In Birmingham, a chance for justice, long delayed

"I would like to believe that the negative extremes of Birmingham's past will resolve into the positive and utopian extreme of her future; that the sins of a dark yesterday will be redeemed in the achievement of a bright tomorrow."

- Martin Luther King Jr.

It was a typical Sunday at the Marshall household. Josephine spent the morning getting her three children ready for church. She fed them, dressed them in "pretty little clothes," and sent them out the door.

She would soon follow, she told her husband, when she had a minute to pull herself together. A typical Sunday. Except for that nagging dream she'd had a week earlier. "I dreamt this bus drove up to my house and my 14-year-old jumped out and shouted, 'Momma, they bombed the church.' "

Ms. Marshall is remembering that Sunday morning, some 38 years ago, as she patters around the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church here. She stops at the place where her dream became reality. "This is where they put the bomb. You can still see the cracks in the wall, here," she says, pointing.

It is considered one of the most virulent acts of the civil rights era, one so jarring that it galvanized a nation: Four young black girls were killed in the dynamite blast as they primped in a basement bathroom on Sept. 15, 1963.

Marshall's children were not among those killed, but she wouldn't know that until hours after the blast as the rubble was cleared away and parishioners dug out.

Today, in a different time and mental atmosphere, one of two surviving former Klu Klux Klan members suspected in the Birmingham church bombing is finally being tried in a state courtroom here. Opening statements are set for early next week.

Certainly, prosecutors have their work cut out for them. Not only do they need to prove that former Klansman Thomas Blanton Jr. is partly to blame, they also need to educate a whole new generation about one of the nation's darkest chapters.

It won't be easy. Birmingham, like many cities in the deep South, has moved on, working hard to leave its ugly past behind. Today it is a different city with different concerns.

While some 70 percent of Birmingham's residents are African-American, interest in the trial has been minimal. In fact, the possibility of a new domed football stadium has been getting more airtime on local news stations.

"There are those in the community who are celebrating the fact that people who 37 years ago would likely have been acquitted are now being tried by a racially mixed jury," says Jack Davis, a civil rights historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "But there are others who wonder why we are wasting our resources on this, dredging up the controversial past."

The view of today's youth

Donald Bilbro and Albert Walker are two such residents. While both were young at the time of the bombing - and on opposite sides of the racial divide - today they sit together at lunch in downtown Birmingham, talking and joking about work.

Mr. Bilbro, who is white, believes the Klansmen should have been prosecuted a long time ago, but that the time is past. Now, he says, "the county is just wasting taxpayers' money chasing old guys who can't even think straight."

The two are members of Union Painters Local 57 and are working at the Jefferson County courthouse where the trial will be held. They have been friends for nearly 20 years now and say race relations here are good.

"This trial is just stirring things up, bringing more publicity," says Mr. Walker, an African-American, as he eats a French fry. "Half of 'em [the jurors] are so young, they don't even understand."

The 16th Street Church bombing is one of many attacks of its time that were never prosecuted, either because city officials wouldn't bring charges or because white juries wouldn't convict and prosecutors didn't think it was worth it to try. But across the South, a new generation of political and legal players are reopening old cases, often with great success.

The first real effort was the retrial of Byron De La Beckwith in 1994. He was finally found guilty of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi leader of the NAACP, in 1963 - 31 years after it happened.

Dr. Davis believes part of the reason for the trend is financial. Cities looking to draw companies and investors are trying to shake vestiges of the Old South. Mississippi has done a good job in helping to reinvent its image in the courtroom, with the conviction of Mr. Beckwith and again in 1998 with the conviction of former Klan imperial wizard Samuel Bowers.

Now it's Alabama's turn. Not only is the Blanton trial a signal that the political and legal system in Alabama has changed significantly since the 1960s, says Davis. "There's also a symbolic message for Alabama's black community that they are legitimate citizens of the state, and that their views and their values are an important part of the local national culture."

But if a conviction will help the city forgive, it will never make those who lived through it forget. "It is a thorn that will be in my heart for the rest of my life," says Marshall, sitting in the auditorium of the rebuilt church. "And every year about this time it starts to hurt."

'Bombingham,' revisited

Even before the blast, Birmingham was a violent place. By the late 1950s, it had the reputation as the most fiercely segregated city in the South. With nearly 50 unsolved bombings, it had earned the nickname "Bombingham."

Because the 16th Street Church was so centrally located, it was a natural place for protest meetings and civil rights activity. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was often a guest here.

So when Marshall heard the blast from her home miles away, she knew instinctively what had been targeted.

She raced to the church. When she arrived, police were struggling to hold back a crowd of 2,000 as the pastor sobbed into a megaphone: "The Lord is our shepherd. We shall not want."

The blast, a total of 10 sticks of dynamite, shook the church so hard that every stained-glass window was blown out and "chunks of concrete the size of footballs littered the basement," according to a news report at that time. "The only stained glass window in the church that remained in its frame showed Christ leading a group of little children. The face of Christ was blown out."

Marshall was being held back by police, their guns drawn. "I just kept screaming, 'I have three children in there, I have three children in there.' "

Then they started bringing out the four little girls, covered with sheets: Denise McNair, 11, and her friends Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all 14. "Parents were all standing around pulling their hair out," says Marshall. "We didn't know if our children were living or dead. I just kept praying, 'Oh Lord, have mercy.' "

The rioting grew worse (two other black teenagers will killed that day) so police dispersed the crowd. Marshall walked home - still not knowing what had happened to her three children, ages 6, 10, and 14. It would be six hours before her husband would bring them home safely.

The FBI named four suspects within days of the bombing: Blanton, Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, and Herman Frank Cash.

Chambliss, dubbed "Dynamite Bob" by his cronies, was the only one tried for the crime until now - but even that took 15 years. He was convicted in 1977 and died while serving a life sentence.

Cash died before he could be indicted along with Blanton and Cherry. Last week, a judge ruled that Mr. Cherry was not mentally competent to assist his lawyers. He may never stand trial.

Prosecutors admit that with such an old case and witnesses in their 80s, this is their last shot at resolving one of the most searing incidents in US civil rights history.

An epilogue

Even with all the emotional memories, Marshall doesn't seem bitter now. Clothed daintily in her pale pink pants and hot pink sweater, she talks just as easily about the bombing as she does about British literature and Nelson Rockefeller.

She even admits she loves the Jerry Springer Show. "They get on me about my show, but I learn a lot from the Springer show," she says, and then erupts into laughter.

She's also honest about her faith and feelings. "People say that God's will is always done," she says. For the first time this afternoon, her voice becomes strong. "But I never thought God was in that plan."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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