Chipping at the silence in 1963 church bombing

Some Klan women key in case coming to trial in Alabama

April 23, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

It was probably the worst-kept secret in town - the identity of the suspects in the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in which four black girls were killed. And yet because enough people kept quiet for years, only one suspect has ever been brought to justice.

But now, what was said, even bragged about, at family gatherings or in offhand conversations may finally become public, as testimony in the first of two trials against surviving suspects begins in Birmingham this week. In one of the cases, women in the defendant's life came forward with evidence in part because of the domestic abuse they suffered that seemed to parallel the public violence.

Jury selection began last week in state court in the trial of Thomas E. Blanton Jr., 62; proceedings against co-defendant, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, who is said to be suffering from a form of dementia, have been delayed indefinitely for medical reasons. Both former Ku Klux Klan members have pleaded not guilty to murder charges.

As was the case against apparent ringleader Robert E. Chambliss, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1977 for the murders, their public acts and private lives have become intertwined, with the latter perhaps providing a reason for information about the former to come out.

"Some of these Klansmen were also abusers of their families," said Bill Baxley, a former Alabama attorney general who successfully prosecuted Chambliss. Both Chambliss and Cherry were alleged to be wife beaters, he said.

Baxley, whose crusade to bring charges against Chambliss effectively ended his own political career, believes the role played by some Klan wives and female relatives was critical in bringing the church bombing case to trial, then and now.

Chambliss' wife passed on information about his involvement through intermediaries, including her sister, and a niece testified against him during his trial.

Like others who have long followed the case, Baxley sees the trials of Blanton and Cherry as a way for Birmingham to confront the demons of its past. The city was known as "Bombingham" and one of its neighborhoods "Dynamite Hill" for the frequent explosions that rocked black homes, offices and churches during the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. But as pervasive as Klan activity was in those years, many who surely knew something about the perpetrators kept silent when questioned by investigators.

"People didn't want to admit in their own minds the enormity of the wrongs that went on right under their noses," Baxley said.

But time and the changing racial climate have chipped away at the silence surrounding the church bombing case as well as at fears of retribution. In addition, investigators in recent years have been more aggressive than their predecessors in bringing charges against those responsible for civil rights-era crimes.

"It's just like a sweater," said Bob Eddy, a police investigator who worked with Baxley and consulted on the cases against Blanton and Cherry. "When you get a loose thread and you keep pulling at it, it will unravel."

Blanton, Cherry, Chambliss and Herman Cash, who died in 1994 without being charged, were quickly identified as suspects in the bombing of the 16th Street church that killed Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair on Sept. 15, 1963.

But although his agents had gathered evidence pointing to the four men, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover halted the investigation after two years and decided against taking it to trial, saying he didn't believe an Alabama jury would ever convict white men in a crime against blacks.

It would not be until 14 years after the blast that someone would finally be charged in the case - Chambliss, known as "Dynamite Bob" in Birmingham for his involvement in previous firebombings in the city. Chambliss died in 1985.

Then, about five years ago, encouraged by successful prosecutions of other decades-old killing in civil rights cases, the FBI delved into the case again. Investigators pored over thousands of pages of old files, re-interviewed previously known witnesses and uncovered new ones. Ultimately, Blanton and Cherry were each charged with eight counts of murder, two counts for each of the four girls.

The two were supposed to face trial together, but Cherry's trial has been delayed while further medical tests are conducted to determine whether he is competent to aid in his defense.

Prosecutors plan to play tapes from the FBI's wiretapping of Blanton's apartment the year after the bombing. A former Klansman-turned-informant who also taped the suspect in a car is expected to testify. But Blanton's attorney called for a mistrial last week after ABC News broadcast an interview with the informant and quoted from the tapes' transcripts.

The case against Cherry, by contrast, appears to focus on statements he allegedly made about the bombing to relatives over the years.

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