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Mitchell Burns, 75; Former Klansman Helped FBI in Probe of 1963 Bombing

November 23, 2002|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Mitchell Burns, a former Ku Klux Klansman who helped the FBI secretly tape conversations used to convict two Klansmen in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four girls in 1963, has died. He was 75.

Burns died of a heart attack Tuesday at his home in Gardendale, a Birmingham suburb, said his lawyer, John Waddell.

Burns, a onetime meatpacker and truck driver, was in the Klan at the time of the Sept. 15, 1963, dynamite attack. But he decided to turn FBI informant after an agent showed him photographs of the girls' mutilated bodies.

"I told them I'd help them all I could," Burns said in an interview with the Associated Press last year. "It was all because of those pictures."

For four years starting in 1964, Burns worked secretly as an informant, making $200 a month. The agents paid Burns to have a reel-to-reel tape recorder installed in the trunk of his car and to secretly record conversations as he and a pair of fellow Klansmen -- Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton Jr. -- drove from one bar to the next during extended drinking binges.

As the men drove, talked and joked, authorities were able to capture damning snippets of conversation about bomb-making and the explosion at 16th Street Baptist Church, which had been a place for civil rights demonstrators to gather and plan strategy. The tapes were played for jurors nearly 40 years later in separate trials of Blanton, who was found guilty last year, and Cherry, convicted in May. Both were sentenced to life in prison.

In addition to making the tapes, Burns testified that he overheard Cherry make incriminating statements. Burns said Cherry told Blanton that FBI agents did not know the bomb had been made in Cherry's house. Cherry said, "They think we made the bomb somewhere else," according to Burns' testimony.

Attorneys for the convicted bombers portrayed Burns as a liar and ridiculed his work as an informant -- a job that consisted mostly of beer-drinking and carousing. "We hit just about every honky-tonk between here and Blount County," Burns testified during the trial of Cherry, a onetime Marine trained in demolition. "When we got tired of that, we hit every one between here and Bessemer."

But Waddell characterized his former client as a hero who risked his life to do what was right.

"He had a lot of guts. He did something that was not very popular. He did the right thing when it was not easy to do the right thing," Waddell said in a telephone interview. "They'd have killed him. Back then, the Klan was in control -- and very mean."

Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery-based civil rights group, said Burns made it possible to prosecute suspects in the bombing case many years later, no matter what his motives were.

"Sincere or not, Mitchell Burns clearly did the country a service in this very important case," Potok said.

The shocking spectacle of the four dead girls -- Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, all of them black and 14 years old except McNair, who was 11-- was a pivotal moment in the civil rights era that helped galvanize white Americans against racial oppression in the South.

"This was really the case that was the tipping point," Potok said.

Another Klansman, Robert Chambliss, died in prison after being convicted in 1977. A fourth suspect, never charged, also died.

The FBI had identified the Klansmen as suspects days after the bombing, but closed the case at the direction of former Director J. Edgar Hoover, who contended that an all-white Alabama jury would never convict the men.

The case was reopened in 1971 by then-Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Baxley, resulting in Chambliss' conviction, and gained additional momentum after a 1993 meeting in Birmingham between FBI officials and black ministers.

Burns, who was 36 at the time of the bombings, said that after drinking bouts, Blanton enjoyed sitting in the car outside the church. "It was like he got a charge out of it," he said in the interview last year.

Burns and the two others were in different Klan groups. Burns initially declined to help investigators when he was approached soon after the bombing, but relented once he saw the morgue photographs.

"I've got to live with myself after this is over," Burns said last year. "I've got to go home and look at myself in the mirror and I've got to sleep. I can't lie and do that."

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