testimony against Chambliss was given by his niece, the Rev. Elizabeth H. Cobbs. She testified that she had visited Chambliss at his home a week after the bombing. She said he was watching a TV newscast about the four girls and quoted him as saying:

“It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody. . . . It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”