The former U.S. attorney reflects on the significance of events in Birmingham, AL 50 years ago.
Birmingham church bombing: 50th Anniversary – Attorney Douglas Jones
Tavis: Earlier this year, the families of the four little girls murdered in the infamous Birmingham church bombing attended ceremonies in the Oval Office as the president signed the bill to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal to Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie May Collins and Cynthia Wesley. They were murdered 50 years ago this Sunday while preparing for Sunday School at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Joining me now Birmingham is Douglas Jones, the prosecuting attorney who, more than two decades after that bombing, led the team that secured convictions for two of the four Klansmen responsible for the murders. Doug Jones, I am always honored and humbled to be in conversation with you, sir.
Douglas Jones: Oh, thanks for having me. It’s great to be back with you, Tavis.
Tavis: For those who don’t know what happened in ’63, have forgotten what happened in 1963, it’s been 50 years. Top line for me what happened that Sunday morning at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Jones: Well, Tavis, you know, Birmingham leading up to September 15 was a powder keg. Federal court orders had ordered the Birmingham city schools to be desegregated for the first time ever. We were coming off the spring marches, the children’s marches with the fire hoses and the dogs.
In between the settlement of that and the desegregation and the Birmingham schools being integrated, this city was like a powder keg and the Klan was pretty unhappy about it. So that Sunday morning, the kids of Birmingham and the 16th Street Church, the focal point of the mass meetings earlier, were coming together again. It was gonna be the first of a series of youth worship services.
And some time in the middle of the night, some Klansmen placed a bomb underneath the very bottom step that led to the back of the sanctuary and that bottom step went right in front of the window to the ladies lounge.
Inside that lounge, there were four young girls, Denise, Addie, Carole and Cynthia, getting ready. They were going to participate and that bomb went off at 10:22 taking out those lives and horribly wounding a fifth little girl, Addie May’s sister, Sarah Collins.
Tavis: What’s amazing about this, Doug – and you know this well, you prosecuted the case and we’ll come to that in just a second. What’s amazing about these commemorations 50 years later is that the nation now gets to see the proximity of the “I Have a Dream” speech that Dr. King gave at the march on Washington and literally days later the bombing of this church in Birmingham, Alabama.
So if people thought that that was the hallmark and that after he gave that speech everything in America changed, you know realize that it was literally just days later in Birmingham that this church bombing took place.
Dr. King traveled to Birmingham, as you know, to give the eulogy for these four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. It’s the only time that we have Dr. King on record crying in public. He couldn’t even get through his eulogy without crying.
But talk to me about the timing of this. You started some of that a moment ago, but give us more of a sense of the proximity to this great march and then days later here’s what happens, as they called it at the time, in Bombingham, Alabama.
Jones: Absolutely, Tavis. I think this was a series of events that took place in ’63 here in Birmingham that began with the children’s marches, the settlement, to desegregate public facilities here in Birmingham. And with every step, every positive step that the civil rights movement was gaining, the Klan was getting more unhappy and they resorted to more violence.
We had so much violence that summer. You had the stand in the schoolhouse door where George Wallace stepped aside. The Klan was unhappy with that. The march on Washington was the culmination and all of a sudden now people across America realized that this is real, that there’s true hope and true change that is on the way. But that was not, in my opinion, the galvanizing force. The Klan was still very angry. They didn’t accept that.
So on September 15, when this bomb exploded and these children died, innocent children, from a bomb in a house of worship on a Sunday morning, that, I believe, is what truly started to change America and started changing peoples’ hearts because they knew at that point that a civilized society just could not continue along the path we had and the resistance had to fall at that point and we had to start working together to make things happen in a progressive way.
Tavis: You are a hero in the state of Alabama and throughout the south and, for that matter, across the nation for those of us who do work in the arena of civil and human rights because, between 1963 and 1997, that’s a huge gap, but in ’97 you step onto the stage and you lead a team of attorneys to reopen the case from ’63.
So before I ask you what you did between ’97 and 2001 basically to get these two convictions of these four Klansmen, give me a sense legally of what was happening between – or not happening, as it were – between ’63 and ’97.
Jones: Well, Tavis, a lot of people criticized the FBI because these cases weren’t solved in the 60s. But, candidly, they did an incredible job of trying to investigate these cases. I mean, they had boots on the ground all over the place. They did a wonderful job, but not every case can be solved and the Klan just shut up at the appropriate time.
And so it took 1977 when the first of these cases was actually tried. A fellow named Robert Chambliss was tried for the murder of Denise McNair and, as a second year law student, I watched that trial and it changes you when you see the importance of these events never dreaming that 24 years later I would have the opportunity to finish that job.
And things just – again, things happen, I think, for a purpose and things began to happen in the mid-1990s with Byron De La Beckwith, murder of Medgar Evers trial, the Sam Bowers, Vernon Dahmer murder trial and those successes that really opened the door and opened peoples’ eyes that, yeah, you know what? You can go back. You can take the evidence from old and maybe couple it with some new evidence and actually achieve a sense of justice that hadn’t been done for three decades or more.
Tavis: So give me some sense then, Douglas, of what you and your team were able to do in ’97, to use your phrase, to piece together the information. I’m always amazed by brilliant attorneys and investigators who, all these years later, I mean, that many years have gone by and you can piece together evidence that allows you to get too successful convictions.
Jones: Well, first of all, we had some brilliant investigators. Ben Herren and Bill Fleming with the FBI did an incredible job of pounding the streets and going back and checking every available suspect person, tracking down those who were alive, trying to figure out those that had passed. We were also fortunate a little bit with the media, Tavis.
When this became public that we were reopening this investigation, the phones started ringing. Particularly people who had talked to Bobby Frank Cherry over the years called us to tell us about his admissions. We had a granddaughter; we had an ex-wife. We had the ex-wife’s brother. We had a fellow who was friends with Cherry’s oldest son. All called us to tell us about admissions that Cherry made.
With regard to the Blanton case, it was a little bit different. We really had one individual who had seen Blanton and Chambliss two weeks before the bombing that testified at our grand jury and, unfortunately, had a stroke. I had to read his testimony at trial, but we were still able to pull that together. And the most significant thing in the Blanton case was we found a tape recording.
A tape recording had been made by a bug that the FBI had put in Blanton’s house in 1964 and he was caught on tape talking to his wife and another person about what he was doing the weekend when the church bombing happened, about being at the Modern Sign Shop and at the Cahaba River where they were building the bomb and planting the bomb. It was a devastating tape. It was just damning to him.
Cherry had lied so many times. It was a methodical way to put the pieces of evidence together and you could not have done it without an incredible team of investigators, personnel in the U.S. Attorney’s office and the State of Alabama, the District Attorney’s office here in Jefferson County, Alabama.
Tavis: I want to close on this note. I want to make room later in this show to talk with two of the sisters of two of the murdered four little girls 50 years ago.
But before I let you go, I know that the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum is a great institution there. I’ve been there many, many times and done a lot of work with them and there’s a wonderful exhibit there that tells of the work that you and the team did in detail to get this case opened again.
So I encourage you, if you’re ever in Birmingham, please stop by the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and see in detail with all kinds of actual evidence. You can actually look at it and see it for yourself, the evidence that Doug Jones and others used to get these convictions.
Doug, let me close by asking, though, whether or not there is – I know there’s so much left for you to do. You’re a young guy. Still so much more to do in your life, but can you imagine that there will ever be anything that you will accomplish that would bring you a greater sense of contribution than what you were able to do back between ’97 and 2001?
Jones: Now that’s an easy question, Tavis. There’s no way as a lawyer that I can top this. There’s no way as a person I can top this. It was an amazing ride and as I was growing up in Birmingham and all, I just never dreamed that one day I’d have an opportunity to do so much that meant so much to so many people all across the country, not just here in Birmingham.
I’ll never be able to top it. But as long as I can live and breathe and tell the story, then I will continue to get that satisfaction every day. And I appreciate the opportunity to tell it to you once again.
Tavis: One of the great litigators in the history of this nation, Douglas Jones, partner now in Jones & Hawley. They’re in the state of Alabama. Doug, good to have you on. All the best to you and thank you again for your hard work, man, for your contribution.
Jones: Thank you, Tavis. Come see us again soon.
Tavis: I look forward to it, my friend.
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