Revolutionary Worker #1153, June 2, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org
For many Black people in Birmingham, Alabama, what happened on September 15, 1963, still sends horror, pain, and anger through their souls. At the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church--the organizing center for the Civil Rights struggle raging in Birmingham at the time--four young girls were in the basement ladies' room, getting ready for the annual Youth Day. Suddenly, a huge bomb explosion rocked the building. In the rubble of the ruined church, the four girls were found dead. Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson, ages 11 to 14, murdered at the hands of KKK bombers.
On May 22, Bobby Cherry, one of the KKK bombers, was convicted of the murders of the four girls and received a life sentence. This conviction came almost 40 years after the bombing--even though during those many years the authorities had evidence of Cherry's guilt and he openly talked about his involvement in the bombing.
Sarah Collins Rudolph lost her sister Addie Mae in the 1963 bombing, and she herself lost sight in one eye because of injuries from the blast. She expressed the sentiments of many people after the verdict on Cherry: "I know one thing. It was a long time."
The government prosecutors and other spokesmen for the power structure say that the guilty verdict on Cherry shows the system "works" and that people can get justice in the courts. But in reality, what the whole 38-year-plus history of the case shows is how pervasive and deep-rooted white supremacy and national oppression are under this system.
From the moment that the bomb destroyed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed the four girls, officials in the police department, the FBI, and other government agencies knew that this was the bloody handiwork of the KKK. The KKK had for decades carried out all kinds of terror against Black people in Birmingham. There were 40 bombings between the end of WW 2 and 1963.
In 1963, the battle for freedom by Black people in Birmingham came to a head. And the counter- attacks against the people dramatically intensified. Police used attack dogs and firehoses on young marchers. And "unofficial" agents of the racist power structure also stepped up their activity. The KKK openly marched, and movement organizers were targeted for bombings and other attacks. (See "Four Little Girls and the Fight for Freedom" on page 12 for more background.)
As one Birmingham resident remembers, "It was constant, the bombing. You would hear bombs going off night after night. One area of the city where the Black activists lived and their homes were bombed was called `Dynamite Hill.' And Birmingham was called `Bombingham.' "
Almost immediately after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, law enforcement officials had prime suspects: four Klansmen named Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas Blanton Jr. Chambliss was so notorious that his nickname was "Dynamite Bob." Cherry was also a well-known KKK member. In 1957, Cherry used brass knuckles to attack Rev. Fred Shuttleworth, a Birmingham Civil Rights leader, who was trying to enroll his children in a white school. Cherry was questioned by FBI agents days after the 1963 bombing. He denied involvement but said that the only reason he didn't bomb the church was that someone else had beat him to it.
None of the four Klansmen were arrested and charged at the time, even though the FBI had lots of evidence to implicate them. In 1965, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover officially closed the case, claiming that the FBI could not get cooperation from local officials. But in fact, the FBI had 9,000 documents and surveillance tapes on the case that were kept secret until much later.
It wasn't until 1971 that the case was reopened by the Alabama attorney general's office. And it took six more years for one of the bombers, Chambliss, to be finally convicted of murder in 1977. Another suspect, Cash, died in 1994 without ever being charged.
In 2000, the government finally came out with murder indictments on Blanton and Cherry. Blanton was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison. Cherry was supposed to be tried at the same time, but the defense attorney argued that Cherry was not competent to stand trial because he had dementia. Judge James Garrett ruled in favor of Cherry, even though two of the four doctors that examined him said he was faking his condition.
People were outraged at the ruling. Daily protests forced the judge to order that Cherry be put under medical observation. Doctors determined that Cherry was indeed faking dementia, and he was put on trial.
Cherry has now finally been put behind bars. While the murderous act committed by him and his cohorts cut short four young lives, he walked around free for 38 years. During those years, he openly bragged that he "blew up a bunch of n****rs back in Birmingham." His ex-wife testified during the trial that Cherry was proud of his membership in the Klan and liked to show off his white robe. She recalled that he once pointed to the concrete steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and said that he placed the bomb and lit the fuse. She also testified that Cherry was with Chambliss and Blanton when the bomb was built.
Even when Cherry was put on trial, people could see the difference between how the system treats this racist and how Black people are regularly brutalized and humiliated in the courts. Cherry was allowed out on bond and never required to come to court in shackles. After Cherry was sentenced, the judge gave him no lecture about the horrendous acts he committed--instead, the judge told this monster, "Good luck, sir."
One of the main arguments made by Cherry's attorney in the courtroom was that he should not be convicted because he was just one of many, many racists in Alabama in 1963--including the police, local government officials, and the governor, George Wallace. The lawyer recalled how Wallace stood on the steps of the University of Alabama and declared, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" Indeed, Cherry and his fellow Klansmen were serving the interests of the white supremacist power structure that enforced vicious Jim Crow laws and carried out violent attacks on Black people.
For Black people in Birmingham, the conviction of one of the KKK bombers is a bittersweet victory. A Black woman activist in her 50s told the RW after the verdict," I think it was a good verdict. I wasn't looking for that verdict. We thought it was going to be a hung jury. The evening after the verdict, we sang, had speeches, marched around the park [Ingram Park, where many demonstrations were held in the '60s]. We had about 500 people, white and Black. We just celebrated outside the church, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. It was real, real, real good. It was just joy. It was a good turnout. And lots of white people came out."
A Black man who has been active in the struggle to convict Cherry told the RW , "It was great even though it was a long time coming. The man has been guilty for 39 years. If he had been put on trial in 1963, he would never have gotten a guilty verdict. Back then anybody could go around and kill a Black because it didn't mean nothing, it was a step above killing a dog."
People in Birmingham told the RW over and over again that they feel deeply outraged that to get even this little bit of justice, they had to fight the whole government and the courts. Many youth and others said that even though official Jim Crow is off the books, oppression and discrimination runs deep in the everyday life of Black people. One youth told the RW , "The police here, they plant shit on you, they are all over us, it is more intense now. The criminal justice system is just that, the criminal justice system."
A Black man, playing chess at a local hangout, expressed a common sentiment among Black people in Birmingham. He told the RW , "Any Black person you talk to, we're all bitter because we know we'll never get justice. The man has lived his life. It's too little, too late. If four white kids had been killed. Whooooo! Justice would've been done in two or three days."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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