On Sept. 15, 1963, there was a bombing at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was one of the most bizarre crimes of the civil rights movement.
The men convicted of the crime did not go to jail until decades later.
The Baptist church was a center for civil rights meetings, and just a few days earlier, courts had ordered the desegregation of Birmingham’s schools.
Four young girls attending Sunday school—Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, aged 11 to 14—were killed when a bomb exploded at the church. Twenty others were injured.
Bobby Frank Cherry, a demolitions expert, and three other white supremacists—Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton, and Herman Cash—were under investigation within days of the bombing.
However, two years later, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declined to pursue the case, saying the chances for conviction were “remote.” In 1968, federal authorities shut down the investigation.
In the 1970s, after a U.S. Justice Department investigation revealed that Hoover had blocked evidence, Jefferson County, Ala., prosecutors reopened the case.
More than a decade-and-a-half after the crime, the ringleader, Robert Chambliss, was convicted of one count of murder in the death of Denise McNair in 1977. He died in prison in 1985 without ever publicly admitting a role in the bombing. Herman Cash died in 1994 and was never tried.
The remaining two suspects in the case, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were finally indicted in 2000—more than two decades after Chambliss’s conviction—when an FBI agent in Birmingham obtained more than 9,000 FBI documents and surveillance tapes that had been kept from the original prosecutors.
Blanton was convicted of murder in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison. In Cherry’s trial, several of his relatives came forward to testify against him. Cherry had bragged to a number of them over the years about the bombing. In 2002, he was convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2004.