Southern Gothic

The murder trial of a 62-year-old former Klansman for a 1963 bombing brought witnesses and the city of Birmingham, Ala., face to face with a racist history they would prefer to forget.

May 06, 2001|By Jean Marbella

IT WAS A SPARKLING SPRING morning, a day that begged to be spent anywhere but in a dark, wood-paneled courtroom where some particularly ugly history was being dredged up. Even Circuit Judge James Garrett didn't want to be there - or rather, he didn't want us to be there.

Outsiders - Yankees probably - had descended on Birmingham, Ala., to watch an old Klansman stand trial for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church almost 38 years ago, killing four black girls dressed in their Sunday best and tidying up before services.

Before testimony started on this day, Garrett motioned wistfully toward an art festival that had sprouted under white tents in a park just beyond his window and practically begged out-of-towners in the courtroom to experience a much different Birmingham than the one portrayed during the trial.

"Take an opportunity to see what Birmingham is all about," Garrett urged spectators. "I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what it is now." Then, addressing the jury that was sequestered for the volatile trial, he promised, "We'll see if we can get y'all down there, too."

Like others in town, Garrett was worried that Thomas E. Blanton Jr., the balding, mild-looking 62-year-old defendant, wasn't the only one on trial for the bombing. Birmingham itself loomed as an unindicted co-conspirator, a city whose name was forever linked to the most horrifying act of white resistance to the civil rights movement.

Blanton was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday by a jury that took just 2 1/2 hours to consider testimony and evidence about events that dated back nearly four decades. The speed of the jury, as well as its makeup - all but one juror is female, and the sole man on the panel is black - will be part of an appeal that Blanton is expected to file.

As the trial went on in Courtroom 370, a parallel assessment was going on elsewhere around town: What was Birmingham's role in the crime? What is its share of the guilt?

Questions like that rankle Kevin Miller and some callers to his daily talk show on WERC-AM radio.

"This isn't the crime of one person or a group of persons - this is the crime of the whole town, the way the national media portray it," a recent caller named George said sarcastically.

Miller argues that the trial was never about Blanton. Rather, it was about the city beating its breast and atoning for past sins: "The hoses, the dogs" is his shorthand for the endless replaying of the days when Police Commissioner Bull Connor sought to crush civil rights activists. Miller says the prosecution presented a weak case against Blanton, based on secretly taped conversations that never should have been allowed, and instead tugged at the jurors' heartstrings.

"It was the triumph of emotions over evidence," Miller said in an interview after the verdict. "[Prosecutor] Doug Jones said, `Four little girls are watching you.' Who's going to vote for acquittal after that?"

The trial propelled Birmingham's past into the present. Aging and sometimes faltering witnesses took the stand to testify about long past events. Old reel-to-reel recordings the FBI made of some of Blanton's conversations were cleaned up and converted to cassettes and CDs, yet they sometimes remained as crackly and muddled as a cell phone call made from under water.

And yet, the witnesses and the tapes provided a glimpse into Blanton's world of racism, of an everyday life in which he discussed bombs as casually as girlfriends and fishing trips.

At times, the trial turned Southern Gothic, deep secrets from a dark past dragged out in the light of day in a sterile courtroom.

Two prosecution witnesses - a black man and a former Klansman - turned out to have had shock therapy for depression and other mental ailments. There also was testimony about a black woman who sold "rotgut" whiskey to kids and performed abortions - the rationalization of one ex-Klansman for a particular cross-burning.

And there was Blanton's former girlfriend, who testified about his deep hatred of blacks and described how he took her to a no-tell motel where he apparently was a known customer: "A large black lady would come out to the vehicle and give him the key," she said.

Was Blanton the only racist?

The trial put several of the witnesses in the uncomfortable - if not impossible - position of explaining the past in the context of a much different present. One after the other, former friends and associates testified to Blanton's violent words and acts toward blacks, and yet professed not to share those feelings. A former Klansman, a man whom Blanton tried to recruit into the group, and a one-time girlfriend who used to accompany him to KKK rallies all denied that they themselves were racist.

At one point, defense attorney John C. Robbins noted with exasperation, "I guess the only racist in Birmingham was Tommy Blanton."

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