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BAPBOMB Church involvement in the black civil rights movement

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

BAPBOMB Church involvement in the black civil rights movement

Birmingham, Alabama’s, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church has a long history of involvement in the black civil rights movement. In 1946, after it hosted a meeting of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, police commissioner EUGENE “BULL” CONNOR visited the pastor and warned him that if such activities continued, God—acting through the KU KLUX KLAN—might “strike the church down.” Seventeen years later, when the church served as a rallying point for demonstrators led by Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., that threat was realized. On Sunday, September 15,
1963, a powerful bomb rocked the church. Four adolescent girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were killed in the blast; a fifth, Sarah Jean Collins, was permanently blinded in one eye.

Klan members were the prime suspects, with several names provided by Gary Rowe, a FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI) informant in the KKK since 1960. Director J. EDGAR HOOVER called the investigation—code named BAPBOMB—the bureau’s most intensive manhunt since the killing of JOHN DILLINGER; yet it was marked from the beginning by what journalist Diane McWhorter aptly calls a “leisurely pursuit of witnesses.”

When local police sought information on prime suspect Robert Chambliss, a violent Klansman known to his friends as “Dynamite Bob,” G-men falsely reported that they had mounted constant surveillance on Chambliss’s home the night before the bombing and observed nothing irregular. Results of FBI polygraph tests on
Chambliss and other Klan suspects were likewise withheld from Birmingham authorities, perhaps because Connor’s police force was known to be heavily infiltrated with Klansmen. Governor GEORGE WALLACE “beat the Kennedy crowd to the punch” soon after the bombing when suspects Chambliss, Charles Cagle, and James Hall were charged with misdemeanor counts of possessing unregistered dynamite. All three were convicted and sentenced to six months in jail, their sentences suspended by the court. A few days later, James Hall joined Rowe (and countless other Klansmen) on the FBI’s payroll as a full-time informant, vowing to help solve the BAP-
BOMB case

In 1964 the bureau obtained tape recordings of Klansman Thomas Blanton, Jr., discussing details of the church bombing with his wife in their home.
Later reports claimed the tapes were “barely audible” without computer enhancement, unavailable in the 1960s, but the issue remains contested today.
Before year’s end, G-men knew beyond doubt that the bombers were Blanton, Chambliss, Herman Frank Cash, and Bobby Lee Cherry. In 1965 Hoover ruled out prosecution on grounds that chances of conviction by an Alabama jury were “remote.”

A five-year federal statute of limitations officially closed the case in 1968, yet FBI historian Robert Kessler contends that “the investigation continued until 1971.”
Be that as it may, the Blanton tapes and other BAPBOMB evidence went into storage after Hoover’s death in 1972, and FBI headquarters made no initial offer of assistance until five years later when Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the investigation. Finally, after Baxley threatened to hold a Washington press conference
with survivors of the four slain girls, G-men released a portion of their file on Robert Chambliss, while withholding all material on Blanton and the other bombers. Chambliss was indicted for murder in September 1977 and convicted two months later, largely on the testimony of a niece who heard him boasting of the crime in 1963. Chambliss received a life prison term with a 10-year minimum before parole; he died in custody in 1985.

Accounts vary as to what the FBI did next. Robert Kessler maintains that Birmingham agent-in-charge G. Robert Langford reopened the BAPBOMB case in 1993 “without telling headquarters” and that he subsequently “found” the Blanton tapes (allegedly
mislaid and forgotten since 1972).
An alternate report, published in April 2000, claimed that the FBI reopened its investigation in 1997 after the chance discovery of “new and credible” evidence—that is, the tapes maintained in bureau files since 1964.
In either case, bomber Herman Cash died in 1994 without facing criminal charges. A grand jury convened to study the case in November 1998, its review culminating in the May 2000 arrest of aging Klansmen Blanton and Cherry on charges of first-degree murder. Even then, controversy endured: Cherry claimed that G-men had offered to reduce the charges if he would “lie” under oath about Blanton; Blanton’s daughter told reporters, “The FBI told dad, ‘We’re going to pin it on somebody. We don’t care who.’”

Agent Craig Dahle of the Birmingham field office denied the charges, telling reporters, “It wouldn’t happen that way.”
Thomas Blanton was convicted of murder on May 1, 2001, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
A year later, on May 22, 2002, Bobby Cherry was convicted and received an identical sentence.
In the wake of Blanton’s conviction, Bill Baxley voiced outrage at the FBI’s long suppression of recordings and other evidence in the case: “What excuse can the FBI have for allowing Mr. Blanton to go free for 24 years with this smoking-gun evidence hidden in its files?” he asked. “If we had had those tapes, we would have unequivocally been able to convict Blanton [in 1977]. The FBI, for all intents and purposes, gave a ‘get out of jail free card’ to Tommy Blanton.”

Former assistant attorney general John Young recalled of the 1977 Chambliss prosecution, “[The FBI] denied having any more evidence than what they gave us, and it was hard enough getting what we got.” Director Louis Freeh agreed, calling the
BAPBOMB case “a disgrace to the FBI” and telling the media, “That case should have been prosecuted in 1964. It could have been prosecuted in 1964.
The evidence was there.”
Agent Dahle, in Birmingham, told reporters that there was “no easy answer” to Baxley’s questions but insisted, “I think it is wrong to assert that there was any effort to block anything.”
Newsman Kessler blamed the whole thing on simple ignorance: “Instead of withholding evidence from Alabama Attorney General Baxley in 1977, as Baxley claimed, the FBI did not realize it had the material.” While that assertion strained credulity, Kessler went even further, giving the bureau credit for Alabama’s state prosecution of Tom Blanton:
“Because of the tenacity of Langford . . . and . . . others involved,” Kessler wrote, “the FBI had brought to justice a man who had blown up four girls because of the color of their skin.”


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