Birmingham's reckoning

May 12, 2002

The Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods Jr. was there at the beginning, when a bomb ripped through 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, killing four young girls. It was a heinous crime and a significant event in the civil rights struggle.

Nearly 40 years after the blast that rocked a city and a nation, the trial of the last suspect in the bombing began last week.

For Mr. Woods, a 73-year-old Baptist preacher, this day has been a long time coming. It was years before anyone was even charged in the crime, and then only one man, Robert Chambliss, was brought to trial and convicted in 1977.

The matter didn't end there for Mr. Woods and many others in Birmingham. They pressed the FBI in the early 1990s to reopen the case. That led to the conviction just last year of a second man, ex-Klansman Thomas Blanton Jr.

When a Birmingham judge found a third suspect, a graying grandfather, incompetent to stand trial, Mr. Woods led protests outside the courthouse. The judge reversed his finding and Bobby Frank Cherry's day in court is now.

The 16th Street Baptist Church is an institution in Birmingham, a legacy of the civil rights movement and a memorial to the slain girls: Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, all 14. The bombing was its own brand of terrorism, carried out in a climate of hate and fear that pervaded cities in the South.

The city had been dubbed "Bombingham," but none of the 50 or so bombings of houses and churches had claimed the lives of four Sunday school students. The church bombing came three months after a spring of protests marked by snarling police dogs and fire hoses that helped usher in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The victories of the civil rights movement never precluded a just end to the church bombing case. Certainly not for the families, the members of the church or the greater Birmingham community. Over the years, friends have suggested to Mr. Woods that he let the matter go. Forgive and forget. But as he told them, justice delayed is justice denied: "This has been denied for all too long now."

In a civil society, justice must be pursued for the aggrieved and the accused. Time does not excuse this responsibility; an impartial hearing of the facts must be undertaken and a verdict rendered. The people of Birmingham have recognized the need for a final reckoning.

Pastor Woods has often imagined the four girls around the altar, crying, "How long, how long?" Finally, he says, he can say to them, "Not long."

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