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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

Even in Birmingham's black community, the case seems a relic of a distant time, especially among young people. Former Mayor Arrington, for example, has children in their 20s who he said have a hard time grasping the reality of institutionalized segregation. "The young black generation has a detachment from this, a lack of awareness."

"This should be a lesson for the entire city of those tragic times when racial hatred and fear prompted such violence against blacks and such silence by people of goodwill."

But for the families of the victims, the wait for justice has seemed interminable.

"We knew the names of the men back in 1963, and at first we thought they would catch up with them," said Alpha Robertson, 81, whose daughter Carole left for Youth Day services that Sunday wearing a white dress, along with a necklace and shiny black shoes she had bought the day before.

Eventually, Robertson said, "I put whatever would happen completely out of my mind. If they were not convicted, they would still have to pay for it with their conscience. If they have one."

Chris McNair, Denise's father, overcame his grief with silence and public service. After serving two terms in the Alabama Legislature and 15 years as a Jefferson County commissioner, he resigned unexpectedly last month. McNair, 75, said his decision had nothing to do with the upcoming trial. "I've made it 37 years without talking about it," he said.

Still Dreaming King's Dream

Since the bombing, Blanton and Cherry have lived private lives as they turned from youthful Klan members into jowly men. Cherry has been living in a trailer near his son in Mabank, Texas, where the onetime Klan enforcer is known by neighbors as an affable grandfather with a passion for fishing.

Blanton, who held a job as a Wal-Mart clerk when arrested last spring, has lived for several years in a trailer on Wyman Lee's junk-strewn lot outside of Birmingham.

Both men are free on $200,000 bond.

At 79, Rev. Shuttlesworth--who was subjected to repeated death threats, bombings of his own home and beatings, including one preserved on film in which Cherry slugs the pastor in the head--has no plans to attend the trial.

Instead, he will follow the news from his Cincinnati home, confident, he said, that "America is strong enough to swallow the whole truth" and hopeful of the promise inscribed on the statue of King that looks across the park to the 16th Street Baptist Church:

"His dream liberated Birmingham from itself and began a new day of love, mutual respect and cooperation."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

A Bombing Chronology

Important dates in the investigation of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.:

* Sept. 15, 1963: Dynamite bomb explodes outside Sunday services at 16th Street Baptist Church, killing 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, and injuring 20 others.

* May 13, 1965: FBI memorandum to Director J. Edgar Hoover concludes the bombing was the work of former Ku Klux Klansmen Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton Jr.

* 1968: FBI closes its investigation without filing charges.

* 1971: Alabama Atty. Gen. William J. Baxley reopens investigation.

* Nov. 18, 1977: Chambliss convicted on a state murder charge and sentenced to life in prison.

* 1980: Justice Department report concludes Hoover had blocked prosecution of the Klansmen in 1965.

* Oct. 29, 1985: Chambliss dies in prison, still professing his innocence.

* 1988: Alabama Atty. Gen. Don Siegelman reopens the case, which is closed without action.

* 1993: Birmingham-area black leaders meet with FBI; agents secretly begin new review of case.

* Feb. 7, 1994: Cash dies.

* July 1997: Cherry interrogated in Texas; FBI investigation becomes public knowledge.

* Oct. 27, 1998: Federal grand jury in Alabama begins hearing evidence.

* April 26, 2000: Cherry arrested on charges he molested a former stepdaughter 29 years earlier. He is later extradited to Alabama.

* May 17, 2000: Blanton and Cherry surrender on murder indictments returned by grand jury in Birmingham.

* April 10, 2001: Judge delays Cherry trial, citing defendant's medical problems, but refuses to dismiss charges against either man.

* April 16, 2001: Jury selection to begin in case against Blanton.

Source: Associated Press

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Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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