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Church bombing conviction comes, 37 years later

The aftermath of the 1963 16th Street Baptist church bombing


Defense attorney promises appeal after client found guilty of murder

May 2, 2001
Web posted at: 5:21 PM EDT (2121 GMT)


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (CNN) -- September 15, 1963, was a peaceful Sunday morning at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a black congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. But around 9:30 a.m., 12 sticks of crudely rigged dynamite exploded near the church basement, where children were finishing up Bible study.

Four African-American girls died in the bombing, and another 20 people were injured.

Late Tuesday, a Birmingham jury convicted a former member of the Klu Klux Klan in the attack, with a state judge then sentencing him to life in prison.

  • From HighWired: Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I have a dream' speech
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  • From Holt, Rinehart and Winston: School segregation, 1964
    TEST A biracial jury convicts Thomas Blanton Jr. in the 1963 bombing deaths of four girls in a black Birmingham church. CNN's Brian Cabell reports

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    Black History Month: Chasing the Dream


    After two hours of deliberation, jurors found Thomas Blanton, now 62, guilty on four counts of first-degree murder. Authorities allege Blanton and three of his fellow Klansmen carried out the bombing.

    "I never thought I'd live to see this day," Danny Ransom, a friend of 11-year-old bombing victim Denise McNair told CNN. "But you know, time has a way of changing things and changing people."

    Blanton handcuffs
    Blanton is led away in handcuffs after being found guilty of four counts of first-degree murder  

    Defense lawyer John Robbins, however, says Blanton never had a fair chance given preconceptions about his client's guilt. Robbins said Wednesday he will appeal the Birmingham jury's verdict.

    "It was a tragedy, but because of this event and how it was linked to this city, there was, I feel, a lot of pressure to convict," Robbins said.

    'Awoke the conscience of white America'

    An extensive record of violence led some to refer to 1960s Birmingham as "Bombingham" and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to call it the most dangerous city in America for blacks, said Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group based in Montgomery, Alabama. The city's police chief in 1963 was Bull Connor, an avowed segregationist who won global recognition for ordering officers to turn high-powered hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters.

    Several pivotal points in the civil rights movement preceded the Sixteenth Street church bombing, including an 11-month bus boycott in Montgomery and "freedom rides," in which African-Americans and whites drove side-by-side through the segregationist South. But Potok says the Birmingham blast showed white America, perhaps for the first time, just how badly their black countrymen and women were being treated.

    "This really was the seminal moment -- it changed the course of the civil rights movement largely because people just did not care that much what was happening to Southern blacks" until then, he said.

    "But they could not stomach the images of these four little girls in white dresses being blown to pieces on a Sunday morning in church. It awoke the conscience of white America, which until that point had been in a long sleep."

    bombing girls
    The four girls killed in the 1963 church bombing, clockwise from upper left: Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Dianne Wesley, 14; Carole Robertson, 14; and Denise McNair, 11  

    The FBI sent 200 agents to assist the local branch after the bombing, and the names of the four suspects quickly became known. But Potok said FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who considered King a communist and did not like U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, deferred the charges, publicly saying blacks had bombed the church to gain the nation's sympathy.

    "This case could have been made 36 years ago," Potok said last summer. The FBI "knew what had happened What really happened was J. Edgar Hoover stymied the investigation."

    Tried after nearly 40 years

    Blanton and fellow suspect, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, turned themselves in last May, one day after a grand jury indicted both on murder charges. Circuit Court judge James Garret, who presided over Blanton's eight-day trial, ruled Cherry was not mentally competent to assist his attorneys and may never be tried.

    Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was convicted of murder in 1977 for his role in the bombing, succumbing to cancer in prison six years later. Suspect Herman Cash died before he was charged. All were one-time Klansmen.

    The Rev. Martin Luther King gave the eulogies at the funerals of the four girls killed by the Sixteen Street Church bomb  

    Blanton's trial reopened old wounds in Birmingham, as family members of those killed in the bombing -- 11-year-old McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson -- addressed the court. A set of FBI tapes, planted in Blanton's apartment in 1964 and documenting his conversations with Klansman-turned-informant Mitchell Burns, proved key, incriminating evidence in the case.

    Garret allowed prosecutors to play the tapes for the jury, a move that is now the focal point of Blanton's appeal.

    "At the time the tape was obtained, that tape was not admissible in court and we say it was taken in violation of my client's Fourth Amendment rights," Robbins said.

    Prosecuting attorney Doug Jones told CNN he doesn't believe the use of the tapes as evidence against Blanton will be overturned if appealed.

    "Those tapes were not likely to have ever been able to be used in the 1960s," Jones said. "But there have been a lot of changes in the law, and the way people look at those tapes."



    people who believe in the separtation of people -- the extent of their abilities, how they interact with one another, etc. -- based on their race



    relating to the beginning; foundational; original or instrumental



    delayed; withheld for or until a stated time



    presented obstacles; stood in the way



    yielding to superior strength or force; giving in


    Fourth Amendment

    right of search and seizure; according to the U.S. Constitution, "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized"

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    May 26, 2000
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    Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
    Alabama Live: Birmingham city guide
    Federal Bureau of Investigation
    Southern Poverty Law Center

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