Birmingham’s Painful Past Reopened
Some of the evidence lay buried in FBI wiretaps ordered sealed by former Director J. Edgar Hoover himself.
Other evidence against two ex-Ku Klux Klansmen, prosecutors say, remained behind the sealed lips of relatives too scared to talk.
But now--more than 37 years after four black girls were killed in a dynamite bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church--those seals have been broken. And a team of state and federal attorneys is poised to shed light on one of the darkest chapters in U.S. civil rights history.
Jury selection begins Monday in the trial of Thomas E. Blanton Jr., 62, who along with Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, faces four counts of first-degree murder. They were to be tried together, but Circuit Judge James Garrett on Tuesday cited “medical reasons” for postponing Cherry’s trial indefinitely.
In interviews, pretrial motions and court hearings, prosecutors have revealed an array of evidence that includes hours of recordings of the defendants’ conversations after the 1963 bombing--picked up by telephone wiretaps and a bug placed behind a kitchen sink. There is also the testimony from an ex-wife, an estranged son and a former Klansman who for years was a paid FBI informant.
If convicted, Blanton and Cherry could face life in prison. Each says he is not guilty.
“I ain’t never wanted to bomb nothing,” Cherry said after he was arrested last spring.
Even though the FBI had named the men as prime suspects within weeks of the bombing, not everyone is happy about bringing them to trial now--especially here in Birmingham, an industrial capital of the South that has worked to reinvent itself since Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed it the most segregated big city in the nation.
“There are some whites who feel this just inflames old wounds,” said Richard Arrington Jr., who in 1979 became the city’s first black mayor. “But with the suspects out there and never brought to trial, this case never goes away. It continues to be a negative cloud over the city.”
Indeed, the trial promises to confront Birmingham and the South with a painful picture of its violent past. As President Kennedy anguished in 1963 over federal intervention, newly elected Gov. George C. Wallace ordered National Guard troops to bar black students from entering the public schools.
In the streets, public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor turned fire hoses and dogs on demonstrators. King and other black leaders were jailed repeatedly. At one rally on the outskirts of Birmingham a few months before the bombing, a huge fiery cross lit up the night at a gathering of more than a thousand hooded Klansmen.
But the new evidence--and the passage of time--insists U.S. Atty. Doug Jones, means it’s now or never. “This is the last roundup. People are getting old, and there will never be another opportunity to handle a case of such importance,” said Jones, 46, a Birmingham native who was just 9 when the bomb went off.
“We owe this prosecution to the victims, their families and the community. And when I realized that I would be able to bring this case, I just got chill bumps.”
Suspects Named Within Days
The Klan lighted fuses on so much dynamite in the 1950s and early 1960s that the city became known as “Bombingham.” The targets included black churches and the homes of black leaders, as well as homes and places of worship belonging to others on the Klan hate list: Catholics and Jews.
But until Sept. 15, 1963, few imagined how far the opponents of integration would go.
Denise McNair, 11, and three 14-year-old friends--Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins--were in the basement lounge of the stately stone church when the blast buried them in an avalanche of bricks and concrete.
Later that day, a black woman told investigators that she had seen four white men near the church in a 1957 white-over-blue Chevrolet hours before the bomb went off. On the back of the car, she said, was a 10-foot-high whip antenna flying a Confederate flag.
Blanton had just such a car.
Within days, the FBI named its chief suspects: Robert E. Chambliss, a well-known racist nicknamed “Dynamite Bob”; another Klansman named Herman Frank Cash; Blanton and Cherry.
The four men, the FBI suspected, drove to the church at 2 a.m. Sept. 15. As Blanton waited behind the wheel, Cherry jumped out and placed the explosives--10 sticks of dynamite rigged to a fishing bobber fuse floating in a leaky bucket of water. The bomb went off eight hours later as the girls primped in the basement lounge after a Sunday school lesson called “The Love That Forgives.”
A Background in Explosives
In 1963, Blanton--the son of well-known racist Thomas E. “Pops” Blanton Sr.--was a 25-year-old former Navy mechanic working in a stockroom. Cherry, then 33, was a truck driver and father of seven who had been trained in explosives while in the Marines. Wyman Lee was pals with both when all were members of the Klan’s Eastview Klavern No. 13. “They were good ol’ boys,” said Lee, now 62.
Cherry, Blanton and Chambliss also were associated with a KKK splinter group called the Cahaba River Boys, who were growing impatient over the pace of the battle to stop integration. Lee told the FBI in 1964 that he had refused to join the Cahaba River group because they were too violent.
Still, Lee--who in the last year has testified twice before the grand jury that brought indictments against Blanton and Cherry--does not think his friends are guilty.
“Bobby Cherry and I were just like brothers, and I was pretty close to Blanton,” Lee said last month. “And I never seen them with any giant red firecrackers.”
Nonetheless, in the months after the bombing, Blanton, Cherry, Chambliss and Cash were interviewed repeatedly by FBI agents. From the FBI files of those interviews, now archived in the Birmingham public library, the men come across as cocky, talkative and proudly racist. They denied any role in the bombing, but they did not deny approving of the results.
“The only reason I didn’t do the church bombing,” Cherry told FBI agents in 1964, “was maybe because someone beat me to it.”
The FBI also hooked the men up to polygraph machines, which showed “evidence of deception” when they denied any knowledge of the bombing, agents reported.
For years, the church bombing probe languished. King, along with Birmingham civil rights firebrand the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, pressed for criminal charges. But Alabama state troopers and local police were known to be riddled with Klan sympathizers, and white juries were not likely to convict.
Still, local FBI agents believed they could make a case. But in Washington, Hoover--saying the “chance of a successful prosecution in state or federal court is very remote"--ordered evidence from the wiretaps and the informant be withheld from prosecutors.
In 1971, after 28-year-old William J. Baxley was elected Alabama attorney general, he fulfilled a vow he’d made as a law student and assigned a team of lawyers and investigators to the case.
Assisted by the release of some FBI files (not those now available), Baxley convicted Chambliss in 1977 of first-degree murder. He died in prison in 1985. But with witnesses fearful of reprisals, Baxley could not make a case against Blanton, Cherry or Cash. Again, the investigation stalled.
Then, in 1993, FBI agent Rob Langford was named to head the Birmingham office. A native of Tuscaloosa, Langford, now 61, had been away from Alabama for 30 years. The church bombing was a vague memory. But after a get-acquainted meeting with local black leaders, Langford said, he learned how the killings still haunted the African American community. “The case just hurt my heart,” he said, and he reopened the investigation.
In 1994, Cash died without ever being charged. Two years later, Langford retired. But Bill Fleming, the bulldog investigator first assigned to the case, never gave up. With help from county investigators, Fleming interviewed 800 people and pored over 9,000 federal documents, many withheld from previous investigators, to set the stage for U.S. Atty. Jones.
Tapes Will Be Key to Prosecution
In motions to dismiss, lawyers for Blanton and Cherry argued that their clients’ civil rights had been violated by the long delay in prosecution--a tactic they said was deliberate in order to avoid 1960s-era juries that would not convict. They also argued that crucial alibi witnesses had died.
But Jones doesn’t plan to put Blanton or Cherry at the scene before the blast. Rather, the case is based on conversations with both men secretly tape-recorded by the informant and on talk picked up by the bug in Blanton’s apartment.
In a hearing earlier this month, the defense argued that the wiretaps--authorized by Hoover and then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy--violated the constitutional ban on illegal search and seizure.
But Jones told Garrett that in 1964, newlyweds Thomas and Carolyn Blanton had no expectation of privacy, as both suspected their apartment and telephone were bugged. From the witness stand, Blanton’s ex-wife--Carolyn Jeanne Barnes--confirmed Jones’ assertion that the couple routinely ended phone conversations by saying: “Goodbye, FBI.”
Despite having hours of taped conversations with the ex-Klansmen--which Garrett ruled admissible on Wednesday--Jones cautions, “There is no smoking gun.”
Also central to the prosecution case is testimony from Cherry’s estranged son, Tom, 47; a 24-year-old granddaughter, Teresa Stacy; and Willajean Brogdon, the second of his five wives. In published interviews, Stacy has said that Cherry boasted of the bombing, and Brogdon last year told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger: “Bob told me he didn’t put the bomb together. He said, ‘I lit it.’ ”
A Lesson About ‘Tragic Times’
On the eve of what promises to be a wrenching, monthlong flashback for Birmingham, public interest is scant. “Few people are speaking out on this,” said Dee Fine, who with her husband hosts a morning talk radio show here.
Even in Birmingham’s black community, the case seems a relic of a distant time, especially among young people. Former Mayor Arrington, for example, has children in their 20s who he said have a hard time grasping the reality of institutionalized segregation. “The young black generation has a detachment from this, a lack of awareness.”
“This should be a lesson for the entire city of those tragic times when racial hatred and fear prompted such violence against blacks and such silence by people of goodwill.”
But for the families of the victims, the wait for justice has seemed interminable.
“We knew the names of the men back in 1963, and at first we thought they would catch up with them,” said Alpha Robertson, 81, whose daughter Carole left for Youth Day services that Sunday wearing a white dress, along with a necklace and shiny black shoes she had bought the day before.
Eventually, Robertson said, “I put whatever would happen completely out of my mind. If they were not convicted, they would still have to pay for it with their conscience. If they have one.”
Chris McNair, Denise’s father, overcame his grief with silence and public service. After serving two terms in the Alabama Legislature and 15 years as a Jefferson County commissioner, he resigned unexpectedly last month. McNair, 75, said his decision had nothing to do with the upcoming trial. “I’ve made it 37 years without talking about it,” he said.
Still Dreaming King’s Dream
Since the bombing, Blanton and Cherry have lived private lives as they turned from youthful Klan members into jowly men. Cherry has been living in a trailer near his son in Mabank, Texas, where the onetime Klan enforcer is known by neighbors as an affable grandfather with a passion for fishing.
Blanton, who held a job as a Wal-Mart clerk when arrested last spring, has lived for several years in a trailer on Wyman Lee’s junk-strewn lot outside of Birmingham.
Both men are free on $200,000 bond.
At 79, Rev. Shuttlesworth--who was subjected to repeated death threats, bombings of his own home and beatings, including one preserved on film in which Cherry slugs the pastor in the head--has no plans to attend the trial.
Instead, he will follow the news from his Cincinnati home, confident, he said, that “America is strong enough to swallow the whole truth” and hopeful of the promise inscribed on the statue of King that looks across the park to the 16th Street Baptist Church:
“His dream liberated Birmingham from itself and began a new day of love, mutual respect and cooperation.”
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A Bombing Chronology
Important dates in the investigation of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.:
* Sept. 15, 1963: Dynamite bomb explodes outside Sunday services at 16th Street Baptist Church, killing 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, and injuring 20 others.
* May 13, 1965: FBI memorandum to Director J. Edgar Hoover concludes the bombing was the work of former Ku Klux Klansmen Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton Jr.
* 1968: FBI closes its investigation without filing charges.
* 1971: Alabama Atty. Gen. William J. Baxley reopens investigation.
* Nov. 18, 1977: Chambliss convicted on a state murder charge and sentenced to life in prison.
* 1980: Justice Department report concludes Hoover had blocked prosecution of the Klansmen in 1965.
* Oct. 29, 1985: Chambliss dies in prison, still professing his innocence.
* 1988: Alabama Atty. Gen. Don Siegelman reopens the case, which is closed without action.
* 1993: Birmingham-area black leaders meet with FBI; agents secretly begin new review of case.
* Feb. 7, 1994: Cash dies.
* July 1997: Cherry interrogated in Texas; FBI investigation becomes public knowledge.
* Oct. 27, 1998: Federal grand jury in Alabama begins hearing evidence.
* April 26, 2000: Cherry arrested on charges he molested a former stepdaughter 29 years earlier. He is later extradited to Alabama.
* May 17, 2000: Blanton and Cherry surrender on murder indictments returned by grand jury in Birmingham.
* April 10, 2001: Judge delays Cherry trial, citing defendant’s medical problems, but refuses to dismiss charges against either man.
* April 16, 2001: Jury selection to begin in case against Blanton.
Source: Associated Press
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.