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A step toward justice

The arrests of two men in connection with the 1963 bombing of an Alabama church should serve to remind us of the struggle for equality and those who died for it.

On a warm fall Sunday at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., four young girls were getting ready for the Youth Day service. The sermon topic was to be "The Love That Forgives." But those four young girls didn't even make it into the sanctuary before a bomb, almost certainly set by four Klansmen, exploded. It scarred the old bricks, shattered the stained-glass windows depicting Jesus as the light of the world, wounded several people and killed Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins. Denise McNair was 11; the others were 14.

That was in 1963: a moment when the nation understood that there were white people in the South prepared to murder children so they would never have to vote with, eat with, or sit in equality with black people.

Justice has never been done in this case. By May of 1965, the FBI had identified four suspects: Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton Jr. The evidence against them was strong. But the FBI, obsessed with spying on Martin Luther King Jr. and compiling dossiers on freedom marchers, did nothing.

Eventually, Robert Chambliss was convicted on state murder charges in 1977, dying in prison in 1985. Herman Cash was never charged and died in 1994. Cherry and Blanton went free _ until now. Finally, after the case was reopened in 1997, they have been arrested for the murders of those four young girls. It is said that members of their own families, maybe with the heavy weight of old evil on their souls, provided evidence against them.

It's about time. Justice for those, both black and white, martyred during the movement has been slow. It took 28 years to convict white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith of the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. No one was ever convicted of the 1955 murder of the teenager Emmett Till, though two white men admitted killing him. No one has ever been convicted of the murders of voting rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964.

So the arrest of Cherry and Blanton, even after all these years, is a significant step forward for Birmingham (the city once so riven with race hatred it was called "the Johannesburg of the South"), the families of the girls and even the FBI, an organization that largely stood by during the 1960s while civil rights demonstrators were beaten, arrested and sometimes killed.

It's tempting to want to forget the tear gas, the fire hoses, the truncheons, the blood, the bodies hanging like Spanish moss from Southern trees. Americans prefer to look to an imagined rosy future rather than to a concrete, dark past.

But we must not forget the struggle for equality, and we must not forget those who died in it. No matter how many years go by, the unresolved murders of the civil rights movement should weigh on all our consciences.

The voices of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins cry out down the years for justice.