It has taken nearly 39 years, but finally, the fourth person implicated in the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and the killing of four little girls on Youth Sunday has been found guilty of their murder.
A jury of six white women, three white men and three black men -- a panel that would have been unimaginable at the time of the bombing -- took only seven hours to reach its verdict, a tribute to the case presented by Prosecutor Doug Jones. Circuit Judge James Garrett immediately sentenced Bobby Frank Cherry to life in prison.
He should have been there years ago.
But eight months before the bombing, then Alabama Gov. George Wallace in his inaugural speech promised, "segregation today ... segregation tomorrow ... segregation forever." Thus Wallace's warning after the bombing to "those responsible that every law enforcement agency of this state will be used to apprehend them" was a cruel joke. And the FBI under Director J. Edgar Hoover suppressed a memorandum from local FBI agents that stated, "The bombing was the handiwork of former Klansmen Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton Jr."
Chambliss, a notorious racist in the area known as "Dynamite Bob," was the first to fall. In 1977, Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened the case after demanding cooperation from the FBI. Chambliss was tried and convicted of murder.
Blanton remained free until last year because the FBI also had kept secret tape recordings in which he openly spoke of his role in the Klan's bombing activities. However, with the case re-opened, he was convicted of murder and also sentenced to life in prison, Cash died in 1994 without being charged.
Killers lived long, victims long dead
Still, these men lived in freedom for years, while their victims, 11-year old Denise McNair and her friends Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, all age 14, lay dead and buried. The four little girls, who were preparing to take their special roles as Youth Sunday ushers, were killed when the bomb exploded, burying them in rubble.
The 16th Street Baptist Church, where heroes of the civil rights movement like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fred L. Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, Dick Gregory and Ralph Abernathy frequently took the pulpit, was a target of the Ku Klux Klan. And, Hoover, a formidable opponent of the civil rights movement and its leaders, blocked the prosecution of the four men, and eventually shut down the investigation in 1968 without filing charges. It has now become clear that the FBI not only impeded the arrest and prosecution of the four suspected men, but, as Baxley subsequently learned, withheld incriminating evidence from state prosecutors that would have provided overwhelming evidence of their guilt.
When we read with disgust of the violent repression of democracy in Cuba, in China, in Sierra Leone; when we are appalled by those who bomb churches, synagogues, shopping malls or restaurants overseas; and when we still cannot fathom the mentality of a culture for which all "enemies" can be brutally murdered in a holy war, we must not forget that this nation, too, harbored the perpetrators of vicious hate crimes that they justified by their own perverse reading of the Bible.
We must remember how close America was to the behavior we abhor.