It was 50 years ago today that five young girls prepared for Sunday worship service, as they did every Sunday. The girls were primping, as young girls do, in the basement of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, known as a regular meeting place for civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King.
A bomb ripped through the east wall of the church, killing four girls in Birmingham, Alabama , Addie Mae Collins, Denice McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley died in a blast they never saw coming…and probably wouldn’t have fathomed could happen . More than 20 other church members were injured as well.
“Life Magazine” featured an article on Sarah Collins, the younger sister of Addie Mae who died in the bombing. The article: “The Girl Who Lived: Portrait of a Birmingham Church Bombing Survivor, 1963 features poignant photos that alone could tell the story.
This bomb blast of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is regarded as a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.
FBI agents descended on the city, but no one wanted to talk. A full decade later, 1977, Robert “Dynamite” Chambliss was convicted for his part in the bombing, according to a press release from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They didn’t stop digging there. In the ’90s Special Agent Rob Langford re-opened the case and worked with Birmingham Police Sgt. Ben Herren. They worked the case full time.
The FBI sent dozens of agents to investigate, but reluctant witnesses and a lack of prosecutable evidence made it hard to bring the bombers to justice. It wasn’t until a decade later in 1977 that one of the bombers, Robert “Dynamite” Chambliss, was convicted for his role in the case, but evidence still suggested more conspirators. In the mid-’90s FBI Birmingham Special Agent in Charge Rob Langford re-opened the case, assigning senior agent Bill Fleming and recruiting Birmingham Police Department Sgt. Ben Herren to work it full-time.
Neither wanted to take the case. The few witness who had talked had died. “It was the ultimate cold case,” Herren (now retired) said in the press release.
It seemed impossible, but they started rattling cages and knocking on doors that had been slammed in their faces previously. That went on for 15 months, said Herren.
The big break came as it often does because people who do bad things can’t keep their mouths shut.
Herren and Fleming tracked down Bobby Cherry, known as a Ku Klux Klan member in Birmingham at the time of the bombing. Cherry had relocated to Texas.
When the agents grilled Cherry for four hours, Cherry called a press conference, and the case was blown open. People who wouldn’t talk or who had forgotten that the case was ongoing started calling the FBI with information.
“This was the best thing to happen to our investigation,” Fleming said.
By the end of it all, the pair (and countless others) built a murder case against Tommy Blanton who had been suspected very early on. Eventually they found old reel-to-reel tapes which featured Blanton telling his wife and another unnamed man about the bombing.
Because of the tireless efforts of this pair and their discovery of the tapes, it took a jury less than a few hours to convict Blanton for the murders. He remains in prison today.
Relying heavily on the tapes, a jury in 2001 needed only a couple hours to render a guilty verdict against Blanton on state murder charges. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he remains today. Cherry was convicted in 2002 for his role as a co-conspirator and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2004.
As for Fleming and Herren, the two are still friends. They solving of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing is the greatest accomplishment of their careers. “Even though it looked like a tremendous uphill battle, we finally got justice for the little girls,” said Herren.