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Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin - Fall 2013

Special Interest G. Douglas (Doug) Jones, Jones & Hawley, P.C. Justice for Four Little Girls: The Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church Cases On September 15, 1963, four young African-American girls, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Robertson, died from a bomb blast that ripped into the ladies lounge of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The shockwave created by this senseless tragedy was felt around the world and proved to be a pivotal point in the struggle for civil rights in this country. But it took over fourteen years before anyone was brought to justice for the crime. In November, 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted of the murder of one of the four girls. Twenty-one years after that, on May 1, 2001, a jury in Birmingham convicted Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr., of murder for his role in the bombing. A year later, on May 22, 2002, another Birmingham jury convicted Bobby Frank Cherry, the last surviving suspect in the crime. During the decades between these historic events, Alabama experienced a phenomenal shifting of attitudes which made the prosecutions possible. What follows is only a brief answer to a couple of frequently asked questions and a summary of how the cases came together for trial. The FBI had done an extensive investigation following the bombing, but the case was closed without any prosecutions in 1968. Concerned about the ability to obtain a conviction, the case was closed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1971, newly elected Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley re-opened the case and made it one of, if the not the highest, priorities of his office. Most, but not all, materials were given to Baxley for the 1977 prosecution of Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, who was convicted of the first degree murder of Denise McNair. I was fortunate enough to have watched that trial, including Baxley’s emotional closing argument, from the balcony of Presiding Judge Wallace Gibson’s courtroom. Although Chambliss was convicted, it was clear from the evidence that Chambliss did not act alone. Unfortunately, when Baxley left office in 1978, the investigation was once again shelved. But by 1996, a couple things occurred that breathed new life into the cold case. First, Rob Langford, the newly installed special agent in charge of the Birmingham FBI office, began to reach out to the African-American community to mend fences that had broken down over the highly publicized corruption investigation into Birmingham City Hall. One of the concerns being expressed by black leaders was why the 16th Street church bombing case had not been re-examined. At about the same time, the conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers proved that a prosecution of these forgotten cases can be successful with a new generation of southern jurors. The time seemed right for another look at the church bombing case that had remained an open wound for Birmingham. With approval from FBI headquarters and then Interim U.S. Attorney and now Jefferson County Circuit Judge Caryl Privett, Rob re-opened the investigation. 16 Birmingham Bar Association


Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin - Fall 2013
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