Nearly 37 years after the crime, authorities announced last week that two long-time suspects will stand trial for the murders of four black girls in the dynamite bombing of a Birmingham church. Thomas E. Blanton Jr., 61, and Frank Cherry, 69, both of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan at the height of the Southern civil rights movement, will be brought before the bar of justice. Prosecutors will not ask for the death penalty. Until now, only one man, Robert Chambliss, has been tried for the bombing. Chambliss was convicted of murder in 1977, sentenced to life and died in prison eight years later.
The latest indictments are the work of a new generation of Southern prosecutors whose persistence in reopening investigations of old civil rights murders reminds us, lest we forget, of the barbarism and madness of one of the ugliest periods in American history. The mad-dog racists who planted that bomb inside the Birmingham church had to have known that on that Sunday morning women and children would be among the casualties. The bodies of the four victims, from ages 11 to 14, all dressed in their Sunday white dresses, were found in the ruins of what had been a Sunday School room in the church basement.
What I want to know is how their murderers, whoever they are, have lived with themselves all these years. They most likely are regular churchgoers and good neighbors. How have they borne the burden of knowing they had killed innocent children in a house of worship? I wonder if they still devalue the lives of black people, including little children, as much as they did on that Sunday morning in 1963? Do they hate themselves for the evil they committed, or somewhere in their sick minds, do they still rationalize their crime?
A trial, even if it produces long-delayed justice, is not likely to answer these questions. Nor will the prosecution of Blanton and Cherry close the book on these murders. What about the politicians, newspaper editors, ministers and other so-called "respectable" citizens who provided the Klan and other haters with political and religious cover for their violent resistance to a non-violent civil rights movement? They will never be brought to trial or held accountable, except perhaps before God and in their own consciences. They bear as much blame for the murders of civil rights workers as the ignorant and hate-filled men who pulled the trigger on Medgar Evers or planted the bomb under the front steps of the Birmingham church, but they are beyond the law's reach.
Let us not forget the climate of those years when the civil rights movement was reaching a critical mass. The Klan and other extremists did the dirty work of white resistance, but they did not act alone.
After dynamite ripped through the Birmingham church, some religious leaders called for a tolling of the bells and prayers, both spoken and silent, in churches across the South. The bells in many churches were silent. Ironically, many of those who offered prayers had ruthlessly, and sometimes physically, barred the admission of blacks to their churches. In the congregations sat white men who served on juries that acquitted the murderers of civil rights activists in the face of overwhelming evidence of guilt. The failure of political and church leaders in the South to face up to the greatest moral issue of the 20th Century cannot be denied.
Even in Washington, in the halls of the U. S. Congress, the lack of concern and contrition was appalling. The day after the Birmingham bombing, the four speeches delivered by senators on this act of terrorism barely filled a single page in the Congressional Record.
Journalist I.F. Stone wrote at the time: "There was more indignation in the Senate over Nhu's pagoda raids in Saigon. If four children had been killed in the bombing of a Berlin church by communists, the country would be on the verge of war. But when four senators (Hart, Kuchel, Humphrey and Javits) framed a resolution asking that the Sunday after the Birmingham bombing be set aside as a national day of mourning, they knew their fellow senators too well even to introduce it. They sent it to the White House where it was lost in the shuffle. Despite the formal expressions of regret, the sermons, the editorials and the marches, neither white America nor its leadership was really moved."
If Blanton and Cherry are convicted of the Birmingham church murders, we will be tempted to say justice has finally been done. And maybe it will have been, to a point. But what about those Southerners, many of them pillars of their community, who encouraged defiance, excused violence and made the South a moral wasteland in those years? Many of them are still "respectable" citizens who don't believe they are implicated in the violence. They will never be held accountable, which is why justice can never be done in this case.