)Date: Tue, 22 Jul 1997 18:21:34 -0700 (PDT)
Blacks hope for best as Feds reopen bombing case
By Elizabeth Wine, Reuters, 22 July 1997
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (July 21, 1997 11:21 p.m. EDT) - The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth believes he knows why only one man was convicted for the infamous Ku Klux Klan bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four young black girls in 1963.
"It is well known," the 75-year-old civil rights leader said. "There was collusion all along between the FBI, local law enforcement and the Klan."
The attack on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church 34 years ago shocked most Americans and became a notorious symbol of the violence Southern whites were capable of in their resistance to the civil rights movement.
Klan member Robert Chambliss was convicted of the bombing in 1977. He died in prison eight years later at the age of 81. But civil rights leaders say police have always known that Chambliss was not the only white man behind the attack.
"I hate to say it but I think all of these people would have been caught if these men had killed four little white girls," said Abraham Woods, who heads the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership conference, a civil rights group founded by Martin Luther King Jr.
"Unfortunately, black life has not been so valuable. There is still a lot of racism in the state of Alabama," he added.
For many blacks, news this month that the FBI had reopened the case for the fourth time since 1971 stirred painful memories of bombings, beatings, lynchings and other violence once perpetrated against them with the full knowledge of local white authorities.
Shuttlesworth vividly remembers the day in 1956 when he realized local police not only knew members of the Ku Klux Klan but were resigned to do nothing to end their activities. A bomb had exploded at Shuttlesworth's home. At the time, he was pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, which was a headquarters for civil rights campaigners.
A young white policeman, hat in hand and crying, emerged from a crowd of journalists, city officials and neighbors that had gathered outside. "I'm sorry, Reverend. I'd never have thought they'd go this far," the officer said, adding: "If I were you, Reverend, I'd get out of town as fast as I can."
Officers from the same Birmingham police department later became a part of the history of the civil rights era when they confronted black demonstrators with firehoses and attack dogs in front of network television cameras.
When civil rights leaders decided to move their headquarters from the Bethel church to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, hate crimes followed. Just after 10 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, while young girls were changing into their choir robes in a basement lavatory, a bomb went off in the church.
The explosion killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and 11-year-old Denise McNair. Two people died and 19 were injured in subsequent rioting.
Two surviving parents -- Chris McNair, the father of Denise, and Alpha Robertson, Carole's mother -- declined to comment on the latest reopening of the case.
But the Rev. John Cross, who was pastor of the Sixteenth Street church at the time of the bombing, remembers sitting in the courtroom balcony during the Chambliss trial as state police quietly pointed out to him several men in the audience who were leading suspects. They promised Cross "there would be others" to face trial. But nothing happened.
Chambliss went to trial after federal officials reopened the case in 1971. It was reopened again in 1980 and in 1988 without much success.
The FBI announced this month that it was looking into the crime once again after receiving new information. Attorney General Janet Reno said the federal government was determined to see that those responsible were brought to justice.
"I felt real excited when I heard it," Cross, now 72, said. "I hope they'll make another arrest. I hope I'll be called to give some statement in court."
Local newspapers have identified three men as potential new suspects. One, who was questioned by investigators at his home in Texas, denies any connection with the Klan.
"I believe some arrests could have been made long ago," Woods complained. But successive investigations of the bombing have faced some formidable obstacles.
For instance, a 1980 Justice Department report said the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself had once blocked the investigation despite assurances by FBI officers in Birmingham that they could make a case.
Black leaders also believe the decision to prosecute Chambliss irked enough white voters to cost former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley re-election.
This time around, some members of the Birmingham black community hope the climate has been changed by the Oklahoma City bombing, which brought the horrors of domestic terrorism into the nation's living rooms. But others remain sceptical.
"Interested, yes, but after 30 years ..." said Roberta Lowe, whose three children were slightly injured by the 1963 church blast. "I hope that there will be some closure and we will all learn to live in unity. If we can just learn to live together and be a unit, maybe that will prove something."
Copyright 1997 Reuter Information Service