Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five



IT WAS A SPARKLING SPRING morning, a day that begged to be spent anywhere but in a dark, wood-paneled courtroom where some particularly ugly history was being dredged up. Even Circuit Judge James Garrett didn't want to be there - or rather, he didn't want us to be there.

Outsiders - Yankees probably - had descended on Birmingham, Ala., to watch an old Klansman stand trial for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church almost 38 years ago, killing four black girls dressed in their Sunday best and tidying up before services.

Before testimony started on this day, Garrett motioned wistfully toward an art festival that had sprouted under white tents in a park just beyond his window and practically begged out-of-towners in the courtroom to experience a much different Birmingham than the one portrayed during the trial.

"Take an opportunity to see what Birmingham is all about," Garrett urged spectators. "I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what it is now." Then, addressing the jury that was sequestered for the volatile trial, he promised, "We'll see if we can get y'all down there, too."

Like others in town, Garrett was worried that Thomas E. Blanton Jr., the balding, mild-looking 62-year-old defendant, wasn't the only one on trial for the bombing. Birmingham itself loomed as an unindicted co-conspirator, a city whose name was forever linked to the most horrifying act of white resistance to the civil rights movement.

Blanton was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday by a jury that took just 2 1/2 hours to consider testimony and evidence about events that dated back nearly four decades. The speed of the jury, as well as its makeup - all but one juror is female, and the sole man on the panel is black - will be part of an appeal that Blanton is expected to file.

As the trial went on in Courtroom 370, a parallel assessment was going on elsewhere around town: What was Birmingham's role in the crime? What is its share of the guilt?

Questions like that rankle Kevin Miller and some callers to his daily talk show on WERC-AM radio.

"This isn't the crime of one person or a group of persons - this is the crime of the whole town, the way the national media portray it," a recent caller named George said sarcastically.

Miller argues that the trial was never about Blanton. Rather, it was about the city beating its breast and atoning for past sins: "The hoses, the dogs" is his shorthand for the endless replaying of the days when Police Commissioner Bull Connor sought to crush civil rights activists. Miller says the prosecution presented a weak case against Blanton, based on secretly taped conversations that never should have been allowed, and instead tugged at the jurors' heartstrings.

"It was the triumph of emotions over evidence," Miller said in an interview after the verdict. "[Prosecutor] Doug Jones said, 'Four little girls are watching you.' Who's going to vote for acquittal after that?"

The trial propelled Birmingham's past into the present. Aging and sometimes faltering witnesses took the stand to testify about long past events. Old reel-to-reel recordings the FBI made of some of Blanton's conversations were cleaned up and converted to cassettes and CDs, yet they sometimes remained as crackly and muddled as a cell phone call made from under water.

And yet, the witnesses and the tapes provided a glimpse into Blanton's world of racism, of an everyday life in which he discussed bombs as casually as girlfriends and fishing trips.

At times, the trial turned Southern Gothic, deep secrets from a dark past dragged out in the light of day in a sterile courtroom.

Two prosecution witnesses - a black man and a former Klansman - turned out to have had shock therapy for depression and other mental ailments. There also was testimony about a black woman who sold "rotgut" whiskey to kids and performed abortions - the rationalization of one ex-Klansman for a particular cross-burning.

And there was Blanton's former girlfriend, who testified about his deep hatred of blacks and described how he took her to a no-tell motel where he apparently was a known customer: "A large black lady would come out to the vehicle and give him the key," she said.

Was Blanton the only racist?

The trial put several of the witnesses in the uncomfortable - if not impossible - position of explaining the past in the context of a much different present. One after the other, former friends and associates testified to Blanton's violent words and acts toward blacks, and yet professed not to share those feelings. A former Klansman, a man whom Blanton tried to recruit into the group, and a one-time girlfriend who used to accompany him to KKK rallies all denied that they themselves were racist.

At one point, defense attorney John C. Robbins noted with exasperation, "I guess the only racist in Birmingham was Tommy Blanton."

Surely not, and yet to probe one's personal past is perhaps even more difficult than to confront a watershed moment in history like the 16th Street church bombing.

There are few places as history-haunted as the South. As native son William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Indeed, even as Birmingham was being carried back to its past, next door in Mississippi, they were voting to keep the Confederate banner as part of the state flag. In Atlanta, a federal court was banning the publication of a new novel in which "Gone With the Wind" is told not from the vantage point of antebellum princess Scarlett O'Hara, but from that of a slave on her beloved plantation, Tara.

History lesson

"Southerners have this love-hate relationship with history," said Robert Corley, director of the Center for Urban Affairs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Unlike other Southern cities, Birmingham didn't even exist before the Civil War; it developed after the war as a steel town, the so-called Pittsburgh of the South. The history that it wrestles with, then, is of a more recent vintage, what some have called the second Civil War - the struggle for equal rights for blacks.

Birmingham slowly, and often reluctantly, is confronting that past, said Corley, a white Birmingham native.

He and others point to the 1992 opening of the Civil Rights Institute, just down the block from the 16th Street church, as the first step in the city acknowledging the days when it was called "Bombingham" and segregationists armed with dynamite targeted black homes and businesses - and beginning to move beyond the past.

Corley, a member of the citizens task force that laid the groundwork for the institute, attended the final days of the Blanton trial and sees it as another step in the city wrestling with its past.

"It is an opportunity for Birmingham to truly move on," Corley said. "We've been through a process where members of our community have considered the evidence and returned their verdict."

The trial leaves Birmingham with questions similar to those asked, and answered, by Daniel Goldhagen in his 1996 book, "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust." His point is that a Hitler doesn't rise without the complicity of everyday people.

"Was Tommy Blanton an aberration? Was Robert Chambliss an aberration?" Corley asks, referring to another Klansman who was convicted for the bombing in 1977 and died while serving a life term. "Or do they reflect the community?

"It's some of both," he said. "They were the guys willing to give expression and take action ... on the virulent attitude people had about segregation - that segregation had to be upheld at all cost."

Corley also believes the questions raised by the Blanton trial extend beyond the city limits.

"The country has found it easy to demonize Birmingham and the South - 'Oh, look at those racists down there' - rather than focus on themselves," Corley said. "But why did it take so long for this trial to take place? That question is still hanging in the air here."

The answer points, in part, to decisions made in Washington. The evidence that apparently convinced the jury to convict Blanton was available within a year or two, at most, of the Sept. 15, 1963, church bombing. FBI agents of that era testified at the trial that they secretly wiretapped Blanton's apartment from May to August of 1964. Additionally, agents testified, a Klansman-turned-informant secretly taped Blanton in 1964 and 1965 as they drove around town and drank.

Justice delayed

And yet, despite catching Blanton on tape referring to meetings in which the bomb was planned and the actual bombing, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover halted the investigation in 1965 and decided against bringing any of the suspects to trial.

FBI files from the time reveal an agency that was simultaneously investigating the bombing and dragging its heels on prosecuting it. There are questions, in writing and verbally, from then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy checking on the investigation's status. Kennedy even sent his own men to Birmingham to check on things, but an FBI memo fires back that agents are not to "wet nurse" and "chauffeur the visitors" around town.

Hoover was said to have decided against prosecution because he thought no Alabama jury would convict white men of a crime against blacks. Others have speculated that Hoover was loath to give the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he was investigating and trying to sabotage a civil rights victory.

In the intervening years, the tapes simply vanished into the morass of government archives. When a crusading Alabama attorney general named Bill Baxley re-opened in 1971 the long-dormant church bombing investigation, the FBI resisted his requests for its investigative files. When the agency ultimately relented - it took years of cajoling and threats - neither set of tapes were in the numerous boxes that were turned over.

It took Baxley six years of work before he could make a case against the apparent ringleader of the bombers, Chambliss, who was so well known for his attacks on blacks that he was nicknamed "Dynamite Bob."

Baxley says that if the FBI had handed over the tapes back then, he could have charged and convicted Blanton in the 1970s.

A third suspect waits in the wings: Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, was supposed to stand trial with Blanton but was found to suffer from a form of dementia. He is undergoing further medical tests to determine if he too will face his, and Birmingham's, past.

Jean Marbella is a member of The Sun's national staff and covered the bombing trial in Birmingham.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad