Federal panel to probe Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls
By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
A federal grand jury in Alabama will begin to hear evidence Oct. 27 regarding the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four little girls.
It’s the start of a process that could lead to indictments in the 35-year-old case. “We’re going to use the grand jury to help ferret out evidence in the case,” Andrew Bringuel, special agent for the FBI in Birmingham, said Friday.
Bringuel would not discuss what was being presented to the panel, but said, “I can tell you some positive things are happening in the investigation.”
Developments are taking place just after the 35th anniversary of the Sept. 15, 1963, dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four girls — Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14 — were sitting in the basement when an explosion ripped through the building, killing them and injuring 20 others.
Their killings became a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil,” Martin Luther King Jr. told those gathered at the funeral. “The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.”
The FBI decided to dive into the past after Robert Langford, then in charge of the FBI office in Birmingham, heard after he took over in 1993 that many in the black community believed the FBI had never seriously pursued the bombing.
Langford assigned an agent to look into the case. What that agent found — documents listing potential witnesses who were now willing to talk — led to the case in 1996 being formally reopened.
Those documents also identified a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Birmingham, Klavern 13, as responsible for the bombing and other attacks. One FBI report listed three eyewitnesses who saw Klansman Robert Chambliss and three other men at the church around 2 a.m., about eight hours before the explosion.
Although the FBI suspected a number of Klansmen in plotting and carrying out the bombing, only Chambliss was prosecuted and convicted of the crime in 1977.
When the FBI’s probe became public last year, media attention focused on Bobby Frank Cherry, a former Alabama pipe fitter the agency identified as belonging to Klavern 13.
Contacted Friday, Cherry, who now lives in Mabank, Texas, called the ongoing investigation “a bunch of baloney.”
He admitted being in the Klan, but denied any part in the bombing. “I wasn’t even involved, didn’t know anything about the mess until I heard it on TV,” he said.
It was impossible for the Klan to have firebombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, Cherry said. “You couldn’t have gotten within 20 miles of it. Hell, there were cars all around the place.”
He said the girls weren’t killed by the Klan but by Birmingham police, the FBI and members of then-Gov. George Wallace’s staff.
“Hell, all of his officials belonged to the Klan,” he said. “There’s going to be a book wrote on it pretty soon.”
Cherry said he campaigned for Wallace and then worked for the new Alabama governor as a lieutenant colonel, an honorary position that carried no official position or pay. Some of those responsibilities included serving as a bodyguard for Wallace, Cherry said.
He criticized law enforcement officers who belonged to the Klan. “It’s wrong,” he said. “If you’re police, you ought to be police. If you’re a Ku Kluxer, you ought to be a Ku Kluxer and you ought to be good at it.”
He said he knew the suspects in the dynamiting — Chambliss, Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Herman Frank Cash. He said they had nothing to do with the bombing.
As for Chambliss, “I think he was covering up for people,” Cherry said. “All he (Cash) done wrong was drank whiskey.”
Chambliss died in prison in 1985. Cash died in 1994. Blanton could not be reached for comment.
Cherry said the FBI thinks he knows more than he’s saying. An FBI document claims a lie-detector test indicated he had previously bombed a house and was withholding information about the Birmingham bombing.
The truth, he said, is that he had left the Klan by the time the killings took place. “Hell, I didn’t know nothing about it.”
He criticized Spike Lee’s recent documentary Four Little Girls as “a bunch of baloney. A bunch of those people were lying. You could tell by looking at them.”
U.S. Attorney Doug Jones said it may be possible to pursue federal charges since interstate transportation of dynamite carried no statute of limitations in 1963.
“A straight civil rights act would,” he said. “We are working closely with the state and the district attorney’s office.”
Should the evidence prove sufficient to go to trial, authorities will try to determine if it best belongs in state or federal court, Jones said.
“The FBI wouldn’t be involved if we weren’t involved in exploring criminal charges,” Bringuel said.
Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber said he plans to prosecute if there’s enough evidence to support a murder charge. “There’s no statute on homicide.”
The 1963 bombing is something neither he nor Birmingham can forget, he said. “That’s the year I graduated from high school.”
Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch, whose books chronicle the civil rights movement, said the bombing led to the Selma march and the voting rights movement.
“This grand jury was the way this country should have responded in the first place. . . . If the crime was unspeakable, then it has been unspeakably shameful that the country has not been able to respond to the crime until now.”