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The Birmingham Church Bombing

BY Greg Barber  April 18, 2002 at 10:19 AM EDT

The crime continues to haunt the city as another of the men accused of carrying out the act goes on trial nearly 40 years after the deadly explosion.

When Reverend John Cross heard a blast erupt at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, he said it sounded “like the whole world was shaking.”

Cross had been teaching a women’s Bible study class in the church sanctuary when the explosion occurred on Sept. 15, 1963. He ordered his students out of the building and searched room to room for trapped or injured people before leaving the church himself.

“All around me was so much dust and soot — and glass had fallen, and plaster from the walls and ceiling, and people had begun to move around the building,” Cross told The Birmingham News in 1977, “and it was so smoky in there that some of the people could hardly be identifiable three feet away from me.”

Cross and others began digging for people trapped in the rubble near the explosion site and that is when they discovered the bodies of the four little girls killed in the blast.

Fourteen-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie May Collins, as well as 11-year-old Denise McNair, were killed in a church washroom when the bomb detonated. Twenty-two others were injured.

In 1963, Birmingham was known as one of the South’s most segregated cities. That same year, newly-elected Gov. George Wallace physically barred two African-American students from entering the University of Alabama. And Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, sparked controversy with his use of fire hoses and attack dogs to disperse civil rights protesters.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was a well-known meeting place for civil rights activists, where Martin Luther King Jr. and others planned marches, sit-ins and other nonviolent protests. That fact made the building a target, but no one expected an attack to come during the crowded Sunday morning services.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan were immediately suspected — a 1965 FBI memo to agency director J. Edgar Hoover named Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, all locals and alleged Klansmen, as possible culprits. But the FBI closed its investigation in 1968 without filing any charges.

A 1980 Justice Dept. investigation concluded that Hoover had prevented agents from disclosing their findings to prosecutors.

Investigating The Case
Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the investigation in 1971, but said it took him half a decade to bring charges against suspect Robert Chambliss because the FBI refused to cooperate for years.

Author Diane McWhorter wrote in USA Today in 2000 that in prosecuting the 73-year-old Chambliss, Baxley ran into “some let-sleeping-dogs-lie sentiment against going after ‘an old man.’”

The watershed moment in the Chambliss trial came on Nov. 15, 1977, when Chambliss’ niece Elizabeth Cobbs testified that her uncle had made comments to her that suggested his involvement in the bombing.

Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He maintained his innocence until he died in 1985.

After the Chambliss conviction and Baxley left office, the church bombing case again fell dormant. Two attempts to reopen the case, in 1980 and 1988, did not result in any convictions.

The FBI reopened its investigation in 1996, telling reporters it had received new evidence, although they would not discuss what the new information included.

Investigators eventually focused on two of the other three men mentioned in the 1965 FBI report, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry.

Herman Frank Cash, the fourth man mentioned in the FBI’s 1965 report, died in 1994. He was never charged in the case.

Cherry had long denied any involvement in the bombing, saying he was at home watching wrestling on television when the bomb was allegedly planted. But in 1999, reporter Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson, Miss. Clarion-Ledger newspaper debunked Cherry’s alibi, citing newspaper television listings that indicated no wrestling program was on television that night in Jackson.

Asked about this apparent contradiction, Cherry stuck to his story, Mitchell told the NewsHour.

Both Cherry and Blanton denied involvement in the bombing, but surrendered to police in 2000 when prosecutors issued charges that included four counts of intentional murder for each of the girls killed.

Lawyers for the two men tried to have the trial moved from Birmingham, citing a poll that said 42 percent of local residents thought Blanton and Cherry were guilty or probably guilty, The New York Times reported. A state judge rejected the request.

Both men were scheduled to be tried in April 2001, but just days before the trial was set to begin, Circuit Court Judge James Garrett indefinitely postponed proceedings against Cherry.

The decision came after defense attorneys argued the 71-year-old Cherry was too physically and mentally infirm to stand trial. Garrett granted their request but refused to throw out charges against Cherry.

Another Conviction 
Several weeks later, Blanton still went to trial.

During the proceedings, prosecutors painted a picture of Blanton as a virulently racist young man who served loyally in the Klan and protested loudly against moves to desegregate the South.

Defense attorneys, however, stressed the trial was not about Blanton’s beliefs, but whether he had committed a crime.

“You’re not going to like Tom Blanton,” lawyer John Robbins told jurors. “You’re not going to like some of the things he said. He was 25 years old. He was a loudmouth, he was annoying as hell. But that doesn’t make him the bomber.”

Several tapes of secret FBI recordings made at Blanton’s apartment in 1964 were among the evidence used against him. On one tape, a man identified as Blanton discusses attending a meeting where “we planned the bomb.”

The prosecution called 22 witnesses during the trial to discuss Blanton’s alleged role. The defense called only two.

After two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Blanton on four counts of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison; his lawyers told reporters they would appeal the decision.

Asked if he had anything to say before his sentencing, Blanton said, “No, I guess the good Lord will settle on Judgment Day.”

Former Birmingham resident Dale Long, who had served in the church band with victim Cynthia Wesley, told The New York Times Blanton’s conviction was “another step toward closure,” adding, “There’s one more [suspect] to be tried.”

The Cherry Case
Although he had been declared unfit to stand trial, the case of Bobby Frank Cherry was far from over.

Prosecutors appealed the April 2001 ruling, and Judge Garrett decided in July that Cherry must undergo further testing to evaluate his mental state.

Doctors testified in December that, after studying Cherry for 10 weeks in a mental hospital, they felt he’d been faking his illness. In January 2002, Garrett reversed his earlier ruling and declared Cherry competent to stand trial.

Cherry’s new court date was set for April 29, but was pushed back because of a statewide judicial funding crisis. Garrett’s aides told reporters the trial would begin May 6.