1963 church bombing echoes throughout Ala. Senate race
Birmingham, Ala. — Convicted of murder in the deadliest attack of the civil rights era, the one-time Ku Klux Klansman glowered when the judge asked if he had anything to say before going to prison for the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls. Bobby Frank Cherry pointed at a prosecution table that included Doug Jones.
“This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing,” Cherry said in a deep Southern drawl. “I told the truth. I don’t know why I’m going to jail for nothing.”
Fifteen years after Cherry snarled at Jones, the bombing is echoing in Alabama’s fractious Senate race. Now the Democratic nominee, Jones is touting a record that includes the prosecutions of Cherry and another one-time Klansman, Thomas Blanton Jr., as he asks voters in Republican-run Alabama to turn on GOP nominee Roy Moore and give him a try.
“I still believe that those cases were on the right side of history,” he told reporters after a stop in Montgomery. “I believe that this campaign is on the right side of history, and that people are ready to move forward rather than backward.”
Moore and his supporters are depicting Jones as an out-of-touch, Obama-loving liberal who is soft on issues including crime. The tactic could work based on the state’s history: Conservative white Republicans dominate the electorate in Alabama, no Democrat holds statewide office and President Donald Trump carried more than 60 percent of the state vote last year.
The president offered up his unwavering support of Moore in a tweet Monday, despite the sexual assault allegations that have rocked Moore’s campaign.
Jones touts his leading role in closing the books on an act so cruel it helped open the nation’s eyes to the depth of racial hatred in the Jim Crow South. While Jones is appealing to voters on what he calls “kitchen table issues” including health care, jobs and education, the church bombing prosecution is always in the background.
Jones supporter Michelle Summers-Hines said she learned about the Birmingham church bombing growing up in Chicago, so the black woman was all the more inclined to back the one-time U.S. attorney for Senate.
“When I came here I knew about the four little girls,” said Summer-Hines, 47, of Montgomery.
The bombing happened during a year when deeply segregated Birmingham was the epicenter of the campaign to end racial segregation across the South.
Months after protests in which police and firefighters used dogs and fire hoses to turn back black demonstrators trying to march on downtown streets, KKK members under cover of darkness planted a bomb outside the thick, brick wall of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a leading black congregation in a deeply segregated city.
The bomb went off on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, a Sunday, and blasted a huge hole in the church at almost the exact spot five young women were in a restroom getting ready for worship. The explosion killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Morris, also known as Cynthia Wesley. Collins’ sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, was seriously injured.
Investigators soon had a list of Klan suspects that included Cherry and Blanton, plus Robert Chambliss and Herman Frank Cash. All were active in a Klan group with a reputation for violence, and Chambliss had a nickname to match — “Dynamite Bob.”
The investigation went cold for years until then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the probe and led the prosecution of Chambliss, who was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985.
The case went dormant again, and the fact that other known suspects were never prosecuted became an increasingly sore point within Birmingham’s black community. Then-FBI agent Robert Langford heard complaints during a meeting with black pastors in 1993, and a renewed investigation was underway3 by the time then-President Bill Clinton appointed Jones as U.S. attorney in Birmingham in 1997.
Blanton and Cherry, who had moved to Texas from Alabama, were indicted on state murder charges in 2000, and Jones received a special appointment to oversee the prosecution. He led a team of federal and state attorneys during trials that resulted in the convictions of Blanton in 2001 and Cherry the following year.
Prosecutors used both of the men’s own words to convict them. Cherry had talked about the bombing through the years, evidence showed, and secretly recorded FBI tapes from decades earlier captured Blanton talking about the bombing with his then-wife and a Klan buddy who turned informant.
Cherry denied that he participated in the bombing. He died in prison within three years of being convicted. Blanton remains behind bars — Alabama’s parole board refused to release him in August 2016 after a hearing that included Jones advocating for Blanton to remain incarcerated. Cash died in 1994. He was never charged.
That “fifth little girl” who survived the bombing, Sarah Rudolph, is now among Jones’ most ardent supporters, and so is her husband.
“We’re going to vote for him. Absolutely. He convicted the church bombers,” said George Rudolph.