On September 15th, 1963, a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The ground floor of the church collapsed. A Sunday school session was in progress and four children were in the church basement preparing for the service. All four girls died – Denise McNair, aged 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Robertson, all aged 14. Many others were injured. Despite the many racial crimes committed in the South, this one was greeted with abject horror.
Despite the deaths of four young girls, and the many that were injured, no-one was initially arrested for this crime even though the authorities suspected four men within days of the outrage.
Birmingham was a major centre of civil rights activities and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was an organisational centre for the movement. In particular, youths used the church as a centre to help plan out strategies to get more black high school children involved in the civil rights cause. In the Spring of 1963, stores in downtown Birmingham had been desegregated and just days before the bombing, schools in Birmingham had been ordered by a federal court to integrate – nearly ten years after Brown v Topeka. Many Klansmen would not accept this decision nor the successes the civil rights cause seemed to be making.
The chief of police in the city, Bull Connor, was very anti-civil rights and had ordered that police dogs and fire hoses be used on civil rights demonstrators in May 1963.
Birmingham was also a stronghold of the KKK. The influence of the KKK was such that children’s books that showed black and white rabbits together were banned from sale in book shops in the city. Segregation was the norm in the city. Violence against the black community in Birmingham was not unusual but the deliberate bombing of a church took that violence to a new level.
In 1965, J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, stated that any chance of prosecution was “remote” and in 1968, the FBI pulled out of the investigation. Initially, no-one was arrested for the outrage. Eventually, a known member of the KKK was arrested in 1977 – Robert Chambliss. He was sent to prison and died there in 1985. However, many believed that he was not the only one involved.
In 1980, a US Department of Justice report stated that Hoover had blocked evidence that could have been used in the pursuit of suspects. This led to the Alabama district attorney reopening the case. However, while the case was reopened, no new charges were filed.
In 1985, Chambliss died – but never admitted that he had any part in the bombing.
In October 1988, Gary A Tucker admitted that he had helped set up the bomb. Dying of cancer, no charge was laid against him – but federal and state prosecutors reopened their investigations. In May 2000, Thomas Blanton and Booby Frank Cherry surrendered to the authorities after they were indicted on four counts of first-degree murder and “universal malice”. One year later, Blanton, aged 62, was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty on four counts of murder.
“I guess the good Lord will settle it on Judgment Day,” Blandon said after the verdict was announced.
“I’ll sleep well tonight, better than I’ve slept in many years,” said the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods, a leader of Birmingham’s black community who pushed authorities to reopen the case.
Woods, the president of Birmingham’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and pastor at St. Joseph Baptist Church, said the verdict “makes a statement of how far we’ve come.”
Bobby Frank Cherry was initially deemed to be mentally unfit to stand trial. However, this was overturned and he was found guilty after members of his family gave evidence against him.
“This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing,” he said when Circuit Judge James Garrett asked him whether he had anything to say. “Now, I don’t know why I’m going to jail for nothing. I didn’t do anything.”
Cherry was also sentenced to life in prison and died in November 2004 of cancer.
The role of the FBI has been criticised by some with regards to this case, particularly the role played by J Edgar Hoover. It was only after 14 years that the FBI released 9,000 files relevant to the case – including the so-called ‘Kitchen Tapes’ in which Thomas Blandon was heard telling his wife about building the bomb and planning to use it. Bill Baxley, who had been Alabama’s attorney general when Robert Chambliss had been put on trial in 1977, stated that he felt he would have been able to prosecute Blandon and Cherry many years earlier than they were, if the FBI had released these files to him then. Why Hoover sat on these files is open to speculation. In 1965, Hoover had stated that any chance of a successful prosecution was remote. Yet he almost certainly knew that the FBI had files that could have led to the successful prosecution of those who had carried out the bombing. After all, that same evidence was used in later years to successfully prosecute those who had carried out the bombing.