“Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers”
Author: T. K. Thorne
Publisher: Lawrence Hill Books
Price: $26.95 (Cloth)
On September 15th it will be 50 years since the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the bombing in which four girls, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, were killed while getting ready to participate in Youth Sunday.
The time was 10:24 exactly. We know because the blast from a dozen sticks of dynamite stopped the clock at the Social Cleaners across the street.
As students of Birmingham history know, the bombing was not exactly an isolated event. Since 1947 there had been 50 bombings in Birmingham, 19 of which involved churches.
The bombings were ecumenical. Fifty sticks of dynamite were discovered at the Beth-el synagogue and bombs exploded at Triumph Church and Kingdom of God and Christ, New Bethel Baptist Church and Saint Luke’s AME Zion Church. While mass was being performed a bomb was discovered outside Our Lady, Queen of the Universe Catholic Church. The church of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, The Bethel Church, was bombed three times. .
Shuttlesworth’s home was bombed several times. In all those 50 bombings a mysterious kind of luck had prevailed: no one had been killed.
Governor George Wallace saw it differently: “It looks mighty funny to me that there have been forty-seven such bombings in Birmingham in the last ten or fifteen years and yet no one has been hurt….And these bombings have led to the raising of millions of dollars for civil rights causes.”
That luck ran out on September 15, 1963.
This volume, “Last Chance for Justice,” goes over this material quickly, a refresher course, and then focuses on the trials of the three men eventually convicted.
Immediately after the bombings there was intensive investigation by both the local police and the FBI but no one was brought to trial. There are conflicting explanations as to why not, and rumors abounded. It was assumed, correctly, that the KKK was involved and rumor suggested up to 40% of the Birmingham PD were Klansmen or sympathizers. J. Edgar Hoover may have honestly believed there was insufficient evidence but also did not want his undercover FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe to be exposed.
Rowe’s name will pop up in several places, including at the murder of Viola Liuzzo.
It was not until 1971 that Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley would reopen the cases and in 1977 convict “Dynamite” Bob Chambliss, and even then Baxley complained bitterly of lack of cooperation from the FBI. They withheld files for five years. Chambliss died in prison in 1985.
After the Chambliss conviction, investigators “received a sudden and unexplained order to drop the case” from Attorney General Charles Graddick.
Thorne does not detail the Chambliss trial but some bits stand out. Chambliss’s niece, Elizabeth Cobbs, despite being terrified of her Uncle Bob, testified against him. She later had a sex-change operation and became Petric Smith and wrote a book about it all, “Long Time Coming,” in which she accuses Chambliss of being a child molester.
After the Chambliss conviction, matters rested for nearly 20 years, and then in 1995 FBI agent Robert Langford recruited police sergeant Ben Herren and FBI agent Bill Fleming to give it all one last try.
Of the original witness list, 115 were dead; only 40 still alive. Of the original suspects, two were still alive, Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton. Fleming and Herren worked doggedly for several years to gather evidence and convict these two in May of 2001 and May of 2002, respectively, nearly 39 years after the bombing. The body of Thorne’s work recounts the investigation and courtroom trials of these two, and in spite of the passage of time, the deaths of many witnesses and the disappearance of much evidence, prosecutors finally prevailed.
Astonishingly, hours of secret tape recordings of conversations in Blanton’s kitchen turned up and were found admissible.
Witnesses were located who had heard small, seemingly casual remarks made many years after the bombing. A timeline for the making of the bomb was established. The evidence was circumstantial but abundant.
Blanton was convicted, mostly on the evidence in the secretly recorded conversations.
At first, Bobby Frank Cherry was ruled mentally incompetent, like a gaga mafia don, but under observation at Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility in Tuscaloosa, he proved not to be.
One ex-wife, Willadean Cherry, told of overhearing Bobby Frank’s nightmares and related she had often been beaten by her husband.
Willadean’s daughter Gloria told of being raped by Cherry as a girl and by his son Tommy Cherry, while Bobby watched. Bobby had also molested his son’s daughter, Teresa, at age 12, investigators were told. Does this seem confusing? It is. Cherry had five wives and 15 children.
Without question this is a fascinating story and Thorne is in a good position to tell it. She, T.K., was the first Jewish police officer in Birmingham and retired as a precinct captain in 1999.
Thorne interviewed law enforcement officers extensively and studied the tapes, books like Frank Sikora’s “Until Justice Rolls Down,” documents and court transcripts.
Unfortunately the writing is not graceful, and there are no footnotes to show where quotes come from; in a book so much about evidence, footnotes are needed.
Nevertheless, this is a knowledgeable, inside look at justice indeed delayed but, finally, not denied.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”