Prosecutor reflects on 50th anniversary of 1963 Birmingham bombing

It was 50 years ago this Sunday a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls: Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14.

Birmingham native G. Douglas Jones befriended the father of one of those girls, and about 40 years later, as a federal prosecutor, he convicted two of the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the bombing.

Jones, 59, now a private lawyer, spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Friday about his memories of the bombing, the trials that followed and the legacy of the civil rights movement in his hometown.

 

What is it like in Birmingham today? Do you plan to attend any of the events this weekend marking the anniversary of the bombing?

It’s been a jam-packed couple of weeks. I’ve just been going from one event to the next. It’s a very exciting time—everything seems to be coming together culminating in the church service Sunday afternoon. The Congressional Black Caucus was in town, and I did a panel this morning with [former secretary of State and Birmingham native] Condoleezza Rice and moderated by Gayle King. Bill Cosby is in town for some events, and Spike Lee, who did the movie “Four Little Girls,” he’s going to show that.

It’s a very emotional time, an exciting time—people are really recognizing the significance of what happened in 1963, beginning with the children’s [civil rights] marches and culminating in the deaths of those four children.

What is your memory of the bombing? What was Birmingham like back then?

My personal memory is not what Birmingham was like. I was 9 years old in 1963, a white kid living out in suburbia, and so my life was a very segregated life, a sheltered life. I don’t have any recollections of that day—I knew there was things going on downtown, but I don’t have a recollection of the bombing.

Birmingham was two towns—a black town and a white town. It took me getting into junior high to see things changing. My elementary school was all white, but when I went to the seventh grade I for the first time went to a school that was integrated, and the kids started adapting, trying to work together.

It was years later, in 1977, that Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Baxley convicted the first Klansman, Robert Chambliss, in connection with the bombing. You were a law student at Samford University outside Birmingham—do you remember that trial?

Baxley, the young attorney general at the time, was one of my heroes. I was a second-year student so I cut classes that week and went and watched Baxley’s argument—it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. The history, the power, that the law can change things for good, that public-service lawyers can have an effect on the world around you.

It was 20 years later that you became a federal prosecutor and convicted an additional two suspects, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry. How did that happen?

To finish the case that Bill had started in the same courtroom where I had watched as a kid was truly an amazing time.

The case got reopened a year or so before I became U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, appointed by Bill Clinton. Obviously, with the history that I had, I also had some personal history with the McNair family that lost their daughter Denise, the case moved to the top priority for me.

I got to know Chris McNair [the girl’s father] when I was in college, through my political work — I was a young college student involved in politics, he was a newly elected member of the Alabama legislature; he actually represented my area. I had known them for a long time.

They were different cases. With Blanton, we repackaged some of the old evidence and presented it. Cherry ran his mouth a lot. He was his own undoing.

What was it like interviewing the victims' families?

We didn’t initially do much interviewing with the families. I didn’t talk to Bill Baxley about the case either, even though we had been friends for years.

The reason was, I didn’t know if we could win the case, if we had the evidence, and I didn’t want to lose my objectivity. I was just afraid that one day, I might have to tell them I couldn’t do it.

So it was towards the end that we really started working with the families, got them prepped for trial. Ms. Robertson, she was like a saint—she died about two months after the Cherry case was over. I still miss her.

How did you get Cherry’s ex-wife, Willadean, to talk?

Ex-wives are always high on the prospective witness list, but nobody could find her.

In the fall of 1998, we decided to take the investigation in a little bit of a different direction and start calling people for the grand jury. It was no secret what we were doing, calling Klansmen to testify, and a reporter from Jackson, Miss., came and did a story about it.

Willadean read that story in a tiny little town in Montana and she called the FBI and said, “I need to come talk to you.” She drove a couple hundred miles to the nearest office. She just introduced us to her brother, who lived with them for a time; he was in Florida. We had a granddaughter who contacted us who was there at the kitchen table with him talking about the bombing at 16th Street Church. She was just an 11-year-old white kid sitting at the table with a Klansman—she was scared.

Cherry would brag about this to people. With the passage of time, he just got kind of empowered that nothing was going to happen.

How was he able to get away with it for so many years?

It was an open secret among friends. It was an open secret among family members. It was not something that people reported to law enforcement. It just took a full opening of the case and good investigative work to track that down.

What was some of the most powerful evidence and testimony you presented?

The most powerful testimony was the surviving victim, Sarah [Jean Collins Rudolph].

In the Blanton case, there was a tape, what was called “the kitchen tape,” an undercover tape made by the FBI who placed a bug under the kitchen sink of Blanton and his then-wife -- she was his girlfriend at the time of the bombing -- where she asks him where he was on the Friday night before the bombing when he stood her up, he broke a date with her. He says it three times, “We had the meeting to make the bomb”—he admitted it three times.

With Cherry, it was his admissions to family and friends. And I never underestimated the lies that he gave to law enforcement over the years.

You have said prosecuting the cases took an emotional toll on you—did it change the way you see Birmingham?

It changed the way I felt about the city for the positive. By the time we prosecuted these cases, all the bad about Birmingham was known—it was documented. But Birmingham had long before tried to not only put this behind us, but celebrate it with the civil rights museum and the renovating of the Birmingham Civil Rights District. It certainly put the city in a better light when juries, black and white, convicted these guys.

It was an emotionally draining case—it would drain you every day. But from that point on, it’s been nothing but uplifting. We’ve lost witnesses, we’ve lost Ms. Robinson, but the fact of the matter is there’s been so much celebration. Even today, 11 years after the fact, people still stop me and thank me for my service. It’s humbling to have been a part of that. To sit there in the halls of Washington, D.C., the other day and see these girls receive a Congressional Gold Medal is humbling.

This year marks a lot of 50th civil rights anniversaries—sad ones like the bombing, but uplifting ones, too, like the March on Washington. You have said you want people to remember the “hatefulness and viciousness” of that era. Why is that important, and what else should they remember?

In the next couple of years you’re going to see more—anniversaries of the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. I especially hope they mark the passage of the Voting Rights Act as it’s being dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case that came down this year. I believe we’re taking steps back with regards to civil rights. In legislatures across this country, I believe they are suppressing the rights of minorities to vote with voter ID laws and things of that nature.

On Sept. 15, 1963, hate prevailed over everything as four innocent children were killed. Once that happened, I think so much of America’s consciousness woke up and said, “Oh my God--this is not just a question of culture anymore, it’s a question of hate.” When you remember those deaths and the bombing, what you really think back and do is remember the changes and the catalyst. I think it was one of the things that caused Congress to act and caused the American people to start changing their hearts and minds.

This week in Birmingham is called “Empowerment Week,” and it’s because we are not just focusing on the past but on the future. I think that speaks volumes about not just, look at what we’ve done, but what are we doing. We need to continue expanding whether it’s gay rights, rights for the elderly or the disabled. By looking at the mistakes made by society in the past, maybe we won’t make them again.

So where will you be on Sunday?

The U.S. Attorney General [Eric H. Holder Jr.] and I are friends. I’m looking forward to seeing him and his wife on Sunday. [Former Atlanta mayor and congressman] Andrew Young, [civil rights leader] the Rev. Joseph Lowery—it’s just an exciting time.

Initially I will probably go to the church services—the first one is going to truly be a church service; my wife and I will attend. At about 12:30 p.m. I have to do a C-SPAN show live from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, then at 3 p.m. Birmingham time will be the big memorial where Holder will speak and Young will speak, and then we’ll have the dedication of the statue of the girls.

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