16th Street Baptist Church bombing

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16th Street Baptist Church bombing
16th Street Baptist Church bombing girls.jpg
The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Denise McNair and Carole Robertson)
Location 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama
Coordinates 33°31′0″N 86°48′54″W / 33.51667°N 86.81500°W / 33.51667; -86.81500Coordinates: 33°31′0″N 86°48′54″W / 33.51667°N 86.81500°W / 33.51667; -86.81500
Date September 15, 1963
10:22 a.m. (UTC-5)
Attack type
Church bombing, mass murder, hate crime, white supremacist terrorism
Deaths 4
Non-fatal injuries
22
Assailants Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry
Motive Racism
Racial segregation

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was an act of white supremacist terrorism which occurred at the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, September 15, 1963, when four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a minimum of 15 sticks of dynamite attached to a timing device beneath the front steps of the church.[1]

Described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as "one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,"[2] the explosion at the church killed four girls and injured 22 others.

Although the FBI had concluded in 1965 that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing had been committed by four known Ku Klux Klansmen and segregationists: Bobby Frank Cherry; Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr.; Herman Frank Cash; and Robert Edward Chambliss,[3] no prosecutions ensued until 1977, when Robert Chambliss was tried and convicted of the first degree murder of one of the victims, 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair. Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were each convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 and 2002 respectively,[4] whereas Herman Cash, who died in 1994, was never charged with his alleged involvement in the bombing.

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing marked a turning point in the United States 1960s Civil Rights Movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Background[edit]

In the years leading to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Birmingham had earned a national reputation as a tense, violent and racially segregated city, in which public facilities were segregated, and even tentative racial integration of any form was met with violent resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King described Birmingham as "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States."[5]

The city had no black police officers, firefighters and few of the city's black residents were registered to vote. Bombings at black institutions were a regular occurrence:[6] Birmingham had seen at minimum of 21 separate explosions at black properties and churches in the eight years before 1963, although none of these explosions had resulted in fatalities.[7]

The 16th Street Baptist Church in 2005

The Birmingham Campaign and the 16th Street Baptist Church[edit]

Main article: Birmingham campaign

The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church had become a rallying point for civil rights activities through the spring of 1963, and would become the location where students who were arrested during the 1963 Birmingham campaign's Children's Crusade had been organized and trained by Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Director of Direct Action, James Bevel. The church was also used as a meeting-place for other civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. Tensions would be further escalated when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress on Racial Equality became involved in a campaign to register African Americans to vote in Birmingham.

On May 2, more than 1,000 students, some reportedly as young as eight, opted to truant from school and gather at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Demonstrators present were given instructions to march to downtown Birmingham and discuss with the mayor their concerns about racial segregation in Birmingham, then to integrate buildings and businesses currently segregated. Although this march was met with fierce resistance and criticism, and saw up to 600 arrests on the first day alone, the Birmingham campaign and its Children's Crusade were successful and continued until May 5. These demonstrations led to an agreement, on May 8, between the city's business leaders and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to integrate public facilities, including schools, in the city within 90 days. (The first three schools in Birmingham to become integrated would do so on September 4.)[8]

These demonstrations, and the concessions from city leaders to the majority of demonstrators' demands were met with fierce resistance in Birmingham. In the weeks following the September 4 integration of public schools, three further bombs had been detonated in Birmingham.[9] Other acts of violence followed the settlement, and several staunch Ku Klux Klansmen were known to have expressed frustration at a lack of what they saw as effective resistance to integration.[10]

The 16th Street Baptist Church—a known and popular rallying point for civil rights activists—had become an obvious target.

The bombing[edit]

In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, four members of the United Klans of America: Bobby Frank Cherry; Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr.;[11] Herman Frank Cash; and Robert Edward Chambliss, planted a minimum of 15 sticks[12] of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the church, close to the basement.[13] At about 10:22 a.m., the bomb exploded as five children were present within the basement assembly as they changed into their choir robes[14] in preparation for a sermon entitled "The Love that Forgives."[15][16] According to one survivor, the explosion shook the entire building and propelled the girls' bodies through the air "like rag dolls."[17]

The explosion blew a hole measuring seven feet in diameter in the church's rear wall, and a crater five feet wide and two feet deep in the ladies' basement lounge, destroying the rear steps to the church and blowing one passing motorist out of his car.[18] Several other cars parked near the site of the blast were destroyed, and windows of properties located more than two blocks from the church were also damaged. All but one of the church's stained-glass windows was destroyed in the explosion. The sole stained-glass window largely undamaged in the explosion depicted Christ leading a group of young children.[19]

Hundreds of individuals, some of them lightly wounded, converged on the church to search the debris for survivors as police erected barricades around the church and several outraged men scuffled with police. An estimated 2,000 black people, many many of them hysterical, converged on the scene in the hours following the explosion as the church's pastor, the Reverend John Cross, attempted to placate the crowd.

One individual who converged on the scene to help search for survivors, Charles Vann, later recollected that he had observed a solitary white man whom he recognized as Robert Edward Chambliss (a known member of the Ku Klux Klan) standing alone and motionless at a barricade. According to Vann's later testimony, Chambliss was standing "looking down toward the church, like a firebug watching his fire."[20]

Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack.[21] The explosion was so intense that one of the girls' bodies was decapitated and so badly mutilated in the explosion that her body could only be identified through her clothing and a ring,[22] whereas another victim had been killed by a piece of mortar embedded in her skull.[23] The then-pastor of the church, the Reverend John Cross, would recollect in 2001 that the girls' bodies were subsequently found "stacked on top of each other, clung together."[24]

More than 20 additional people were injured in the explosion, one of whom was Addie Mae's younger sister, 12-year-old Sarah Collins[25] who had 21 pieces of glass embedded in her face and was blinded in one eye.[26] In her later recollections of the bombing, Collins would recall that in the moments immediately before the explosion, she had observed her sister, Addie, tying the dress sash to her uniform.[27] Another sister of Addie Mae Collins, 16-year-old Junie Collins, would later recall that shortly before the explosion, she had been sat in the basement of the church reading the Bible and had observed Addie Mae Collins tying the dress sash of Carol Denise McNair before she had herself returned upstairs to the ground floor of the church.[28]

Reactions and condemnation[edit]

As violence escalated in Birmingham in the hours following the bombing, police urged parents of black and white youths to keep their children indoors, as the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, ordered an additional 300 state police to assist in quelling unrest. Birmingham City Council convened an emergency meeting to propose safety measures for the city, although proposals for a curfew were rejected. Within 24 hours of the bombing, a minimum of five businesses and properties had been firebombed and numerous cars—most of which were driven by whites—had been stoned by rioting youths.[29]

Congress of Racial Equality and members of the All Souls Church march in memory of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victims on September 22, 1963

In response to the church bombing, described by the Mayor of Birmingham, Albert Boutwell, as "just sickening," the Attorney General dispatched 25 FBI agents, including explosives experts, to Birmingham to conduct a thorough forensic investigation.

Although reports of the bombing and the loss of four children's lives were glorified by white supremacists, who chose to celebrate the loss of "four less niggers,"[30] as news of the church bombing and the fact four young girls had been killed in the explosion reached the national and international press, many felt that they had not taken the civil rights struggle seriously enough. The day following the bombing, a young white lawyer named Charles Morgan, Jr. addressed a meeting of businessmen condemning the acquiescence of white people in Birmingham towards the oppression of blacks. In this speech, Morgan addressed his audience with a speech in which he lamented: "Who did it [the bombing]? We all did it! The 'who' is every little individual who talks about the 'niggers' and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son... What's it like living in Birmingham? No one ever really has known and no one will until this city becomes part of the United States."[31] A Milwaukee Sentinel editorial opined, "For the rest of the nation, the Birmingham church bombing should serve to goad the conscience. The deaths…in a sense, are on the hands of each of us."[32]

Two more black children named Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware were shot to death in Birmingham within seven hours of the Sunday morning bombing. Robinson, aged 16, was shot in the back by a policeman as he fled down an alley,[33] reportedly after police had responded to reports of black youths throwing rocks at cars driven by white people and Robinson had ignored orders to halt. He died before reaching hospital. Ware, aged 13, was shot in the cheek and chest with a revolver[34] by a 16-year-old white youth named Larry Sims, who fired a gun given to him by another youth named Michael Farley at Ware as he (Ware) sat upon the handlebars of a bicycle ridden by his brother in a residential suburb, 15 miles north of the city. Sims and Farley had been riding home from an anti-integration rally which had denounced the church bombing,[35] when Sims fired twice as he spotted Ware and his brother, reportedly as his (Sims') eyes were closed. (Sims and Farley were convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the case of Virgil Ware,[36] although the judge suspended their sentences and imposed two years' probation upon each youth.[37][38])

Some civil rights activists blamed George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama and an outspoken segregationist, for creating the climate that had led to the killings. (One week before the bombing, Wallace had granted an interview with a The New York Times journalist in which he had stated his belief that, in order to stop racial integration, he believed that Alabama needed a "few first-class funerals."[39])

The city of Birmingham initially offered a $52,000 reward for the arrest of the bombers. Governor George Wallace himself offered an additional $5,000 on behalf of the state of Alabama. Although this donation was accepted,[40] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is known to have informed Wallace via telegram of his belief that "the blood of four little children ... is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder."[19][41]

Funerals[edit]

Carole Rosamond Robertson was laid to rest in a private family funeral held on September 17, 1963.[42] Reportedly, Carole's mother, Alpha, had expressly requested her daughter be buried separately from the other victims due to her distress at a remark Martin Luther King had made in which he (King) had stated that the mindset which had allowed the murder of the four girls was the "apathy and complacency" of black people in Alabama.[43]

The service for Carole Rosamond Robertson was held at St. John's African-American Church. In attendance were 1,600 people. At this service, the Reverend C. E. Thomas addressed the congregation, informing them: "The greatest tribute you can pay to Carole is to be calm, be lovely, be kind, be innocent."[44] Carole Robertson was buried in a blue casket at Shadow Lawn Cemetery.[45]

On September 18, the funeral of the three other girls killed in the bombing was held at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church. Although no city officials attended this service,[46] present at the girls' funerals were an estimated 800 clergymen of all races. Also present was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a speech conducted before the burial of the girls, Dr. King addressed an estimated 3,300[47] mourners—including numerous white people—with a speech which included: "This tragic day may cause the white side to come to terms with its conscience. In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not become bitter... We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Life is hard. At times as hard as crucible steel, but, today, you do not walk alone."[48]

As the girls' coffins were led to their graves, Dr. King ordered that those present remain solemn and forbid any singing, shouting or demonstrations. These instructions were relayed to the crowd present by a single youth with a bullhorn.[49] At the time of the funerals, two of those critically injured in the bombing were still hospitalized, as was a 16-year-old white teenager named Dennis Robertson, who had been hit in the head with a brick thrown by a black youth as he cycled home from his job.[50][51]

Initial investigation[edit]

Initially, investigators theorized that a bomb thrown from a passing car had caused the explosion at the 16th Street Baptist church; however, by September 20, the FBI was able to confirm that the explosion had been caused by a device which had been purposely planted beneath the steps to the church.[52]

Within days of the bombing, investigators began to focus their attention upon a Ku Klux Klan splinter group known as the Cahaba Boys. The Cahaba Boys had formed earlier in 1963 due to a mutual feeling the Ku Klux Klan was becoming restrained and impotent in response to concessions granted to blacks aimed at ending racial segregation, and consisted of less than 30 active members.[53] Membership of this splinter group included Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton, Jr., and Bobby Cherry.

Investigators also gathered numerous witness statements attesting to a group of white men in a turquoise 1957 Chevrolet who had been seen near the church in the early hours of the morning of September 15.[54] These witness statements specifically indicated that a white man had exited the car and walked towards the steps of the church. (The physical description of the individual who had exited the car varied, and could have matched either Bobby Cherry or Robert Chambliss.[55])

Chambliss was questioned by the FBI on September 26.[56] On September 29, Chambliss was indicted solely upon charges of illegally purchasing and transporting dynamite on September 4, 1963. He and two acquaintances named John Hall and Charles Cagle were each convicted upon a charge of illegally possessing and transporting dynamite on October 8—each receiving a $1,000 fine and a suspended six-month jail sentence.[57] At the time, no federal charges were filed against Chambliss or any of his fellow conspirators in relation to the bombing.[58]

The FBI did encounter difficulties in their initial investigation into the bombing. One report would later state: "By 1965, we had [four] serious suspects—namely, Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas Blanton, Jr., all Klan members—but witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. Also, at that time, information from our surveillance was not admissible in court. As a result, no federal charges were filed in the ’60s."[58]

On May 13, 1965, local investigators and the FBI formally named Chambliss, Blanton, Cash, and Cherry as the perpetrators of the bombing. No prosecutions of the four suspects ensued, reportedly on the basis of mistrust between local and federal investigators.[59]

Resulting legislation[edit]

The Birmingham campaign, the March on Washington, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church, and the later assassination of John F. Kennedy—an ardent supporter of the civil rights cause who had proposed a Civil Rights Act of 1963 on national television[60]—increased worldwide awareness of and sympathy towards the civil rights cause.

Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, newly-inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson continued to press for the passage of the civil rights bill sought by his predecessor.

On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into effect the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In attendance were various leaders of the civil rights movement including Martin Luther King, Jr.[61] This resulting legislation outlawed any discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin; thus ensuring full, equal rights of African Americans before the law.

Initial charges against Robert Chambliss[edit]

Officially, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing remained unsolved until William Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama in 1970. Baxley had been a student at the University of Alabama when he heard about the bombing in 1963, and would later recollect: "I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what."[62]

Within one week of being sworn into office, Baxley had researched original police files into the bombing, discovering that most of the original police documents were lackluster and inefficient.[63] Nonetheless, Baxley formally reopened the case into the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1971. Baxley was able to corroborate with and build trust with key witnesses, some of whom had been reluctant to testify in the first trial. Other witnesses obtained were able to identify Chambliss as the individual who had placed the bomb beneath the church. Baxley also gathered evidence proving Chambliss had purchased dynamite from a store in Jefferson County less than two weeks before the bomb was planted.[64] In addition, he also obtained testimony from witnesses who were able to place Robert Chambliss and his car in the vicinity of the church on the day of the bombing. This testimony and evidence was used to formally construct a case against Robert Chambliss.

Baxley then requested access to the original FBI files on the case—which had been sealed by order of J. Edgar Hoover—and discovered that evidence accumulated by the FBI against the named suspects between 1963 and 1965 had not been revealed to the prosecutors in Birmingham.[65] Although he met with initial resistance from the FBI,[66] by 1976, Baxley was formally presented with some of the evidence which had been compiled by the FBI.

1977 prosecution[edit]

On November 14, 1977, Robert Chambliss, then aged 73, stood trial in Birmingham, Alabama. He was initially indicted on September 24, 1977, charged with four counts of murder relating to each victim of the 1963 church bombing;[67] however, at an initial hearing scheduled October 18,[68] Judge Wallace Gibson ruled that the defendant would be tried upon one count of murder—that of Carol Denise McNair[69]—and that the remaining three counts of murder would remain, but that he would not be charged in relation to these three deaths. Before his trial, Chambliss, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, remained free upon a $200,000 bond raised by family and supporters and posted October 18.[70][71]

Crucial testimony at Chambliss's trial was given by his own niece, Elizabeth Cobbs, who stated that her uncle had repeatedly informed her he had been engaged in what he referred to as a "one-man battle" against blacks since the 1940s.[72] Moreover, Cobbs testified on November 16 that, on the day before the bombing, Chambliss had informed her he had in his possession enough dynamite to "flatten half of Birmingham." Cobbs also testified that, approximately one week after the bombing, she had observed Chambliss watching a news article relating to the four girls killed in the bombing. According to Cobbs, Chambliss had informed her: "It [the bomb] wasn't meant to hurt anybody ... it didn't go off when it was supposed to."[73] Another witness to testify was a man named William Jackson, who testified as to his joining the Ku Klux Klan in 1963 and his becoming acquainted with Chambliss shortly thereafter. Jackson testified that Chambliss had expressed frustration as to his (Chambliss') belief that the Klan was "dragging its feet" on the issue of racial integration.[74]

Attorney William Baxley was one of the prosecutors at the trial of Robert Chambliss. In his closing argument before the jury on November 17,[75] Baxley informed the jury of his regret that the state was unable to request the death penalty for Chambliss, owing to the fact the death penalty in Alabama which had been in effect in 1963 had been repealed, and that the current death penalty within the state was only applicable in relation to crimes committed after its reinstatement. Noting that the day of the closing argument fell upon what would have been Carol Denise McNair's 26th birthday, and that she would have likely been a mother by this date, Baxley harked towards the testimony earlier delivered by Carol's father, Chris McNair, and requested that the jury return a verdict of guilty.[76]

On November 18, 1977,[77] Robert Chambliss was found guilty of the murder of Carol Denise McNair[78] and sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder.[79] At his sentencing, Chambliss stood before the judge and stated: "Judge, your honor, all I can say is God knows I have never killed anybody, never have bombed anything in my life. ... I didn't bomb that church."[80]

Chambliss did appeal his conviction, citing that much of the evidence presented at his trial—including testimony relating to his activities within the Ku Klux Klan—was circumstantial; that the 14-year delay between the crime and his eventual trial violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial; and that this delay was a tactic used by the prosecution to gain an advantage over his own defense attorneys. This appeal was dismissed on May 22, 1979.[81]

Robert Chambliss died in the Lloyd Noland Hospital and Health Center on October 29, 1985, at the age of 81.[82] In the years since his incarceration, Chambliss proclaimed his innocence, although he refused to implicate any other Ku Klux Klan member.[83]

Ten years after Chambliss had died, the FBI discreetly reopened their investigation into the bombing,[84] resulting in the unsealing of 9,000 pieces of evidence previously gathered in the 1960s (much of which had been unavailable to William Baxley in the 1970s). In May 2000, the FBI publicly announced their findings that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing had been committed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan splinter group known as the Cahaba Boys. The four individuals named in the FBI report were Chambliss, Cash, Blanton, and Cherry.[85] At the time of the announcement, Herman Cash was deceased; however, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were still alive. Both were arrested.[86]

Later prosecutions[edit]

On May 16, 2000, a grand jury in Alabama indicted Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Edwin Blanton with eight counts each of first-degree murder in relation to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Both named individuals were charged with four counts of first-degree murder, and four counts of universal malice.[87]

The prosecution had originally intended to try both defendants together; however, the trial of Bobby Cherry was delayed due to the findings of a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation,[88] which had concluded that vascular dementia had impaired his mind, therefore making Cherry mentally incompetent to stand trial or assist in his own defense.[89]

On April 10, 2001, Judge James Garrett indefinitely postponed Cherry's trial, pending further medical analysis.[90] (In January 2002, Judge Garrett would rule that Cherry was mentally competent to stand trial, setting an initial trial date for April 29.)

Thomas Edwin Blanton[edit]

Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr. was brought to trial in Birmingham, Alabama before Judge James Garrett on April 24, 2001.[91] Blanton pleaded not guilty to the charges, and opted not to testify on his own behalf throughout the trial.

In his opening statement to the jurors, defense attorney John Robbins acknowledged his client's affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan and his views on racial segregation, but warned the jury: "Just because you don't like him, that doesn't make him responsible for the bombing."[92]

The prosecution called a total of seven witnesses to testify in their case against Blanton, including relatives of the victims, the former reverend of the 16th Street Baptist Church, John Cross, an FBI agent named William Fleming, and a former Klansman who became an FBI informant, Mitchell Burns. Burns had secretly recorded several conversations with Blanton in which he (Blanton) had gloated when talking about the bombing, and had boasted the police would not catch him when he bombed another church.[93]

The most crucial piece of evidence presented at Blanton's trial was an audio recording secretly taped by the FBI in June, 1964, in which Blanton was recorded discussing his involvement in the bombing with his wife, who can be heard accusing her husband of conducting an affair with a woman named Waylene Vaughn two nights before the bombing. Although sections of the recording—presented in evidence on April 27—are unintelligible, Blanton can twice be heard twice mentioning the phrase "plan a bomb" or "plan the bomb". Most crucially, Blanton can also be heard describing his not being with Miss Vaughn, but at a meeting with other Ku Klux Klansmen on a bridge above the Cahaba River two nights before the bombing,[94] adding: "You've got to have a meeting to plan a bomb."[95]

In addition to harking towards flaws the defense was able to expose in the memories of some prosecution witnesses who had testified, Blanton's attorneys also criticized the validity and quality of the tape recordings secretly obtained within Blanton's kitchen, arguing that the prosecution had deliberately spliced the sections of the audio recording, reducing the entirety of the tape by 26 minutes, and that the sections presented were of a poor audio quality, therefore requiring the prosecution to present questionable text transcripts to the jury. In reference to the recordings made as Blanton conversed with Burns, Robbins portrayed these audio tapes as the statements of "two rednecks driving around, drinking" and making false, ego-inflating claims to one-another.[96]

The trial lasted for one week, and saw seven witnesses testify on behalf of the prosecution, as opposed to just two witnesses for the defense. Both counsels delivered their closing arguments before the jury on May 1. In his closing argument, prosecuting attorney Doug Jones first harked to the fact that the trial was conducted 38 years after the bombing made the trial no less important, adding: "It's never too late for the truth to be told." Jones then recited Blanton's extensive history with the Ku Klux Klan, before referring to the audio recordings presented earlier in the trial. Jones then recited the most damning statements Blanton had made in these recordings, before pointing at Blanton and stating: "That is a confession out of this man's mouth."

Defense attorney John Robbins reminded the jury in his closing argument that his client was an admitted segregationist and a "loudmouth", but that that was all that could be proven, and that his past was not the evidence upon which they should return their verdicts. Stressing that Blanton should not be judged for his beliefs, Robbins again vehemently criticized the validity and poor quality of the audio recordings presented, and the selectivity of the sections which had been introduced into evidence. Robbins also discredited the testimony of FBI agent William Fleming, who had earlier testified as to a government witness claiming he had seen Blanton in the vicinity of the church shortly before the bombing.[97]

The jury deliberated for just two and a half hours before returning with a verdict finding Thomas Edwin Blanton guilty of four counts of first-degree murder.[98] When asked by the judge whether he had anything to say before sentence was imposed, Blanton simply said: "I guess the Lord will settle it on Judgment Day."[99]

Blanton was sentenced to serve a sentence of life imprisonment,[100][101] and remains the sole perpetrator of the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing still alive.

Bobby Frank Cherry[edit]

Bobby Frank Cherry was tried in Birmingham, Alabama before Judge James Garrett, on May 6, 2002.[102] Cherry also pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Cherry's defense attorney, Mickey Johnson, protested his client's innocence, citing that much of the evidence presented was circumstantial, and that Cherry had initially been linked to the bombing by the FBI via an informant who claimed, in 1964, that she had seen Cherry place the bomb at the church shortly before the bombing.

Crucial testimony at Cherry's trial was delivered by his former wife, Willadean Brogdon, whom Cherry had married in 1970. Brogdon testified on May 16 that Cherry had boasted to her that he had been the individual who had planted the bomb beneath the steps to the church, then returned hours later to light the fuse upon the dynamite. Although the credibility of Brogdon's testimony was called into dispute at the trial, forensic experts did concede that, although her account of the planting of the bombing differed from that which had been discussed in the previous perpetrators' trials, Brogdon's recollection of Cherry's account of the planting and subsequent lighting of the bomb could explain why no remnants of a timing device were subsequently discovered after the bombing.[103]

On May 21, 2002, both prosecution and defense attorneys delivered their closing arguments to the jury. In his closing argument, one of the prosecutors, Don Cochran, harked towards the fact the victims' "Youth Sunday [sermon] never happened... because it was destroyed by this defendant's hate."[104] Cochran then outlined Cherry's extensive record of racial violence dating back to the 1950s, also harking to his knowledge of constructing and installing bombs obtained in his days as a Marine demolition expert. Cochran also reminded the jury of a secretly-obtained FBI recording which had earlier been introduced into evidence in which Cherry had informed his wife, Jean, that he and other Klansmen had constructed the bomb within the premises of a business the Friday before the bombing, and that Cherry had signed an affidavit in the presence of the FBI on October 9, 1963, confirming that he, Chambliss and Blanton were at this premises on this date.[105]

Defense attorney Mickey Johnson reiterated that there was no hard evidence linking Cherry to the bombing, but only evidence attesting to his racist beliefs dating from that era and that family members who had testified against him were all estranged and therefore unreliable witnesses. Johnson the urged the jury not to convict his client via guilt by association. Following these closing arguments, the jury retired to consider their verdicts. These deliberations continued until the following day.

On the afternoon of May 22, after deliberating for almost seven hours, the forewoman of the jury announced they had reached their verdicts: Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.[106] Cherry remained stoic as the sentence was read aloud, although relatives of the four victims openly wept in relief.[107]

When asked by the judge whether he had anything to say before sentence was imposed, Cherry motioned to the prosecutors and stated: "This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing [the trial]. I told the truth. I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing!"[108]

Bobby Frank Cherry died of cancer on November 18, 2004, at age 74, while incarcerated at the Kilby Correctional Facility.[109]

Following the convictions of Blanton and Cherry, Alabama's former attorney general, William Baxley, expressed his frustration at his never being informed of the existence of these audio recordings before their emergence at the 2001 and 2002 trials. Baxley acknowledged that the social circumstances in 1960s Alabama would likely have leaned in favor of both defendants even with the FBI recordings presented in evidence,[110] but added that he could have prosecuted Thomas Blanton—and likely Bobby Cherry—in 1977 had he have been granted access to the secretly recorded tapes of Blanton conversing with his wife. (A 1980 Justice Department report had concluded that J. Edgar Hoover had actually blocked prosecution of the four suspects of the bombing in 1965,[111] and had officially closed the investigation in 1968.[112])

"They forever changed the face of this state and the history of this state. Their deaths made all of us focus upon the ugliness of those who would punish people because of the color of their skin."[113]
State Senator Roger Bedford at the unveiling of a state historic marker to the victims. September 15, 1990

Aftermath[edit]

  • Following the bombing, the 16th Street Baptist Church remained closed for over eight months, as assessments and, later, repairs were conducted upon the property. The church received an estimated $23,000[114] in cash donations and gifts from members of the public. The church reopened to members of the public on June 7, 1964, and continues to remain an active place of worship today, with an average weekly attendance of nearly 2,000 worshippers. The current pastor of the church is the Reverend Arthur Price, Jr.[115]
  • The most seriously injured survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Sarah Jean Collins, remained hospitalized for more than two months[116] following the bombing. Collins' injuries were so extensive that medical personnel did initially fear she would lose the sight in both eyes, although by October, they were able to inform Collins she would regain the sight in her left eye.[117]
  • When asked on October 15, 1963, her feelings towards the perpetrators of the bombing, Collins first stated she would like to thank those who had cared for her and sent her messages of condolence, flowers and toys before stating: "As for the bomber, people are praying for him. We wonder what he would be thinking today, if he had children... He will face God. We turn this problem over to God, because no one else can solve Birmingham's problems. We leave it up to God to solve them."[118]
  • Charles Morgan, Jr., the young white lawyer who had delivered an impassioned speech on September 16, 1963, deploring the tolerance and complacency of much of the white population of Birmingham towards the suppression and intimidation of blacks, thereby contributing to the climate of hatred in the city, himself received death threats directed against him and his family in the days following his speech. Within three months, Morgan and his family were forced to flee Birmingham.[119]
  • On the 27th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, a state historic marker was unveiled at Greenwood Cemetery, the final resting place of three of the four victims of the bombing (Carole Robertson's body had been reburied in Greenwood Cemetery in 1974, following the death of her father). Several dozen people were present at the unveiling, presided over by state Senator Roger Bedford. At the service, the four girls were described as martyrs who "died so freedom could live".[113]
The "Welsh Window." Designed by artist John Petts and donated by the people of Wales. The stained-glass window depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched. The right hand symbolizes oppression; his left is asking for forgiveness.
  • Within the 16th Street Baptist Church, there still stands the "Welsh Window." Sculpted by Carmarthenshire-based artist John Petts, who had initiated a campaign in Wales to raise money to fund a replacement stained-glass window which had been destroyed in the bombing, Petts had opted to construct a stained-glass image of a black Christ to replace one of the windows destroyed in the bombing.[120]
  • Within two days of the church bombing, Petts had contacted then-pastor of the church, the Reverend John Cross, announcing he had launched a fundraising campaign to create this sculpture via an appeal conducted through the Western Mail, requesting funds from the Welsh public to pay for the construction of the structure in Wales, and its delivery and installation at the 16th Street Baptist Church.[121]
  • John Petts died in 1991 at the age of 77. In a 1987 interview focusing upon his recollections of the bombing, Petts recollected: "Naturally, as a father, I was horrified by the deaths of those children." Petts then elaborated that the inspiration for the stained-glass image was a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."[122] The Welsh Window bears the inscription, "Given by The People of Wales".[123]
  • Herman Frank Cash died of cancer in February, 1994. He was never charged with his alleged involvement in the bombing, and did maintain his innocence, although the FBI had concluded in May, 1965 that Cash was one of the four conspirators.[124] Cash is interred at Northview Cemetery in Polk County, Georgia.
  • Thomas Edwin Blanton, the sole perpetrator of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing still alive, is currently incarcerated at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama.[125] Since his 2001 conviction, Blanton has been confined in a one-man cell under tight security. He has seldom spoken of his involvement in the bombing, shuns social activity and rarely receives visitors.[126]
  • Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was eight years old at the time of the bombing and both a classmate and friend of Carol Denise McNair. On the day of the bombing, Rice was at her father's church, located a few blocks from the 16th Street Baptist Church. In 2004, Rice recalled her memories of the bombing:

Media and memorials[edit]

Film[edit]

Books (factual)[edit]

  • Anderson, Susan (2008). The Past on Trial: The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, Civil Rights Memory and the Remaking of Birmingham. Chapel Hill. ISBN 978-0-54988-141-4. 
  • Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-68742-5. 
  • Chalmers, David (2005). Backfire: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill. ISBN 978-0-7425-2311-1. 
  • Cobbs, Elizabeth H.; Smith, Petric J. (1994). Long Time Coming: An Insider's Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World. Crane Hill Publishers. ISBN 1-881548-10-4. 
  • Hamlin, Christopher M. (1998). Behind the Stained Glass: A History of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Crane Hill Publishers. ISBN 1-57587-083-5. 
  • Klobuchar, Lisa (2009). 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing: The Ku Klux Klan's History of Terror. Compass Point Books. ISBN 978-0-7565-4092-0. 
  • McKinstry, Carolyn; George, Denise (2011). While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement. Tyndale House Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4143-3636-7. 
  • Sikora, Frank (1991). Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0520-3. 
  • Thorne, T.K. (2013). Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers. Lawrence Books. ISBN 978-1-61374-864-0. 

Books (fictional)[edit]

Television[edit]

  • The 1993 documentary, Angels of Change, focuses upon both the events leading to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and its aftermath. This documentary was produced by Birmingham-based TV station WVTM-TV, and subsequently received a Peabody Award.
  • The History channel has broadcast a documentary entitled Remembering the Birmingham Church Bombing. Broadcast to commemmorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing, this documentary includes interviews with the Head of Education at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.[129]

In sculpture and symbolism[edit]

  • Welsh craftsman and artist John Petts was inspired to construct and deliver the iconic stained-glass Welsh Window to the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1965. The Welsh Window is a large stained-glass edifice depicting a black Jesus, with arms outstretched, reminiscent of the Crucifixion of Jesus. Erected at the church in 1965,[130] the Welsh Window stands over the front door of the sanctuary.[131]
  • The American sculptor John Henry Waddell has created a memorial symbolizing those killed in the bombing. Entitled "That Which Might Have Been," the sculpture—depicting four adult women in differing postures—was created over a period of 15 months.[132] The four girls in the sculpture are each depicted in symbolic terms; representing the four victims of the bombing, had they been allowed to mature to womanhood.[133]
  • The "Four Spirits" sculpture was unveiled at Kelly Ingram Park in September, 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing. Crafted by Elizabeth MacQueen and designed as a memorial to the four children killed on September 15, 1963, the bronze and steel sculpture depicts the four girls in preparation for the church sermon at the 16th Street Baptist Church in the moments immediately before the explosion. The youngest girl killed in the explosion (Carol Denise McNair) is depicted releasing six doves into the air as she stands barefooted upon a bench as another barefooted girl (Addie Mae Collins) is depicted kneeling upon the bench, affixing a dress sash to McNair; a third girl (Cynthia Wesley) is sat upon the bench alongside McNair and Collins with a Bible in her lap.[134] The fourth girl (Carole Robertson) is depicted standing and smiling as she motions the other three girls to attend their church sermon.[135]
  • At the base of the sculpture are photographs and brief biographies of the four girls killed in the explosion and the two boys shot to death later that day. More than 1000 people were present at the unveiling of the memorial, including survivors of the bombing and the parents of Denise McNair, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware.[136]


See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  26. ^ The Daily Beast Sep. 15, 2013
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  34. ^ William O. Bryant (September 11, 1963). "Six Negro Children Killed in Alabama". The Times News (United Press International). Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
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  136. ^ MyFoxLocal.com Sept. 15, 2013

Cited works and further reading[edit]

  • Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-68742-5. 
  • Cobbs, Elizabeth H.; Smith, Petric J. (1994). Long Time Coming: An Insider's Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World. Crane Hill Publishers. ISBN 1-881548-10-4. 
  • Hamlin, Christopher M. (1998). Behind the Stained Glass: A History of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Crane Hill Publishers. ISBN 1-57587-083-5. 
  • Klobuchar, Lisa (2009). 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing: The Ku Klux Klan's History of Terror. Compass Point Books. ISBN 978-0-7565-4092-0. 
  • McKinstry, Carolyn; George, Denise (2011). While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement. Tyndale House Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4143-3636-7. 
  • Sikora, Frank (1991). Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0520-3. 
  • Thorne, T.K. (2013). Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers. Lawrence Books. ISBN 978-1-61374-864-0. 
  • Wade, Wyn C. (1998). The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512357-3. 

External links[edit]