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Prosecutor reflects on 50th anniversary of 1963 Birmingham bombing

September 14, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • From left: Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, are shown in photos from 1963, the year they were killed in the Birmingham church bombing.
From left: Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collins,… (AP )

It was 50 years ago this Sunday a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls: Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14.

Birmingham native G. Douglas Jones befriended the father of one of those girls, and about 40 years later, as a federal prosecutor, he convicted two of the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the bombing.

Jones, 59, now a private lawyer, spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Friday about his memories of the bombing, the trials that followed and the legacy of the civil rights movement in his hometown.

What is it like in Birmingham today? Do you plan to attend any of the events this weekend marking the anniversary of the bombing?

It’s been a jam-packed couple of weeks. I’ve just been going from one event to the next. It’s a very exciting time—everything seems to be coming together culminating in the church service Sunday afternoon. The Congressional Black Caucus was in town, and I did a panel this morning with [former secretary of State and Birmingham native] Condoleezza Rice and moderated by Gayle King. Bill Cosby is in town for some events, and Spike Lee, who did the movie “Four Little Girls,” he’s going to show that.

It’s a very emotional time, an exciting time—people are really recognizing the significance of what happened in 1963, beginning with the children’s [civil rights] marches and culminating in the deaths of those four children.

What is your memory of the bombing? What was Birmingham like back then?

My personal memory is not what Birmingham was like. I was 9 years old in 1963, a white kid living out in suburbia, and so my life was a very segregated life, a sheltered life. I don’t have any recollections of that day—I knew there was things going on downtown, but I don’t have a recollection of the bombing.

Birmingham was two towns—a black town and a white town. It took me getting into junior high to see things changing. My elementary school was all white, but when I went to the seventh grade I for the first time went to a school that was integrated, and the kids started adapting, trying to work together.

It was years later, in 1977, that Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Baxley convicted the first Klansman, Robert Chambliss, in connection with the bombing. You were a law student at Samford University outside Birmingham—do you remember that trial?

Baxley, the young attorney general at the time, was one of my heroes. I was a second-year student so I cut classes that week and went and watched Baxley’s argument—it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. The history, the power, that the law can change things for good, that public-service lawyers can have an effect on the world around you.

It was 20 years later that you became a federal prosecutor and convicted an additional two suspects, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry. How did that happen?

To finish the case that Bill had started in the same courtroom where I had watched as a kid was truly an amazing time.

The case got reopened a year or so before I became U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, appointed by Bill Clinton. Obviously, with the history that I had, I also had some personal history with the McNair family that lost their daughter Denise, the case moved to the top priority for me.

I got to know Chris McNair [the girl’s father] when I was in college, through my political work — I was a young college student involved in politics, he was a newly elected member of the Alabama legislature; he actually represented my area. I had known them for a long time.

They were different cases. With Blanton, we repackaged some of the old evidence and presented it. Cherry ran his mouth a lot. He was his own undoing.

What was it like interviewing the victims' families?

We didn’t initially do much interviewing with the families. I didn’t talk to Bill Baxley about the case either, even though we had been friends for years.

The reason was, I didn’t know if we could win the case, if we had the evidence, and I didn’t want to lose my objectivity. I was just afraid that one day, I might have to tell them I couldn’t do it.

So it was towards the end that we really started working with the families, got them prepped for trial. Ms. Robertson, she was like a saint—she died about two months after the Cherry case was over. I still miss her.

How did you get Cherry’s ex-wife, Willadean, to talk?

Ex-wives are always high on the prospective witness list, but nobody could find her.

In the fall of 1998, we decided to take the investigation in a little bit of a different direction and start calling people for the grand jury. It was no secret what we were doing, calling Klansmen to testify, and a reporter from Jackson, Miss., came and did a story about it.

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