KKK church bombing still rocks Birmingham

Mourners who could not fit into the overflowing church during funeral services for Carol Robertson stand across the street.
Mourners who could not fit into the overflowing church during funeral services for Carol Robertson stand across the street. AP

It reportedly took only 80 seconds for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole to deny parole to a former Ku Klux Klansman serving a life sentence for the 1963 church bombing that took the lives of four little black girls. For many of us who lived in Birmingham when it was nicknamed Bombingham, even that brief period of deliberation was too long.

It was a heinous crime, and to my knowledge none of three men convicted of it ever expressed remorse. Two died in prison; a fourth suspect died before he was ever tried.

I well remember what happened at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963. I had turned 10 a month earlier. My family did not go to church that morning. I was playing near the back door of our apartment in the Loveman’s Village housing project when I heard the dynamite blast from miles away. It was later, when the adults began talking in hushed tones, that I learned what had happened — that four children had been killed.

One of the victims was Denise McNair, an 11-year-old who attended my school. Her mother taught at Center Street Elementary, and her father was the milkman who delivered in our neighborhood. I didn’t know Denise, but my older brothers did. Also killed were three 14-year-olds: Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carol Robertson. Another 20 people were injured, including Addie Mae’s 12-year-old sister, Sarah, who lost an eye.

The bombing, like so many others before it, was meant to intimidate Birmingham’s black population. The Klan was upset because demonstrations that spring led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had forced the city’s business community to remove “Whites Only” and “Blacks Only” signs from restrooms and water fountains and begin hiring “Negro” clerks. For those modest gains, four little girls were killed.

The FBI’s moles in the Klan apparently knew who was responsible, but it took 14 years before anyone was brought to justice. That’s when Robert Chambliss was convicted. “Dynamite Bob” died in prison in 1985, never breaking the Klan code of silence to implicate others. Another suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without ever being arrested. Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002 and died in prison two years later. Thomas Blanton Jr., who was denied parole Wednesday, was convicted in 2001.

The little girls’ surviving family members said they knew Blanton was entitled to a parole hearing, but any possibility of his early release was upsetting. Sarah Collins Rudolph told the parole board that losing an eye in the bombing caused her to hate people for a long time until God “pulled” the hate out of her.

Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls said Blanton’s crime had affected people in Birmingham who weren’t even born when the bombing occurred. “We all share one thing: We inherited this crime, this sin, this atrocity,” he said. “It is something we are known for because we are part of the Birmingham community.”

I know what Falls means. I left Birmingham to go to college in Kansas in the 1970s. Often when I introduced myself as being from Birmingham, the wide-eyed response was as if I were a war victim.

War did seem possible after the church was bombed. Rioting took place. A 16-year-old kid, Johnny Robinson, was killed by a white policeman who shot him in the back. My father and others armed themselves that night in case the Klan attacked. They questioned whether black lives mattered, and for some African Americans that is still a question today.

For a long time my hometown tried to ignore its history. Finally, in 1992 it faced its past by opening the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute just steps away from Sixteenth Street Church and Kelly Ingram Park, where many demonstrations began.

Prison officials several years ago described Blanton as a loner who never interacts with other inmates during the few times a week he is allowed to be in a day room with others or go outside for exercise. He’s 78 years old, so who knows if he will live to see his next scheduled parole hearing five years from now. If he does, the same fate should await him.

Blanton needs to spend whatever remaining time God gives him on this Earth thinking about that September Sunday in 1963 when he and Dynamite Bob and their co-conspirators set off a charge that, rather than demoralizing African Americans seeking equality, spurred a nation to join their cause.

The struggle continues. Four little girls are not forgotten.

Harold Jackson is the editorial page editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

©2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer