At the time, Doug Jones, who claimed an upset victory Tuesday in an Alabama special election for a U.S. Senate seat, was a second-year law student. He skipped classes to sit in on the trial, watching in amazement as William Joseph Baxley II, then Alabama’s attorney general, presented evidence against Chambliss.
Baxley had received death threats from white supremacists, including an ugly letter from KKK Grand Dragon Edward R. Fields. Baxley responded with a one-sentence missive typed on official stationery: “Dear Dr. Fields, my response to your letter of February 19, 1976, is kiss my ass. Sincerely, Bill Baxley, Attorney General.”
As Jones watched the testimony in the Jefferson County Courthouse, it became clear that Chambliss did not act alone in the bombing. The four girls killed — 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley — had been in the church basement preparing for Sunday service. Addie Mae’s sister, Sarah Jean Collins, who was 12 then, lost an eye in the explosion.
“As I gave my undivided attention to Baxley’s powerful closing argument,” Jones told a House crime subcommittee two decades later, “I never in my wildest imagination dreamed that one day this case and my legal career would come full circle, giving me the opportunity, some 24 years later to prosecute the two remaining suspects for a crime that many say changed the course of history.”
More than 20 years after Chambliss was convicted, Jones would become U.S. attorney in Alabama and set out to finish what Baxley started. He brought charges against two more Klan members, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., and Bobby Frank Cherry.
The prosecutions helped fuel his Senate race against Republican Roy Moore, a controversial former judge accused of sexually pursuing and, in two cases, assaulting teenage girls 40 years ago. Moore denied he did anything wrong.
On Tuesday night, voters handed Jones an upset victory over Moore amid a furious burst of last-minute campaigning. President Trump urged Alabama to send Moore to the Senate, while Republican Sen. Richard Shelby declared it impossible to support him. “I think Alabama deserves better,” Shelby said.
Jones appealed to African American voters, who turned out in large numbers on his behalf.
Jones, who grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, was a child when the bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church. He doesn’t remember hearing about it.
“I was 9 years old in 1963, a white kid living out in suburbia, and so my life was a very segregated life, a sheltered life,” Jones told the Los Angeles Times. “Birmingham was two towns, a black town and a white town. It took me getting into junior high to see things changing. My elementary school was all white. But when I went to seventh grade, I, for the first time, went to a school that was integrated.”
In 1963, Birmingham was called Bombingham, because of the number of black homes that were firebombed.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was a prominent meeting place for civil rights leaders. It was apparently targeted by the Klan after a federal court order mandated the integration of public schools in Alabama, which had resisted the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education. Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace (D), who declared in his inaugural address, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” literally stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963, to block two black students from enrolling.
Two months later on Sept. 15, 1963, at 10:21 a.m., dynamite reduced the church to rubble, mangling cars in the parking lot and stopping clocks.
“It sounded like the whole world was shaking,” recalled the Rev. John Haywood Cross, according to court documents. The dynamite blew plaster off the walls and peeled the face off the image of Jesus in a stained-glass window.
The pastor yelled for churchgoers to get out of the building, then went looking for the children in the basement. The explosion had blown a hole in the side of the church so large that he walked through it to get inside the church basement.
After digging about two feet in the rubble, “they found the body of a young girl,” court documents said, and then three others. “The four bodies were found almost in the same location as if they had been thrown on top of each other.”
Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to Wallace: “The blood of our little children is on your hands.”
King also sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, expressing outrage. King promised “TO PLEAD WITH MY PEOPLE TO REMAIN NON VIOLENT,” according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. But King feared unless there was quick response by the federal government, “WE SHALL SEE THE WORST RACIAL HOLOCAUST THIS NATION HAS EVER SEEN….”
More than 8,000 people attended the funeral for the girls at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King delivered the eulogy.
Within days, police zeroed in on the key figures suspected of planting the dynamite. All four of them were vehement white supremacists, according to the National Park Service account of the crime at the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
“In a 1965 memo to J. Edgar Hoover, FBI agents named four men as primary suspects for the bombing — Thomas Blanton, Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry and Herman Cash,” the Park Service said.
J. Edgar Hoover, then the director of the FBI, blocked the prosecution and overruled the agents in Birmingham. Despite calls from Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson for prosecution, Hoover refused to make arrests.
Baxley reopened the case in 1971. Six years later, Chambliss was convicted of murder in the death of one of the girls, Denise McNair. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1985 at the age of 81.
In 1993, the case was reopened a second time at the urging of civil rights leaders. Rob Langford, then an FBI agent in Birmingham, and others began sifting through more than 9,000 documents and wiretaps that had been collected in the 1960s by the FBI office in Birmingham.
The investigation led to the arrests of Blanton and Cherry. (Cash, the fourth suspect, died in 1994 without being charged.)
Jones, who was appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama in 1997 by President Bill Clinton, connected Blanton to Cherry.
Jones urged the FBI to release more than 9,000 files with evidence and wiretaps, including the “Kitchen-Sink Tape” wiretap of Blanton’s kitchen. An FBI agent had rented an apartment in the Blanton’s house, where the agent installed a listening device in the kitchen wall, according to court documents.
On June 28, 1964, the FBI recorded Blanton telling his wife about making a bomb.
In a packed courtroom in 2001, the jury heard the 37-year-old surveillance tape of Blanton telling his then-wife, Jeanne Blanton, that he’d planned the bombing under a bridge at the Cahaba River, where the Klan’s violent cell met, according to a 2001 Washington Post story.
“What do you need a meeting for?” Jeanne Blanton asked.
“You have to have a meeting to make a bomb,” Thomas Blanton replied.
Blanton was convicted in 2001. Cherry was convicted a year later, in 2002.
A judge had initially ruled that Cherry was not mentally competent to stand trial but reversed himself after doctors concluded Cherry was faking a mental illness.
Jones built the case against Cherry on circumstantial evidence and testimony from family members. He brought in a granddaughter who testified that Cherry once said, “He helped blow up a bunch of n—–s back in Birmingham.”
He also brought in one of Cherry’s ex-wives, who testified against him.
“He bragged about it. Bob told me he didn’t put the bomb together. He said, ‘I lit it,’ ” Willadean Brogdon told reporters on the steps of a Birmingham court in 1999.
After Cherry’s conviction, Jones told reporters: “The people of the state of Alabama proved for the second time in about a year that justice delayed does not have to be justice denied.”
In a tweet last week, Jones called prosecuting the Klansmen “the most important thing I have done.”
Cherry died in prison in 2004. He was 74.
In August 2016, an Alabama parole board refused an early release for Blanton, who was sentenced to life in prison. Now 79, Blanton is the last surviving Klansman responsible for the 16th Street Church bombing.
Read more Retropolis: