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    A Times Editorial

    A 38-year wait for justice

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


    Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins would be middle-aged women now. If they had settled down in their native Birmingham, Ala., they surely would marvel at the positive changes that have come to the city since 1963. They would have seen their black neighbors welcomed in schools, parks and other public facilities that were long closed to them. They would have seen them rise to positions of political leadership in a city that long denied black people the right to vote.

    And they would see a new generation of black and white children who dress up on Sunday mornings, attend church with their families and then return safely home.

    Things have changed so dramatically in Birmingham that recent transplants -- and even longtime residents with faulty memories or defective consciences -- may not fully apprehend the city's shameful past. But the Rev. John H. Cross still smells the dynamite, still has the nightmares.

    Cross was about to begin youth services that Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, when a bomb blew apart the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing 11-year-old Denise and her three 14-year-old friends, injuring dozens more and shocking a community that had become inured to the more commonplace brutalities of that racist era.

    Almost 38 years later, Cross, now retired and living in Georgia, still waits for some semblance of justice for the four girls killed in what was supposed to be the sanctuary of their church. No real justice is possible, because the four Klansmen implicated in the bombing, unlike the four girls killed in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, were able to live full lives. However, the years have not been kind. Thomas Blanton Jr., 62, just now standing trial for the 1963 murders, looks more pathetic than threatening. The other suspect still alive, 71-year-old Bobby Frank Cherry, had his trial postponed indefinitely pending a mental competency evaluation. Another suspect, Herman Cash, died without ever being charged. Only "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, convicted in 1977 on the basis of evidence belatedly provided by a relative, had his freedom interrupted in his prime. He died in prison.

    Blanton's trial is the culmination of an investigation that began in 1993 after a group of black ministers persuaded the FBI's Birmingham office to reopen the case. The trial also should reopen a civic self-examination that is more important than the possible imprisonment of a broken-down old Klansman. The bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred only weeks after then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace declared "segregation forever" in his inauguration speech. It occurred after Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor had begun turning attack dogs, water hoses and truncheons on peaceful civil rights demonstrators. And it occurred after the complacent good citizens of Birmingham and dozens of other communities throughout the South and the rest of the nation had shown they would look the other way whenever possible.

    The trial of Thomas Blanton Jr. is a testament to Rev. Cross and the other patient seekers of justice who, even after almost 38 years, refused to look the other way.

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