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Man convicted of Birmingham church bombing denied parole

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Alabama’s parole board decided Wednesday against freeing a onetime Ku Klux Klansman convicted in a church bombing that killed four black girls more than 50 years ago.

The decision to keep Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., 78, imprisoned was met with applause. Relatives of three of the slain girls spoke against Blanton’s release during the hearing.

“Justice is served,” Lisa McNair, sister of bombing victim Denise McNair, said afterward.

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Blanton is the last surviving KKK member convicted of murder in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. He is held in a one-person cell at a maximum-security prison and rarely has contact with other inmates, corrections officials say.

Blanton was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 for being part of a group of Klansmen who planted a dynamite bomb that exploded outside the church on Sept. 15, 1963. The blast killed 11-year-old McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Morris, also known as Cynthia Wesley.

The girls, who were inside the church preparing for worship, died instantly in a hail of bricks and stone that seriously injured Collins’ sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph. Their deaths inside a church on a Sunday morning became a symbol worldwide of the depth of racial hatred in the segregated South.

“We were at that church learning about love and forgiveness when someone was outside doing hateful things,” Rudolph, 65, told the board. She lost an eye in the blast and told the board she was filled with hate for years after the bombing.

Blanton did not attend the hearing, which lasted about 30 minutes. In Alabama, inmates do not attend such hearings. No one spoke on behalf of his release.

Relatives of all four victims were on hand, and the room was full of people opposing Blanton’s parole. Opponents took up seats normally reserved for inmates’ relatives. Members of the Birmingham NAACP chapter rode to Montgomery on a bus to be there.

Rudolph, of Birmingham, acknowledged that she was nervous about testifying before the board, but added: “I had to come speak for Addie.”

The board ordinarily has three members but there’s a vacancy. Only two members heard Blanton’s case, which came up for automatic review. Board member Cliff Walker said Blanton can seek another review in five years -- the longest possible wait under Alabama law. The board could have allowed him to return as quickly as one year.

Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blanton on the state charge, said Blanton shouldn’t be released since he has never accepted responsibility for the bombing or expressed any remorse for a crime that was aimed at maintaining racial separation at a time when Birmingham’s public schools were facing a court order to desegregate.

Long a suspect in the case, Blanton was the second of three people convicted in the bombing. Robert Chambliss, convicted in 1977, and Bobby Frank Cherry, convicted in in 2002, have died in prison.

Blanton and Cherry were indicted in 2000 after the FBI reopened an investigation of the bombing. Evidence against Blanton included secret recordings that were made using FBI bugs at his home and in the car of a fellow Klansman turned informant.

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