In the tumultuous, almost-unhinged year of 1963, Birmingham, Ala., was a mean place dominated by white supremacists and the vile politicians they owned, including the state’s segregationist governor, George C. Wallace.
Birmingham was also a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan. Beyond that, its police chief, Eugene “Bull” Connor, was more than willing to unleash violence on anyone brave enough to participate in public protests against the status quo, and that included civil rights advocates such as Martin Luther King Jr., who wound up writing his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that year.
Also celebrated was the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The joy and momentum of the civil rights movement provoked a volatile anger and outrage in Bull Connor’s Birmingham.
It should not have been a surprise when a bomb exploded one September Sunday morning at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four girls — 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair — and injuring many more.
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If the murders did not surprise many in Birmingham, they did shock much of the rest of the nation and, in the end, helped the civil rights movement make unexpected progress, which was exactly what the perpetrators didn’t want. In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act.
But in racist Birmingham, it took decades to bring KKK member Thomas E. Blanton Jr. to trial on charges of killing the four girls. He finally was convicted of the murders in 2001, as was another KKK member, Bobby Frank Cherry, in 2002. Cherry died in 2004, but Blanton has remained incarcerated.
If there is any good news in this horrible chapter of American history it is that an Alabama parole board has just denied early release to Blanton, now 78. It was the right decision. In fact, justice would be served if Blanton lived out the rest of his days in prison. It seems a small price to pay for the death of four young girls whose futures were obliterated by an act of racial hatred.
This was Blanton’s first opportunity to come before a parole board and seek release. Not only did the board deny him his wishes, but it said his next parole hearing would not be for five more years, the maximum possible.
The laws that were in effect when Blanton was convicted did not allow for life in prison without parole. So after 15 years the parole board had no choice but to consider releasing him, though that would have been against the wishes of several organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which wrote to the board to oppose freeing Blanton. The board was wise to listen to such pleas.
Conditions in Alabama today obviously are different than they were in the 1960s. A clear example is that Alabama’s attorney general, Luther Strange, made it clear to officials that he didn’t think Blanton should be paroled: “The cold-blooded callousness of his hate crime is not diminished by the passage of time,” he said, “nor is any punishment sufficient to expunge the evil he unleashed.”
Not only that, Strange said, but Blanton has “never shown any remorse whatsoever.”
In so many ways, America continues to deal with the repercussions of slavery, Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation. Each time one of these old civil rights era court cases comes to the public’s attention it’s an opportunity to educate a new generation about what many Americans got wrong about race relations in the past, about what progress has been made and about what still needs to be done.
But at least Americans now aren’t forced to figure out how to live with a freed Thomas Blanton in their midst.