The Crusader Newspaper Group

Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bomber up for parole next year

Crusader Staff Report

Former Ku Klux Klan member Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., who was convicted of murder in the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, is up for parole next year.

The Alabama Board of Pardons in 2016 denied Blanton’s request for parole after he asked to die a free man. After dodging justice for 38 years, Blanton was convicted in 2001 for a bombing that shocked and outraged the nation and fueled the Civil Rights Movement.

Blanton, 86, is the last surviving convicted killer in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Three other killers who were convicted for participating in the bombing, died decades ago.

THE FOUR GIRLS in bombing clockwise from left to right Addae Mae Collins Cynthia Wesley Carole Robertson and Carole Denise McNair 16th Street Baptist Church bombing girls
THE FOUR GIRLS in bombing (clockwise from left to right) Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carole Denise McNair 16th Street Baptist Church bombing girls.

Blanton was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison for murdering Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11.

The four Black girls spent the last moments of their young lives in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

At 10:22 a.m. on the morning of September 15, 1963, some 200 church members were in the church. Many were attending Sunday school classes before the start of the 11 a.m. service when 15 sticks of dynamite exploded on the church’s east side, spraying mortar and bricks from the front of the church and caving in its interior walls.

Most parishioners were able to evacuate the building as it filled with smoke, but the bodies of Collins, Wesley, Robertson and McNair were found beneath the rubble in a basement restroom.

Eleven-year-old Sarah Collins, who was also in the restroom at the time of the explosion, lost her right eye. More than 20 other people were injured in the blast.

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was the third bombing in 11 days, after a federal court order had come down mandating the integration of Alabama’s school system.

Thousands of angry Black protesters gathered at the scene of the bombing. When segregationist Governor George Wallace sent police and state troopers to break the protests up, violence broke out across the city. Many protesters were arrested. Two Black males were killed (one by police) before the National Guard was called in to restore order.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before 8,000 people at an emotional funeral for three of the girls at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church. Some 1,600 people attended a separate funeral for Robertson.

Though Birmingham’s white supremacists were immediately suspected in the bombing, repeated calls for the perpetrators to be brought to justice went unanswered for more than a decade.

It was later revealed that the  FBI had information concerning the identity of the bombers by 1965 and did nothing. (J. Edgar Hoover, then-head of the FBI, disapproved of the civil rights movement; he died in 1972.)

Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley in 1977 reopened the investigation.

Klan leader Robert E. Chambliss was brought to trial for the bombings and convicted of murder. Chambliss maintained his innocence and died in prison in 1985.

The case was again reopened in 1980, 1988 and 1997, when two other former Klan members, Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were finally brought to trial. Blanton was convicted in 2001 and Cherry in 2002.

A fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 before he could be brought to trial.

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