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Birmingham's Painful Past Reopened

Crime: Ex-Klansmen face trial in '63 bombing of black church. Four girls died.

April 14, 2001|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Some of the evidence lay buried in FBI wiretaps ordered sealed by former Director J. Edgar Hoover himself.

Other evidence against two ex-Ku Klux Klansmen, prosecutors say, remained behind the sealed lips of relatives too scared to talk.

But now--more than 37 years after four black girls were killed in a dynamite bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church--those seals have been broken. And a team of state and federal attorneys is poised to shed light on one of the darkest chapters in U.S. civil rights history.

Jury selection begins Monday in the trial of Thomas E. Blanton Jr., 62, who along with Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, faces four counts of first-degree murder. They were to be tried together, but Circuit Judge James Garrett on Tuesday cited "medical reasons" for postponing Cherry's trial indefinitely.

In interviews, pretrial motions and court hearings, prosecutors have revealed an array of evidence that includes hours of recordings of the defendants' conversations after the 1963 bombing--picked up by telephone wiretaps and a bug placed behind a kitchen sink. There is also the testimony from an ex-wife, an estranged son and a former Klansman who for years was a paid FBI informant.

If convicted, Blanton and Cherry could face life in prison. Each says he is not guilty.

"I ain't never wanted to bomb nothing," Cherry said after he was arrested last spring.

Even though the FBI had named the men as prime suspects within weeks of the bombing, not everyone is happy about bringing them to trial now--especially here in Birmingham, an industrial capital of the South that has worked to reinvent itself since Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed it the most segregated big city in the nation.

"There are some whites who feel this just inflames old wounds," said Richard Arrington Jr., who in 1979 became the city's first black mayor. "But with the suspects out there and never brought to trial, this case never goes away. It continues to be a negative cloud over the city."

Indeed, the trial promises to confront Birmingham and the South with a painful picture of its violent past. As President Kennedy anguished in 1963 over federal intervention, newly elected Gov. George C. Wallace ordered National Guard troops to bar black students from entering the public schools.

In the streets, public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor turned fire hoses and dogs on demonstrators. King and other black leaders were jailed repeatedly. At one rally on the outskirts of Birmingham a few months before the bombing, a huge fiery cross lit up the night at a gathering of more than a thousand hooded Klansmen.

But the new evidence--and the passage of time--insists U.S. Atty. Doug Jones, means it's now or never. "This is the last roundup. People are getting old, and there will never be another opportunity to handle a case of such importance," said Jones, 46, a Birmingham native who was just 9 when the bomb went off.

"We owe this prosecution to the victims, their families and the community. And when I realized that I would be able to bring this case, I just got chill bumps."

Suspects Named Within Days

The Klan lighted fuses on so much dynamite in the 1950s and early 1960s that the city became known as "Bombingham." The targets included black churches and the homes of black leaders, as well as homes and places of worship belonging to others on the Klan hate list: Catholics and Jews.

But until Sept. 15, 1963, few imagined how far the opponents of integration would go.

Denise McNair, 11, and three 14-year-old friends--Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins--were in the basement lounge of the stately stone church when the blast buried them in an avalanche of bricks and concrete.

Later that day, a black woman told investigators that she had seen four white men near the church in a 1957 white-over-blue Chevrolet hours before the bomb went off. On the back of the car, she said, was a 10-foot-high whip antenna flying a Confederate flag.

Blanton had just such a car.

Within days, the FBI named its chief suspects: Robert E. Chambliss, a well-known racist nicknamed "Dynamite Bob"; another Klansman named Herman Frank Cash; Blanton and Cherry.

The four men, the FBI suspected, drove to the church at 2 a.m. Sept. 15. As Blanton waited behind the wheel, Cherry jumped out and placed the explosives--10 sticks of dynamite rigged to a fishing bobber fuse floating in a leaky bucket of water. The bomb went off eight hours later as the girls primped in the basement lounge after a Sunday school lesson called "The Love That Forgives."

A Background in Explosives

In 1963, Blanton--the son of well-known racist Thomas E. "Pops" Blanton Sr.--was a 25-year-old former Navy mechanic working in a stockroom. Cherry, then 33, was a truck driver and father of seven who had been trained in explosives while in the Marines. Wyman Lee was pals with both when all were members of the Klan's Eastview Klavern No. 13. "They were good ol' boys," said Lee, now 62.

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