FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Tuesday, March 12, 2014
HANCEVILLE, Ala. — Though it took more than 37 years, things finally started falling in to place in order to bring justice to four little girls, their families and the community that was victimized by the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Douglas Jones, the former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2001 and 2002, respectively, recently spoke to a packed house in the Recital Hall of the Burrow Center at Wallace State Community. His presentation was the last of a year’s worth of events for the college’s Common Read Initiative, which was centered on the book “While the World Watched” by Carolyn Maull McKinstry, a survivor of the bombing.
Jones served as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 1997 to 2001. He was recently awarded the 15th annual Distinguished Service Award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
When the bomb exploded at 16th Street Church that Sunday morning in September, Jones was only 9 years old. Though he grew up in Fairfield, less than 10 miles from downtown Birmingham, Jones said he was still far removed from what was happening.
“I was like probably so many people at the time,” he said. “Almost everyone at this time, and to some extent even today, lived in a kind of segregated community in my little town of Fairfield. And what was going on in Birmingham when I was 9 years old was just as far away from me at the time as what you see today going on somewhere in the Middle East.
Jones was in his second year of law school at Cumberland School of Law in 1977 when the first trial for a suspect in the church bombing was held. “Then Attorney General Bill Baxley tried a fella named Robert Chambliss, known as Dynamite Bob,” Jones said.
Heeding advice he was given by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to watch trials in order to be a good trial lawyer, Jones skipped classes to watch the prosecution of Chambliss. “Never dreaming that 24 years later I would be in the same courtroom finishing the job and prosecuting Tommy Blanton for the same crime,” Jones said.
When it was his turn to take on the cases against Blanton and Cherry, Jones said the research included learning a lot about that turbulent time in history. After gathering all of the research, the next step was to present it in a way that 12 people would understand
“They don’t want to hear just the evidence and just the testimony,” Jones said. “They want to hear the story. They want to know the whys and the wheres.”
For that reason, Jones said his research started well before the events of Sept. 15, 1963. He traced it back to 1954, with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education, which called for desegregation in the nation’s schools.
“School systems were supposed to desegregate with all deliberate speed,” Jones said. “Well, it didn’t happen anywhere. It didn’t happen across the country. It didn’t happen in Alabama. It took years of court orders for things like that to happen.”
In 1957, Jones told of how the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth decided to test the decision and attempted to enroll his two daughters in the all-white Phillips High School. He and his wife were met with an angry mob of white men who wanted to prevent Shuttlesworth from enrolling their children in the school.
A recent graduate of Phillips High School was on campus that day to retrieve his transcripts. He was also an intern at the local public television station. He recorded with his 8mm camera the attack on Rev. Shuttlesworth and his wife. One of the men capture in the video amid the crowd of men was Bobby Frank Cherry, Jones pointed out.
“He had no children in that school,” Jones said. “His oldest child was only 11 or 12 years old. He had no kids there but felt compelled with other Klansmen to violence, to try and stop black kids from going to school with white kids. So now the first piece of my puzzle that I put together in this case falls into place for Bobby Frank Cherry.”
Jones’ research continued to look into the Civil Rights movement, trying to find the answer of why children and the 16th Street Baptist Church were targeted by the bombers.
When the Freedom Riders came to Birmingham on Mother’s Day in 1961, they were meet with Klansmen who beat them while police commissioner Bull Conner kept his police force away for 20 minutes.
Business leaders who saw the world’s reaction to photos of the altercations realized changes needed to be made or the city’s future would be at stake. They decided to change the form of government from a three-member commission to a mayor/council form of government. An election approved the change in the government structure, and Connor decided to run for mayor. He was defeated, and soon after, the Birmingham Civil Rights crusade began.
“Project C, Project Confrontation,” Jones said it was called, “to confront the city with its segregation laws. Dr. King went to jail and wrote his family letter from Birmingham City Jail.
“All of you English students need to read that,” he added. “It’s one of the most remarkable pieces of literature that I have ever read, and sill is relevant today, by the way.”
When the crusade faltered a bit, it was decided to bring children into the picture.
“The only way to confront Bull Connor was to have the kids,” Jones said. “The junior high, high school and college kids of the city of Birmingham, the black kids, emptied out of the schools to take to the streets of Birmingham. They would meet at the 16th Street Baptist Church. They would meet in the sanctuary and that’s where they do the plans for what was going to be a very nonviolent march.”
But the students were met with fire hoses and dogs ordered to the scene by Connor, who was still the police commissioner until the new government could be installed. Thousands of youth were arrested, so many that when they ran out of room a the city jail, the fairgrounds were utilized to hold them.
A famous photo of one young man being attacked by dogs was seen by President John F. Kennedy, which spurred him to call for reform. Secret meetings were held with Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy and others who reached a “very modest settlement” to do away with the Jim Crow laws in Birmingham.
“Laws that would make it illegal, punishable by jail, for a black man and a white man to be caught playing checkers together,” Jones said. “It took down the white and colored signs on restrooms and water fountains. It allowed the black ladies who ran the elevators…to get out on the sales floor at Pizits and Lovemans.”
That settlement, however, did not sit well with the Klan, Jones said. Threats were made against Dr. King, with a bomb exploding at the motel he had been staying, but he had already left to return to Atlanta.
“But now two more pieces of the puzzle come together,” Jones said, “because the die was cast.” One piece was the dissatisfaction and anger of the KKK. “They were angry, and the only way they could respond was through violence, not all of them, but the more violent members.”
The second piece was the student marches starting out at 16th Street Baptist Church and the settlement. “They were the symbols of the movement as much as Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth,” Jones said. “With that symbol of the movement, you became a target for the Klan.”
As September 1963 approached, the movement and the violence continued. The homes of Civil Rights leaders continued to be bombed in Birmingham. In June, Gov. George Wallace staged the stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama.
In August, a lawsuit by the Armstrong family filed six years earlier in 1957 was resolved with the Birmingham City Schools being ordered to desegregate. The ruling and resulting desegregation led to protests, boycotts and the display of the Confederate flag at Birmingham schools.
“School desegregation was once again what was prompting such rage and hate,” Jones said. “Once again children were a target of the movement, they were a target of the Klan as symbols of the movement.”
Five days after the two Armstrong children were enrolled at Graymont Elementary School the bomb exploded at 16th Street Baptist Church, killing Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Morris Wesley, Carole Robertson, all 14, and 11-yearold Denise McNair. Sarah Collins Rudolph, the 11-year-old sister of Addie Mae, was critically injured in the blast.
After the case was reopened in the late 1990s, Jones said witnesses came forward, including a granddaughter and one of Cherry’s ex-wives, a childhood friend of Cherry’s son who was at the Cherry home that September weekend and other acquaintances of Cherry whom he told of their involvement in the bombing.
“The Blanton case was quite different because he lived like hermit and kept his mouth shut,” Jones said. But they found witnesses to who saw Blanton or his car at the church two weeks before the bombing and the night before. They also had testimony from an informant and recordings made by the FBI.
Jones said the timing of trying the Blanton and Cherry cases was the most important due to the fact that many of the witnesses were aging and some were in bad health. “I have one star witness in the nursing home and another in intensive care,” he said.
In between cases, one of those witnesses passed away. A month after the Cherry case, one witness dies from cancer and the mother of Carole Robertson passes away around the same time. Within two years after the Cherry case at least a half dozen witnesses had passed away.
Sally Warren, a Wallace State English instructor and a member of the Common Reads committee, said Jones’ visit to the campus was a good way to cap off the year’s events.
“His visit was a nice contrast to Carolyn Maull McKinstry’s and allowed the audience to see the events of the Civil Rights Movement from a different perspective,” she said. “I found it compelling to learn how many people were personally affected by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. It’s especially moving to know that decades later people like Mr. Jones have continued to work so fervently to ensure that, as he put it, ‘justice delayed doesn’t have to mean justice denied.’”