Two charged in 1963 Birmingham bombing

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/May 18, 2000
By Marlon Manuel

The Rev. John H. Cross shed tears of joy at home in Decatur on Wednesday afternoon as nearly 37 years of history --- and, he hopes, justice --- swept over him.

On Sept. 15, 1963, at 10:22 a.m., an explosion from a dynamite bomb ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church that Cross pastored in Birmingham. The blast killed four black school- girls.

Cross and Birmingham have been healing ever since.

Wednesday in Birmingham officials jailed two longtime church bombing suspects, former Ku Klux Klansmen Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, after a state grand jury returned murder charges against them.

Just months after the nation watched Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor turn attack dogs and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators, the explosion hardened the city's nickname --- Bombingham --- and helped draw silent, moderate whites into the struggle for racial integration.

The explosion damaged Alabama's largest city in its competitive race with Atlanta for business supremacy of the Deep South.

The detonation has flashed, almost daily, through the pastor's mind. "Mostly every day. Day and night," Cross said Wednesday in an interview. "The sound of the dynamite going off and hearing a building crumble down.

But today, it's kind of a happy feeling that brings tears to my eyes." The day of the bombing, Cross stood in the church sanctuary, observing an adult Sunday school class. At first, he thought the church's gas water heater had blown up, shaking the red brick walls. Then he caught a whiff of ignited powder and evacuated the building.

Within 10 minutes, he found the bodies of 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley in the basement. They had been preparing to provide music and act as ushers for Youth Sunday.

For a time Wednesday, reliving the smoke, death and rubble was too much for Cross.

"That's something you'll never forget," said his wife, Almetia, who stood as a buffer between her husband, the curious media and a flood of bad memories. "You never think someone will plant a bomb in a church."

But that's what the state grand jury has accused two former Ku Klux Klan members of doing back in 1963.

Blanton and Cherry were each indicted on eight counts of first-degree murder, two different counts for each slain child. Blanton is in his early 60s; Cherry is 69.

Through attorneys, the men said they are innocent. "He wants the world to know his story, and he thinks he'll be vindicated," said Cherry's attorney, Mickey Johnson.

If convicted, they could face life in prison.

An investigation in the 1970s resulted in the murder conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss, who died in prison in 1985 while serving a life term. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, is dead.

The case was reopened in 1980 and again in 1988, with no additional charges filed. It was reopened again in 1997.

The roles the suspects are believed to have played in the bombing have been publicly speculated about for years.

Similarly, the lasting effect of the bombing on the community and beyond has been debated for decades.

"This continues a process of healing that can never be completed but still has some pretty rough edges that can be smoothed with further actions," said Edward LaMonte, president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located across the street from the rebuilt church.

From 1947 to 1963, the Birmingham area suffered 41 racially motivated bombings.

"People in Birmingham had known for a long time that there were innocent lives being taken by brutal Klansmen, but it had (mostly) been on dusty country roads and rural areas," said LaMonte, once a chief aide to Richard Arrington, Birmingham's first black mayor.

The bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, immortalized in Spike Lee's movie "4 Little Girls," stunned the nation. President John F. Kennedy expressed "outrage and grief." The FBI promised its most intense investigation since the manhunt for John Dillinger in the 1920s. The first conviction took 14 years.

"The 16th Street bombing left an indelible image all over the world of what Birmingham was like," said Wayne Flynt, a historian at Auburn University. "It established once and for all an international reputation for Birmingham as a city that was never too busy to hate."

Yet, the tragedy pushed blacks and whites to work harder at integration --- especially white moderates who had been silently tolerant of measures to quash attempts by blacks to achieve equality.

The funeral of the four girls marked the first time many whites in Birmingham had attended a predominantly black gathering. A strange unity began to develop.

Three days after the bombing, The Birmingham News editorialized that the city "began drawing tight its belt of courage, trying, once more --- once more --- to meet the challenge."

"This city's people --- and it is no cliche --- in vast majority respect law, believe in brotherhood," the newspaper said. "Nothing that has happened diminishes that, though blame for an inadequacy is denied with difficulty.

The decent people of this city, so many thousands, yet have reserves of mental, moral and physical strength. Once again they muster for new efforts at civic sanity."

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