Reading Birmingham

Doug Jones’ story about the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the prosecution of the Klansmen who did it, provides perspective on the past and present.

St. Martin’s Press

“Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing that Changed the Course of Civil Rights” by Doug Jones with Greg Truman (St. Martin’s Press, 2019)

“Maxine McNair’s screams were primal,” Doug Jones writes in Bending Toward Justice. As McNair searched for her daughter Denise in the rubble of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church she knew, the way a mother would know, that the unthinkable had finally happened.

The 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins happened because white Americans were angry. Birmingham’s public schools were integrated the week before the bombing, and as whites saw dents and cracks appearing in the wall that separated them from black Americans they became resentful and afraid. And a few whites, bitter losers clinging to the bottom rung of the white racial hierarchy, were willing to do more than just gripe about it. They were willing to commit murder.

The three men eventually convicted and sent to prison for the church bombing were horrible human beings. “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was the violent racist bomb maker of the group. Once in prison he whined and wallowed in self-pity (his prison letters are preserved in the Birmingham Public Library Archives). Bobby Frank Cherry was an obnoxious braggart who sexually molested his stepdaughter and his granddaughter. His third wife escaped her abusive husband by driving off one day and leaving Cherry standing by the side of the road. She went all the way to Montana. And the third was Tommy Blanton, who one night while on a date tried to run over a black man with his car.

I met Blanton once, shortly before his trial. During our brief chat he explained to me that another Klansman had bombed the church. He grinned and described his upcoming vacation (presumably his last) to Panama City Beach. Blanton seemed so ordinary that, as Jones writes, he “would have blended into any crowd.” He reminded me of men I knew growing up — tiresome and completely uninteresting.

As Jones recounts, it took years to put Chambliss, Cherry and Blanton in prison for their crimes. And it took brave people willing to sacrifice their safety and careers. Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley likely lost his chance to become governor of Alabama when he prosecuted and convicted Chambliss in 1977. Investigators never completely let go of the case. And bravest of all were the women — former wives, nieces, daughters and granddaughters of the bombers — who provided evidence and testified. These women knew these awful men better than anyone, and knew they deserved to go to jail.

The investigation did not look promising when Doug Jones inherited it after becoming U.S. attorney in 1997. But Jones, who grew up admiring the fictional attorney Atticus Finch and skipped classes in law school to watch Baxley prosecute Chambliss, has a knack for pulling off the improbable. He convicted the church bombers and won a U.S. Senate seat against Roy Moore. Bending Toward Justice is the story of the church bombing prosecutions, but it is also a campaign biography. Jones still has things to do. And while it is difficult to envision a long career for him as Alabama’s U.S. senator, it would be unwise to ever count Jones out.

Bending Toward Justice accomplishes what good history should accomplish. The book helps readers understand the past and the present. And the events of 1963 are relevant now because sometimes history does backflips. That’s not to say that history repeats itself, because it doesn’t really. But occasionally, without looking where we’re going, we jump back to a spot we thought we had left behind. And then we have to retrace our steps to see how it all turns out this time.

The convicted church bombers, and their cohorts who escaped justice by dying before they could be indicted, were the self-appointed storm troopers of white supremacy. And many other whites, people not willing to personally beat a black man to the pavement or blow up a black woman’s home, let this bunch do the dirty work for them. And white political leaders got and held political power by encouraging white racial paranoia. And right-wing media peddled lies and half-truths to legitimize the worst white fears about race.

And now we find ourselves in another self-inflicted backflip moment. Like 1963, we are living in a time when white political leaders shamelessly exchange bigotry for votes, and right-wing media irresponsibly exchange paranoia for ratings. And many seemingly decent whites stay silent.

The ugliness of our time feels too familiar, and that can be discouraging to those of us who naively thought that old racist order was dying off. But if history doesn’t repeat, it does go in cycles. Today’s bigoted demagogues and white supremacist thugs should take a lesson from their church-bombing forefathers. Justice sometimes comes slowly, but sometimes it still comes. And when justice comes to the dregs of history, their emptiness is revealed and they are cast off and left to rot. Robert Chambliss died in prison in 1985. Bobby Frank Cherry died in prison in 2004. And someday Tommy Blanton will do the same. There’s some justice in that.

 

Additional reading on the church bombing:

Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case by Frank Sikora (University of Alabama Press, 1991, 2005)

Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World by Elizabeth H. Cobbs/Petric J. Smith (Crane Hill, 1994)

The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory by Renee C. Romano and Leigh Raiford, editors (University of Georgia Press, 2006)

Birmingham Sunday by Larry Dane Brimner (Calkins Creek, 2010)

While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement by Carolyn McKinstry (Tyndale House Publishers, 2011)

Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigations Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers by T. K. Thorne (Lawrence Hill Books, 2013)

 

James L. Baggett

About Reading Birmingham: James L. Baggett, director of the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at the Birmingham Public Library, reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state. Since 1970, 450 books about Birmingham and Alabama have been researched with help from the department that Baggett heads. He has authored or edited five books on Birmingham and Alabama history. Baggett received the Alabama Library Association’s 2019 Eminent Librarian Award.