Of one thing, we can be certain. At about 10:30 AM on Sunday, September 15, 1963, a dynamite bomb exploded just outside the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama, killing 11-year-old Denise McNair, and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins. 20 others were injured.
Tensions were already high in this Southern industrial town, regarded by many as the most segregated in the US, in the aftermath of the infamous seven days of May, that same year.
Birmingham’s commissioner for public safety, a man with the unlikely name of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, was to earn his place in history as the one who unleashed brutal tactics to break up street demonstrations in the downtown area, that were the centerpiece of the May disturbances. Connor, 66 at the time, had been in public life since 1934, and was extremely popular (at least with the White population). Clearly, his ability to read the electorate kept him in office well beyond his prime. Ironically, it was his very uncompromising bulldog tenacity, in an era that cried out for compromise and fair play, that ultimately worked in the favor of the civil rights movement.
Even though he had been employed as a telegrapher and radio sports announcer, Connor never grasped the power of the media, for it was the images of snarling police dogs and fire hoses, broadcast all over the world, along with doing effectively no business for several days, that forced the downtown merchants into a compromise with the Black community. Indeed, after a few days, the firemen refused to turn the hoses on the protesters, and many policemen refused to arrest teen and pre-teen demonstrators. The situation had become a parody of itself.
No one but the lunatic fringe was laughing, though, on September 15th. If many Whites in Birmingham favored segregation, precious few could condone the murder of four little girls. The soul-searching that began in May among many White leaders as to the image of their town would now accelerate. Connor would soon be out of office, and died in 1973.
The manner in which this case was to unfold stretches the concept of justice nearly to the breaking point, culminating as it did this past week with the conviction of 71-year-old Bobby Frank Cherry.
The FBI knew as early as May, 1965, that the bombing was the handiwork of former Klansmen Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. Yet, in 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover concluded, erroneously, that a conviction was not possible because of racism. Thus, charges were not filed.
My take is that a conviction was VERY possible, and that some sort of political deal was made, to simply shield Birmingham from any more bad publicity. Five years later, this case was not on the media radar screens. Why bring it back?
But, in 1971, it WAS brought back by Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley. In 1977, Chambliss was convicted on a state murder charge, and sentenced to life in prison. He died there in 1985, professing his innocence to the end.
In 1988, Alabama Attorney General Don Siegelman reopened the case, only to close it without any significant action. Cash died in 1994, and in 1997, the FBI reopened its investigation, leading to a Federal grand jury convening in Alabama in 1998. Finally, in May, 2000, Blanton and Cherry surrendered to authorities, after murder indictments were returned.
On May 1, 2001, Blanton was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Cherry’s conviction followed on May 22, 2002. He too was sentenced to life in prison.
While I am confident that Chambliss, Blanton, and Cherry are the perps, the convictions appear to be based solely on weak circumstantial evidence–largely the overheard boasts of three degenerate Klansmen, referring to the bombing. Murder has no statute of limitations, but the spectre of old men being led off to prison, decades after the crime, surely spoils the ideal of swift justice.
Even Cherry’s own defense attorney admitted that his client was a racist scumbag, but insisted that there was really no evidence sufficient to put him away for murder.
Compare these verdicts with the OJ Simpson case. In the face of overwhelming evidence, Simpson was acquitted because of his supposed status in the Black community, and as a payback for perceived racial inequities. In the bombing cases, the defendants were probably guilty, although any Klansman of the time would have been a likely suspect. They were convicted to close old wounds, under a standard of evidence that would never have been allowed in any other similar case, free of racial overtones.
I have no problem with tweaking the standards for the good of society, but I have grave doubts that the killing of THOUSANDS of Americans on September 11, 2001, will ever have the traction in our justice system that the killing of four had on September 13, 1963.
137 years after the Civil War, our country is more obsessed with race than ever. Not a pretty picture, and one far from the thoughts of four girls, unwitting martyrs to a cause that has tragically lost its way.