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A Racist Jailed, a City Healed

The conviction of an ex-Klansman who killed 4 black girls allows residents, finally, to 'stop reliving Sept. 15, 1963.'

May 03, 2001|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The church bombing has been like a toothache, said Mayor Bernard Kincaid, a cold, dull pain that never goes away.

No matter if the rest of the body feels good--or society hums along smoothly-- there has always been a shame and discomfort in being the city where four black girls were killed by a bomb in 1963.

That is, until now.

Kincaid stepped into his office Wednesday morning more optimistic than ever that Birmingham will finally get the credit it's due for distancing itself from its troubled past. On Tuesday, nearly 38 years after the crime, a Birmingham jury of eight whites and four blacks convicted former Ku Klux Klansman Thomas E. Blanton Jr. of blowing up the 16th Street Baptist Church. He was sentenced to four terms of life in prison, one for each girl killed.

"Everybody links Birmingham to that bombing," Kincaid said. "But what has been holding us back was not so much the act itself, however atrocious, but the idea that the men who killed those girls were walking around free."

"Now that they have been called to justice," he said, "we can look ahead and stop reliving Sept. 15, 1963."

Along with others, Kincaid is counting on the verdict to remind people that Birmingham is not the same angry, blue-collar town that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once called the most segregated city in America but a growing, modernizing area of big banks, high-tech jobs and better race relations.

That optimism, though, is tempered by frustration over how long it took to bring Blanton to justice in one of the most searing crimes of the civil rights era. Thirty-eight years is quite a while, said many people, black and white, and justice delayed is justice denied.

On Wednesday, at the 16th Street Baptist Church, administrator James Greene pointed out a jagged crack in the kitchen wall.

"Feel the vibrations," Greene told a class of visiting sixth-graders. "Just go in there, put your hand up on the wall. That's where it happened."

On Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb hidden at the back door of the church exploded, instantly killing four girls as they got ready for Sunday school.

Denise McNair. Carole Robertson. Cynthia Wesley. Addie Mae Collins. Few in Birmingham don't know their names. Many school and community groups regularly visit the site.

Four white men, members of the Ku Klux Klan, were always thought to have done it. But it wasn't until 1977 that the ringleader, Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, was finally convicted.

Authorities continued to press forward. In 1994, another suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died.

Last year Blanton and former Klan buddy Frank Cherry were indicted. Old reel-to-reel FBI tapes, made via hidden microphones, implicated the two.

On one tape, Blanton bragged to a friend: "I like to go shooting, I like to go fishing, I like to go bombing."

Cherry, 71, has escaped trial--for now--because a judge ruled he is mentally incompetent. But Blanton, 62, was brought to court late last month for an emotional seven-day trial.

It took the jury--11 women and one man--just 2 1/2 hours to convict him.

"We went back over the tapes and listened, and determined that we heard enough," juror Betty Walls, 69, told the Birmingham News.

Blanton plans to appeal the verdict. "He's not sitting around boo-hooing," said John Robbins, a private defense attorney.

But for most people, judgment day is over. And that's a good thing.

In a region often defensive about past racism, Birmingham has an extra dose of shame. In addition to the bombing, the city became known in the 1960s for heavy-handed police tactics, torch-lit Klan rallies and urban terrorism.

It's where police chief Eugene "Bull" Connor hosed down civil rights protesters and sent German shepherds tearing into them.

"When I tell someone from New York or some other place that I'm from Birmingham, I know exactly what they're thinking," said James L. O'Kelley, a downtown lawyer.

"I hope this verdict will open people's eyes to whatever misconceptions they had that we don't know the difference between right and wrong."

Birmingham still has its problems. The 16th Street Baptist Church gets bomb threats every year around King's birthday.

But the city, Alabama's largest, is indeed different. The steel mills have been supplanted by regional banking headquarters, the white power structure with a black power structure. The city, population 240,000, is 73% black with a majority black City Council and a black mayor.

And unlike Atlanta, with its skyline of glass office towers, Birmingham has held on to the charming reminders of its past. Old stone churches still line downtown streets. Parks, trees and clean air are in great supply.

"Birmingham is a calm, peaceful place," Kincaid said. "Especially today."

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