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Letter from a Birmingham trial


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- On the day the state of Alabama rested its case against a man who may have been one of the most despicable enemies of the nightmare-filled struggle for civil rights, Lillie Brown was laid to rest.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- On the day the state of Alabama rested its case against a man who may have been one of the most despicable enemies of the nightmare-filled struggle for civil rights, Lillie Brown was laid to rest.

By the end of the day, that seemed somehow fitting.

"Marching" Lillie Brown, a Birmingham resident, became legendary for her dedication to the movement as she shadowed Martin Luther King Jr. around the nation and walked in nearly every march he led. She faced the dogs, fire hoses and every other brutish obstacle that outlaws and lawmen could throw in the way of the nation's march to freedom.

She was buried here Saturday.

Thomas Blanton fought for the other side. It was left to a jury to say how hard -- or how dirty. He admits, without shame or evident remorse, that he was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan, which made no secret that its intention was to retain segregation and white supremacy by whatever means necessary.

He was on trial here in the murder of four girls who were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963.

It is a good thing Lillie Brown was not here for it. It is good she was not here to see the half-empty courtroom, good she was not here to hear the laughter.

She might have felt that Birmingham, a Gettysburg among civil rights battlefields, no longer cared about bringing its war criminals to justice.

And she would have been right.

She also would have been wrong.

* * *

Gwendolyn Little has reported to the Jefferson County Courthouse every morning of the trial and stayed till the judge's gavel ended the day. She always claimed a spot near the front of the line even though only once did seating come close to running out.

Little was 16 years old that Sunday in 1963. "I was a member of Dr. King's brother's church, Rev. A.D. King. We had a bomb threat called that same morning and we evacuated but we didn't get bombed."

Little said she was active with marches since she was 12 and, by the time she was 14, was deeply involved in voter registration drives.

"I'm here to pray every day that justice will be brought forth -- and it will," she said.

"Sarah's supposed to testify today. I hear she's doing real good." Little was excited by the prospect. "Chris is supposed to be here, too," she added. "You know Chris," she said as if everybody does or should know him. "He always carries himself well."

Sarah is the sister of Addie Mae Collins, one of the girls killed in the blast. Sarah had stopped to tie a sash while her sister and the other girls went into the ladies room, where the bomb exploded. She spent two months in the hospital and lost an eye.

Chris is Christopher McNair, who has for 37 years hung onto a palm-sized remembrance of his daughter Denise, who was 11 when she died in the blast. It is the piece of concrete that was imbedded in her skull by the explosion.

The prosecution concluded its case emotionally, with McNair explaining that the piece of mortar was the first thing he saw when he went to the morgue to identify his daughter's body, and with Sarah Collins Rudolph repeating her futile call for her sister in the seconds after the explosion.

"Addie!" she called out plaintively in the echoing silence of the half-full courtroom. "Adddddie!"

Just as it had in 1963, her call went unanswered.

The appearance of John Robbins didn't create the same excitement for Little as McNair and Rudolph. "That's his lawyer over there," she said in the driest of voices. Her disappointment was not shared by the four people directly in front of her in line, all of them, two women, a man and a boy, dressed in dark suits.

"We're just here to see you in action," one of the women said as she reached out to give Robbins a hug.

Little was quiet as the scene in front of her played itself out, an unmistakable reminder that the case had two sides.

In court, the foursome sat near the defense table and exchanged smiles and waves with Blanton.

* * *

"Where is everybody?" Dempsey Woody Jr. demanded on the steps of the courthouse during a recess. "Talk is easy. They ought to be here to say they want to see justice done. I've been here ever since Tuesday."

Woody said he was so embarrassed that he lied when his boss cautioned that the courtroom would be so crowded that he wouldn't be able to get in. Woody told him he was probably right.

Now, he was angry. The more of the case he heard, the more he was convinced justice was not going to be served.

"They've had this stuff since '65," he said, referring to tape recordings the FBI covertly made of Blanton in 1964 and 1965 with the help of a paid informer. "The bastard who had all this stuff ought to go to jail, the guy in charge of the archives."

He voiced concerns heard often in Birmingham: If the FBI has had all of this evidence of criminal acts in its archives, why is it just being brought out? If they spent the better part of two years secretly recording Blanton, they must have done the same with others. Where are those tapes? Why has the government allowed criminals who routinely committed atrocities against black people to grow peacefully into old age?

Eight blocks from the courthouse, Arthur Harris, a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Kevin Dudley, a broadcast graduate of UAB, were shooting video of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church during the trial. But the video had nothing to do with the trial. It was for a recruitment video for the university's fledgling African-American Studies Program.

"It's laughable," said Harris, a senior who said earlier trials inspired him to pursue a law degree. "Even if he's convicted, that's still not justice."

Blanton, 62, has lived his life as have all the others who committed crime in the '60s, he said.

"It shows you that justice is not just slow, it's corrupt."

He speculated that many people chose not to attend the trial for that reason: Blanton is not reparation for the pain inflicted on Birmingham by klan members and other supremacists. Blanton is a drop in the bucket.

"This is a bigger story nationally than it is in Birmingham," he said. "A lot of people are still here who lived through that stuff. They don't want to reopen those old wounds. It's too painful."

A car pulled toward the curb near Harris.

"Is that Kelly Ingram Park over there?" a young woman asked through the car window, motioning toward the end of the block where a group of people were listening to old rhythm and blues.

"Yes, that's it," Harris confirmed. "You can reserve it for special events," he explained after the woman drove off.

* * *

Birmingham couldn't forget the horrors of the '60s if it tried. And it doesn't.

Nowhere is the era more deeply etched in this city's being than at the intersection of Sixteenth Street and Sixth Avenue. On one corner stands the church Blanton was charged with bombing. Across from it, stands the Civil Rights Institute, a place that engulfs you in the sights and sounds of that struggle. Across the street from that is Kelly Ingram Park, "A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation," dedicated to the "foot soldiers" of Birmingham's civil rights movement. A circular path through the park, called Freedom Walk, is a jolting walk through a gantlet in sculpture of vicious police dogs, fire hoses, jails and bombings used to dissuade determined marchers.

* * *

In court, there was laughter while Mitchell Burns, the state's star witness, was on the stand. He's the man the FBI paid $200 a month to ride around with Thomas Blanton and record incriminating conversation.

What he recorded was a diary of the world black people and others who joined the fight against segregation knew existed, but only through its actions, not through its private conversations. As Burns and Blanton rode around in Burns' '56 Chevy, swilling vodka and having their sick version of fun, it is impossible to ignore the pervasiveness of their hatred.

Two to three times a week, for months, they amused themselves by going by the bombed church. One night, the tapes revealed, Burns asked Blanton if he hadn't wanted to hang around to see the results of his handiwork. Blanton lamented "They wouldn't let me. They had everything blocked off."

There is laughter on the tape and in the courtroom.

On another night, Burns admitted, he burned a cross in a 70-year-old black woman's yard because she was selling liquor to minors. Mitchell, now 74, said he knew she was guilty because he had bought liquor from her himself.

Again laughter in the courtroom.

Burns said he joined the klan because it was the thing to do. "All my relatives were in the klan. A lot of my friends."

Another chuckle from the gallery.

* * *

Beyond the half-empty courtroom, Birmingham went about life normally: Women from all over the state turned their little girls into little women with too much makeup and too much hair, waxed into motionlessness, to compete for the Little Miss Diamond/USA crown. Partiers blared music in Kelly Ingram Park. People who didn't know how to get to the Jefferson County Courthouse before the trial still didn't.

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