BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - One by one, they walked or were wheeled to the witness stand, old, white-haired, stiff-jointed, hard of hearing and wavering of voice - their very age testimony to how very long ago the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed.
As testimony began yesterday in the trial of a former Ku Klux Klansman, Thomas Blanton Jr., the only figures who didn't bear the weight of the intervening 37 1/2 years were its four victims - an 11-year-old and three 14-year-old girls - who remain as locked in time as the clock at the dry cleaners across the street that was stopped at 10:25 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1963, by the force of the blast.
Mothers and sisters testified, often wrenchingly, about the morning the victims went to church with nothing but girlish thoughts in their heads - a new raincoat, nervous anticipation of a role in a youth program - only to be killed, the youngest and most innocent of the martyrs to emerge from the civil rights struggle of that era.
Maxine McNair and her only child, Denise, 11, went to church together that morning but separated to go to their respective Sunday school classes. Their last conversation would be about Denise insisting on keeping her new raincoat with her. "We heard this loud noise. We were accustomed to hearing loud noises," McNair said of those turbulent years. "The first thing I said was, `My baby, my baby.'"
She rushed to look for Denise, but never found her. Instead, she ran across an uncle, carrying a familiar shoe. "He told me," McNair said, her voice breaking, "she was dead."
Blanton, 62, is on trial for the murders of Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, whose 52nd birthday would have been yesterday. One of four original suspects in the blast, he may be the final one to stand trial for it. One man was tried and convicted in 1977, another died without being charged and a third, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, was supposed to be Blanton's co-defendant but was found to suffer from dementia and unable to stand trial. Cherry will undergo further tests to see if he can be tried later.
But the sense that Blanton's trial is the final chapter in the saga of this notorious event, a watershed moment that galvanized support for equal rights for black Americans, pervades the proceedings. It is something lawyers on both sides of the case invoked, for opposite reasons, in their opening arguments before a jury of 10 whites and six blacks, four of whom will be designated as alternates.
Prosecutor Doug Jones asked the jurors to consider the murder of the four girls in the context of the city's history - a time when lunch counters and schools were integrating, and there was resistance from white residents like Blanton.
"1963 was an important year for Birmingham, Alabama," said Jones, a U.S. attorney prosecuting the case in state court under an agreement with local authorities. "There were a lot of changes."
Jones painted a picture of Blanton and his cohorts as angry white men who met in secret to plan bombings and other violence against blacks.
"He didn't like what was happening in Birmingham," Jones said. "There was a group of men that decided to meet and talk. They met not in the bright sunshine where everyone can see them. They met under the bridge on Highway 280. ... They met in the darkness to talk about what should be done in Birmingham."
But Blanton's lawyer warned the jury against putting history on trial. Government prosecutors want you to take the larger view, he said, to distract from the fact that they don't have much of a case against Blanton.
"There is no direct evidence," John Robbins said. "There are no eyewitnesses."
Robbins acknowledged that in "a popularity contest," his client would be the loser. But, he added, this is not a popularity contest, nor is it an opportunity to right a historic wrong.
"You're not going to like Tom Blanton," he said. "He was a loudmouth. He was annoying. He was a segregationist, and he ran his mouth off about that. ... Just because you don't like him doesn't mean he planted the bomb."
Robbins asked the jury not to use Blanton's trial as a way to reverse the city's image of a place so hateful that a group of people could bomb a church, kill four little girls and almost get away with it.
"It's not about closure. It's not about removing the tarnished image Birmingham may have or you feel Birmingham may have," he said. "This case is not about that. This case isn't about making everyone in Birmingham feel good about themselves by convicting Tom Blanton."
The attorneys' opening arguments gave a hint of what is to come in a trial expected to take several weeks.
Jones said Blanton's one-time wife will testify that he took her to the Cahaba River, under the bridge where he and his cohorts used to meet.
She asked why they were under a bridge, Jones said, and Blanton allegedly "giggled" and said that they were under the bridge to plan the bombing.