Day 751: Lights Out In Birmingham

originally published January 20, 2014

Today many of my American counterpart civil servants are enjoying the joyous meaty pulp of a long weekend. I don’t blame you; for many, the deep-freeze has passed and it’s once again tolerable to expose one’s scalp to the outdoor elements. But today serves a greater purpose than allowing the opportunity to sleep in and maybe catch a late-morning broadcast of The Price Is Right. It’s important to remember that this is a day to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and all the less-frequently-uttered names who poured their everything into the Civil Rights movement. 

Today’s a day to bring to mind the atrocities that America had to go through just to reach the rickety rung of tenuous equality that exists today. Today’s a day to point out to your local white supremacist (and yes, they still exist) that the ‘Godless’ label they so carelessly slap on Muslims because of the suicide bombings and I.E.D.s overseas might as well be slapped on their forefathers, who held a similar value on human life that they myopically deemed to be less than human. 

Today’s a day to remember that extremism of any kind is unproductive and dangerous. That the so-called enemy who doesn’t subscribe to your beliefs, who looks different, talks different, or who has a different idea of what constitutes ‘normal’ behind closed bedroom doors… that enemy doesn’t always look like you want them to. Sometimes they look like this: 

Up in the top row, that’s Addie Mae Collins (age 14) and Cynthia Wesley (14). The two on the bottom are Denise McNair (11) and Carole Robertson (14). Their lives were snuffed out in the quick gasp of a hot wind when a time-delay bomb blew apart the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on a September Sunday morning in 1963. The reason for their demise? A quartet of locals weren’t fond of the girls’ skin color. That’s all, nothing personal. 

Prior to the blast, Birmingham wore the ugly nickname of ‘Bombingham’ around its shoulders. More than fifty racially-motivated bombings had taken place in the city since World War I. Lest this sound like an all-out race war, keep in mind that these were white people bombing black homes, black stores and black institutions, not so much the other way around. And while it’s unfair to paint every white citizen in the city with the same ugly splotchy red of all-out racism, the fecal attitude of Birmingham’s racism dripped rancidly upon the populace from a single, easily-identifiable source: 

Alabama Governor George Wallace was a hard-core segregationist and from what I’ve read, a well-rounded asshole. He had just confided to the New York Times a week before the blasts that integration could be stopped in Alabama with “a few first class funerals.” Well, George got his funerals and what he found was quite the opposite: the world media was – outside of the deep south – just about unanimously in agreement that segregation was not the solution, but rather the specific problem that led to this atrocity. 

While the city posted a $52,000 reward for the arrest of the church bombers, Governor Wallace tried to look like a nice guy and ponied up another $5000. Martin Luther King Jr. was less than impressed by George’s faux-caring, telling the governor in a wire that “the blood of four little children.. is on your hands.” Dr. King showed up – along with over 8,000 mourners and 800 clergymen of all hues – at the massive funeral held for three of the girls (one family kept their service separate), and addressed the crowd with one of his trademark earth-rattling speeches. 

The headlines had awoken people all over the country, in places where integration was already the norm and in other spots where there were simply no black people in the neighborhood to make it an issue. The Civil Rights Act was passed the following June. That wasn’t the happy-ending-roll-the-credits that sensible folks had been hoping for, but it was a huge leap in the right direction. 

This is ‘Dynamite Bob’, known to the inside of his wallet as Robert Edward Chambliss. A witness spotted him placing the bomb underneath the church steps, and his was the only name to be tied to the massacre at the time. Dynamite Bob was a member of the local Ku Klux Klan, and when the police came to see him, they found 122 sticks of dynamite, for which he had no permit. And that’s what they nailed him for. 

Six months in prison and a $100 fine for a lack of paperwork. The FBI had their list of suspects, in fact they had a pretty solid rundown of four smarmy souls (including Dynamite Bob) who were in on the crime. But they lacked admissible evidence, and pulling testimony from Birmingham locals was not an easy task. The other three men on their radar were Bobby Frank Cherry, a demolitions expert and former Marine, Herman Frank Cash, a married truck driver with two kids, and Thomas Blanton. 

But even with the federal finger ready to point its accusing tip at these four men, no charges were filed. There was simply no way of knowing if the courts would convict. 

Then along came Bill Baxley, the man with the superhero alter-ego name and the teeth-clenching determination to clean up this legal mess. Not long after Baxley was elected Attorney General of Alabama in 1971, he requested the FBI files and discovered that there were in fact actual suspects with names, but those names had been suppressed by the direct order of J. Edgar Hoover. Baxley  reopened the case and set his people to work. 

It took until November of 1977, but Dynamite Bob Chambliss – who was now 73 – was finally brought to trial for the bombing. He was found guilty and spent the last eight years of his petty little life behind bars. There were still a number of hurdles keeping the feds from tying a ribbon around the case and sending the other three suspects upstate (or cross-state, or wherever the prison is located relative to Birmingham, I don’t know). Clammed-up witnesses, and the lack of admissibility for their surveillances were holding the case back.  

Then the rules changed. 

Herman Cash died in 1994, having gotten away with his crime. Thomas Blanton was convicted of four counts of murder in 2001 at age 62. His golden years will be spent inside of a cell. Bobby Frank Cherry was also locked up, and died in prison in 2004. Justice was somewhat served, though far too late. These cruddy vermin were allowed too many years of freedom to call their prison sentence ‘justice’. 

The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is no doubt a significant stitch in the tattered quilt of Civil Rights that finally began to take shape in the mid-1960’s, but it doesn’t tell the entire story. It wasn’t the shining catalyst for absolute change and a collective societal re-evaluation. Even later that same day, while a community was still digging through rubble in search of survivors, 13-year-old Virgil Ware was ambushed with a bullet and murdered as he was riding his bike with his brother, and 16-year-old Johnny Robinson was shot to death by police after being caught throwing rocks at cars. Both in Birmingham. 

Civil Rights was not an easy hill to climb, and at some point today – perhaps between spins during the Showcase Showdown – we should all say a quiet thank-you to Dr. King for having brought a little reason to an unreasonable world. 

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