U.S. senator visited Auburn, discussed trials of two Klansmen suspected of infamous Alabama church bombing

Published: April 26, 2019
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Doug Jones gave a history lesson to the Auburn University community this week.

It is history that he relied on to successfully prosecute two of the four Klansmen suspected of bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963. Four young black girls were killed in the blast.

The U.S. senator from Alabama was on campus April 24 as part of Capitol on the Plains, a Student Government Association outreach program. Auburn’s student leadership invited Jones to speak on the nationally known case.

SGA President Mary Margaret Turton called Jones’ presentation “informative and impactful.”

A standing room-only crowd filled the auditorium of Broun Hall to hear about the landmark case. Earlier in the day, Jones visited areas of Lee County devastated by tornadoes last month. Jones called the recovery efforts “remarkable,” but said much work still needed to be done.

Jones was just a 9-year-old “white kid from Fairfield [Alabama]” when the bombing occurred. He was a second-year law student at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law when the suspected ringleader, Robert Chambliss, was put on trial in 1977. Jones admitted to skipping classes to watch the case.

Chambliss, who Jones said was known as “Dynamite Bob,” was sentenced to life in prison.

When Jones became the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama in 1997, he was in a position to file charges against Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry for their role in the bombings. Herman Cash, the fourth suspect, died in 1994 without being charged.

Acting as a deputy attorney general in Alabama, Jones prosecuted both men in state court, convicting Blanton in 2001 and Cherry in 2002. Blanton remains in state prison; Cherry died behind bars in 2004.

Jones said he built his cases against both men by starting with the church, what he called “the fifth victim.”

The 16th Street Baptist Church was a prominent meeting place for civil rights leaders, and the city of Birmingham was volatile.

“As the Civil Rights Movement grew, so did Klan violence,” Jones said.

The church itself became the likely target because it advertised a youth worship service on its marquee, he said. Members of the United Klans of America had been pursuing young people since a federal court ordered Alabama to uphold the integration of public schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that racial segregation of children in public schools to be unconstitutional.

On June 11, 1963, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace famously stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama, blocking two black students from enrolling. The next day, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi.

In August, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. On Sept. 15, at 10:22 a.m., five young black girls were in the ladies’ lounge of their church, getting ready for the worship service.

Jones said the blast was so powerful, cars were mangled, windows across the street were blown out and the church’s concrete back steps were obliterated. The bomb was placed at the base of the steps, below the lounge, which Jones said took the brunt of the blast.

A crucial piece of evidence in Jones’ trial of Blanton was a taped conversation between Blanton and his wife Jean. On the recording, which sat in FBI files for 37 years before someone listened to it, Blanton admits to making the bomb. Jean’s comments indicated she had lied to the FBI.

Jones called family members, including Cherry’s ex-wife, for his trial. Willadean Brogdon and others testified Cherry bragged about his participation in the bombing.

His last witness was Sarah Collins Rudolph, the sole survivor of the bombing. Rudolph, who lost an eye, still lives in Birmingham. Rudolph is the younger sister of Addie Mae Collins, who died in the blast.

Jones said it took a jury a couple of hours to convict Blanton and six hours for Cherry.

Although he has made the same presentation on the bombing cases countless times since their conclusions, Jones said he still finds himself struck by a photograph of Denise McNair. The youngest victim at 11 years old is seen smiling and clutching a Chatty Cathy doll.

For Jones, the image represents hope, hope for a planet “to respect and love each other.”

He encouraged the Auburn students in the audience to do things outside their comfort zone and “exchange in dialogues, not monologues.” It’s a practice he tries in bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.

Jones even referenced Alabama’s most famous fictional lawyer, Atticus Finch, who in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

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