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Thomas E. BLANTON Jr.





Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Ku Klux Klan member - Bombing of a black church
Number of victims: 4
Date of murders: September 17, 1963
Date of birth: 1939
Victims profile: Denise McNair, 11 / Addie Mae Collins, 14 / Cynthia Wesley, 14 / Carole Robertson, 14
Method of murder: Planting 19 sticks of dynamite in the basement of the church
Location: Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison on May 2, 2001
photo gallery 1 photo gallery 2

Thomas E. Blanton Trial (Alabama Church Bombing): 2001 - A Short Trial And A Quick Verdict

On the first day of testimony the prosecution, led by Doug Jones, a U.S. attorney who had been deputized to prosecute the case in state court, presented numerous witnesses who were present at the time of the bombing.

These witnesses included the mother of Denise McNair, who was teaching a Sunday school class, and the pastor, the Reverend John Cross, who described digging through the rubble to find the bodies of the girls.

Other prosecution witnesses included the FBI agents who had interviewed Blanton after the bombing and who had investigated the case over the following months, the informant Mitchell Burns, and others who described the surveillance and secret taping of Blanton. Others testified to the virulence of Blanton's segregationist views and to his involvement in Ku Klux Klan activities.

On April 27 in a crowded courtroom the jurors first heard segments of the FBI tapes. Some were made on a tape recorder which the FBI had placed in the trunk of Burns's car; others were obtained by the use of a microphone implanted in a wall of the kitchen of Blanton's apartment by FBI technicians, who, posing as truck drivers, had rented the adjoining unit.

The defense was unsuccessful in seeking to prevent the playing of the tapes, which were made in 1964 and 1965 before Congress restricted such secret taping without a court order. In crucial sections of the tapes Blanton tells Burns that the bombing of the 16th St. Church "wasn't easy," and in a conversation with his then-wife, Blanton talks of going to a meeting "to plan the bomb."

However, at no time did Blanton explicitly admit to having carried out the bombing, and Mitchell Burns acknowledged under cross-examination that in none of the many conversations he had had with Blanton had he ever done so.

A court-appointed attorney, John C. Robbins, represented Blanton. In his statements to the jury Robbins acknowledged Blanton's racist views, but exhorted jurors not to be influenced by the historical significance of the bombing, or by the emotional testimony of eyewitnesses.

He reiterated that the prosecution's case was entirely circumstantial, and that there was no evidence proving that his client was responsible for the bombing. During cross-examination Robbins was able to expose flaws in the memories of some witnesses, and to cast some doubt on the reliability and credibility of others. Blanton did not testify, and the defense called only two witnesses.

The trial lasted only a little over a week, and the case went to the jury on May 1. They deliberated for only a little over two hours before returning a verdict of guilty on all four counts. Jurors subsequently acknowledged that the FBI tapes were the evidence that led them to convict. Thomas Blanton was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment for each of the four murders.


Ex Klansman gets life for '63 church bombing

By Joe Danborn

BIRMINGHAM - Jurors deliberated just 2 1/2 hours before finding Thomas Blanton Jr. guilty Tuesday of first-degree murder four times over for the 1963 bombing of a black church.

One juror wept as the forewoman, a middle-aged black woman, read the verdicts in a quavering voice. The verdict automatically means four sentences of life in prison for Blanton, 62.

"I guess the good Lord will settle it on Judgment Day," the former Ku Klux Klansman told Jefferson County Circuit Judge James Garrett. Blanton's eyes grew moist as three sheriff's deputies then led him from the courtroom in handcuffs.

Blanton's lawyer John Robbins said his client would appeal.

Prosecutors indicted Blanton nearly a year ago after reopening their investigation into the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a focal point of the civil rights movement. The blast injured more than 20 and took the lives of Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.

Chris and Maxine McNair, Denise's parents, and Junie Collins, Addie's sister, shared hugs with U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who led the prosecution team in state court.

"Justice delayed is still justice, and we've got it right here in Birmingham tonight," said Jones.

"I hope they get a little comfort in the verdict," Robbins said of the victims' families. "Our hearts go out to them."

Robbins sought earlier unsuccessfully to move the trial out of Birmingham. "I would think that this trial in another community... probably would have had a different verdict."

Garrett had sequestered the jurors and alternates since April 23 and declined to release their names, in contrast with normal trial procedure. None of them commented to the media Tuesday. "We just want to go home and relax," one said.

As news of the verdict spread over the radio, motorists honked and hung out of windows clapping as they passed by the old Jefferson County Courthouse.

"I'll sleep well tonight, better than I've slept in many years," said the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods, a leader of Birmingham's black community who pushed authorities to reopen the case.

Woods, the president of Birmingham's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and pastor at St. Joseph Baptist Church, said the verdict "makes a statement of how far we've come."

Robbins said the short deliberations indicated jurors disregarded the evidence and ruled with their sentiments. "Basically, they were just caught up in the emotion of the case," he said.

Robbins said a main issue on appeal will be the legality of surveillance tapes the FBI made at Blanton's apartment in 1964, without a warrant. He also said he plans to raise issues with the appeals court involving jury selection but did not specify.

"You saw the makeup of the jury," he said of the final panel, which included no white men. "Draw your own conclusions."

The jury that decided the case included eight white women, three black women and one black man. Two white men and two black men had been the alternates. The judge dismissed them before the jury began deliberations.

Jones praised the jury.

"They thought about it. They deliberated. They analyzed the evidence," he said. "There was not an overwhelming amount of evidence for them to look at. ... That doesn't mean that they didn't give it due consideration."

Estella Boyd, 73, a longtime church member who knew the victims, wept softly moments after the verdict.

"I'm just happy he had the courage to drive the matter," she said of Jones.

Among the more than 300 people who watched closing arguments Tuesday morning were Jefferson County Circuit Judge Art Hanes and former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington. Hanes defended Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, the only other man convicted for the bombing, in his 1977 trial. Chambliss died in prison in 1985.

Originally the FBI had four suspects in the bombing: Chambliss, Blanton, Herman Cash and Bobby Frank Cherry. Cash died in 1994 before ever being charged. Cherry was indicted last year along with Blanton. His trial was indefinitely postponed early last month when Garrett ruled that he was not mentally competent. Prosecutors are seeking another psychiatric evaluation, hoping to challenge Garrett's ruling.

Chambliss' trial was held in the same courtroom as Blanton's, three stories above a large lobby that features a pair of two-story murals. One of them depicts an elegantly dressed white woman high above slaves working in fields. The other shows a well-dressed white businessman towering over black laborers in an iron mill.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey began the day by reminding jurors of testimony that Blanton was a violent racist and a womanizer in the 1960s. Posey rehashed other testimony as several giant TV screens displayed family pictures of the four victims. He showed Denise McNair's portrait last.

"This defendant killed this beautiful child because of the color of her skin," Posey said. "He killed those four worshippers in God's house on a Sunday morning because he was a man of hate."

Robbins urged jurors to look at what he called insufficient evidence.

"We leave the emotion at home on the doorstep with the families, where it belongs," Robbins said. The jury, he said, needed to show the world that "we are not going to simply sacrifice some person for some closure.

"If you do that, if you make your decision that way, then those four girls died in vain," Robbins said.

Posey used the same phrase for the prosecution.

"These children must not have died in vain," Posey said. "Don't let the deafening blast from his bomb be what's left ringing in our ears."

Robbins told jurors their civic duty lay in rendering an impartial verdict, not righting the wrongs of Birmingham's past.

"Don't get lost in the moment," Robbins told the jury. "We've got a courtroom full of people thinking this is some moment in history that we all have to watch. Don't get caught up in that."

Jones played to the 11-woman, one-man jury by gesturing toward Maxine McNair and Alpha Robertson, Carole Robertson's wheelchair-bound mother.

"A mother's heart never stops crying," Jones said several times.

Jones recalled testimony from Sarah Collins Rudolph, another sister of Addie's. Rudolph, who was in the same room as the other four girls and was partially blinded, said she called out in vain for her sister after the explosion.

"As Sarah called out to Addie," said Jones, noting Monday would have been the dead girl's 51st birthday, "today, let us call out to Addie."


Another Bomber Goes To Jail

2001 - The New York Times

In the spring of 1963, after months of demonstrations, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a Birmingham, Ala., civil rights leader, said the city had reached "an accord with its conscience" with regard to desegregating downtown department stores. But on a deeper level, Birmingham's conscience and that of the nation have been haunted by an event that occurred a few months later, on Sept. 15.

A bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan at the 16th Street Baptist Church killed four black girls Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley during Sunday services. After decades of delay, justice and conscience moved more closely into accord on Tuesday, when a Birmingham jury convicted Thomas Blanton Jr. of murdering those children.

Nothing can make up fully for the delay caused by decades of fitful cooperation between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement. But with the Blanton conviction, two of the four main suspects have received life sentences.

Robert Chambliss, known locally as "Dynamite Bob," was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985. Those convictions send a powerful message that succeeding generations of Southern prosecutors, such as Doug Jones, the United States attorney in Birmingham, have not forgotten the racial cases that had been either ignored or bungled.

The prosecution of the 16th Street case also stands as a tribute to the dignified effort of Chris and Maxine McNair and Alpha Robertson, parents of two of the victims, to keep the memory of the case alive.

The prosecutorial history of the case is a tangled and contentious one. J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director, originally blocked prosecution of the case in 1965, overruling his own agents in Birmingham who had filed reports that Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Herman Cash, now deceased, had planted the bomb.

The Chambliss conviction was secured by Bill Baxley, then the Alabama attorney general, when the F.B.I. gave him some of the files that Hoover had sat on. But as Mr. Baxley argues in an article on the adjoining page, the bureau withheld information supplied to Mr. Jones for the Blanton trial after the local F.B.I. office reopened the case in 1993.

Mr. Baxley believes that with full access to the F.B.I. files he could have brought Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry to trial with Robert Chambliss in 1977. The passage of time erodes the evidence and available testimony in any case, and that makes Doug Jones's ability to prevail on the highly circumstantial case that could be put together this year a striking achievement.

He insisted that the F.B.I. give him full access to 9,000 documents and tapes, including the "kitchen tape" that probably sent Thomas Blanton to jail. An F.B.I. listening device placed in the Klansman's kitchen in 1964 caught him telling his wife about planning and building "the bomb."

Although the two prosecutors differ on their view of the F.B.I.'s role, there are some striking connections between the trials. While in law school, Mr. Jones, a white Alabamian raised only a few miles from the bombed church, watched Mr. Baxley, another white Alabamian, conduct the Chambliss trial.

Racial tensions were still close to the surface in Alabama in 1977, and that trial may have cost Mr. Baxley his chance to be governor. But in both cases, it was a biracial jury of Birmingham citizens that brought in speedy and stern verdicts.

The lengthy complications can be viewed as cruelly frustrating, but there is also room for the more positive point suggested by Doug Jones on Tuesday. "Justice delayed is still justice," he said. A Mississippi court's conviction in 1994 of Byron De La Beckwith in the Medgar Evers murder and now the fact that 62-year-old Thomas Blanton is headed for prison both show that a belated prosecution is better than none at all.

There is one more chapter to be played out in the Birmingham story. Bobby Frank Cherry, now 72, has been indicted for murder, but was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial after a psychiatric evaluation. Mr. Jones has secured an order by the trial judge, James Garrett, to allow a second examination.

Certainly Mr. Cherry's legal rights have to be protected by the court. But if a new medical opinion, expected in one to two months, allows the trial to go forward, it is reassuring to know that the Birmingham of today has a prosecutor ready for trial, a full bundle of F.B.I. evidence and juries willing to reach a just verdict in a complicated case.


The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

From Jessica McElrath

The Murder of Four Girls

On the early Sunday morning of September 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan member, Robert Edward Chambliss stood a few blocks away from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. On this morning, five girls were changing into their choir robes in the church basement.

At 10:19 a.m., a bomb exploded, killing four of the girls and injuring twenty people. The four girls who died were eleven-year old Denise McNair, and fourteen year olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

The Significance of the 16th Street Baptist Church

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had served as an important part of the African-American community and was used as a meeting place during the civil rights movement.

The church was used for mass rallies and Martin Luther King Jr. was among the many leaders who spoke at these events. It had also been the headquarters for several desegregation protests. When the church was bombed, it was a sign of the hostility that segregationists had against the civil rights struggle.

The Aftermath of the Bombing

While the bomb came as a surprise, bomb threats had been made in the past. In those instances, the church had been able to take special precautions. This time, no threat had been made. The explosion blew a hole in the east side of the church. It shattered windows, walls, doors, and the air was filled with a thick cloud of dust and soot. As community members dug through the debris in search of survivors, they discovered the bodies of the four victims.

Grief was not only felt in the African American community, but white strangers expressed their sympathy to the families of the four girls. At the funeral of three of the girls, Martin Luther King gave the eulogy, which was witnessed by 8,000 mourners, both white and black.

The Investigation into the Bombing

The FBI led the initial investigation into the bombing. According to a 1965 FBI memorandum to director J. Edgar Hoover, it was determined that Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr. had planted the bomb.

Based on the investigation, the Birmingham FBI office recommended prosecuting the suspects. Hoover, however, blocked their prosecution by rejecting the recommendation that the federal prosecutor receive the testimony that identified the suspects. By 1968, charges had not been filed and the FBI closed the case.

In 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, reopened the case. On November 18, 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The case was again reopened in 1988 and in July 1997, after the FBI received a tip. Herman Frank Cash was still one of the prime suspects, but before a case could be established against him, he died in 1994.

On May 17, 2000, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were charged with the murder of the four girls. Blanton was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison on May 1, 2001. For the jurors who convicted him, the 1964 taped conversations that the FBI secretly recorded, weighed heavily on their decision.

The tapes had remained secret until 1997, when the case was reopened. In one recorded conversation that took place between Blanton and his wife, Blanton told her that he was at the Klan meeting where both the bombing was planned and the bomb was made.

In another recorded conversation, Blanton spoke about the bombing to an FBI informant while driving in a car. For the jurors, the taped conversations provided enough evidence to convict Blanton of murder.

Bobby Frank Cherry's trial was postponed after the judge ruled that he was mentally incompetent to assist his attorney. After Cherry was found competent to stand trail, on May 22, 2002 he was found guilty of four counts of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. For the family and friends of the four murdered girls, the conviction of Blanton and Cherry was a long awaited victory.


The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was a racially motivated terrorist incident at 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, in the United States. It was a turning-point in the U.S. civil-rights movement of the mid 20th century.


The attack was intended to instill fear in those supporting equal civil rights without regard to race. Instead, it caused public outrage and spurred the civil-rights movement to further success.

The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church was a rallying point for civil-rights activities. In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, the church's Youth Day, United Klans of America, a Ku Klux Klan group, members Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton and Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss planted 19 sticks of dynamite in the basement of the church. Chambliss was also convicted of having 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit.

At about 10:25 a.m., when 26 children were walking into the basement assembly room for closing prayers after a sermon entitled "The Love That Forgives," the bombs exploded. Four girls—Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14)—were killed in the blast, and 22 more were injured.

The explosion blew a hole in the church's rear wall, destroyed the back steps, and left intact only the frames of all but one stained-glass window. The lone window that survived the concussion was one in which Jesus Christ was depicted leading young children, although Christ's face was destroyed. In addition, five cars behind the church were damaged, two of them completely destroyed, while windows in the laundry across the street were blown out.


  • Born November 17, 1951, Denise McNair was the first child of photo shop owner Chris and schoolteacher Maxine McNair. Her playmates called her Niecie. A pupil at Center Street Elementary School, she had many friends. She held tea parties, was a member of the Brownies, and played baseball. She helped raise money to support muscular dystrophy by creating plays, dance routines, and poetry readings. These events became an annual event. People gathered in the yard to watch the show in Denise’s carport, the main stage. Children donated their pennies, dimes, and nickels. Denise was a schoolmate and friend of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

  • Born April 30, 1949, Cynthia Wesley was the first adopted daughter of Claude and Gertrude Wesley, who were both teachers. Her mother made her clothes because of her petite size. Cynthia went to school at Ullman High School, which no longer exists. She excelled in math, reading, and band. Cynthia held parties in her backyard for all her friends. Upon Cynthia’s death she was so mutilated the only way to identify her was by the ring she wore, which was recognized by her father.

  • Carole Robertson was born April 24, 1949. She was the third child of Alpha and Alvin Robertson. Her sister was Dianne and her brother was Alvin. Her father was a band master at the local elementary school. Her mother was a librarian, avid reader, dancer, and clarinet player. Carole, like her mother, enjoyed reading. She excelled at school and was a straight-A student, a member of Parker High School marching band and science club. She was also a Girl Scout and belonged to Jack and Jill of America. When she was at Wilkerson Elementary School she sang in the choir. Her legacy helped create the Carole Robertson Center for Learning in Chicago, a social service agency that serves children and their families.

  • Addie Mae Collins was born April 18, 1949, the daughter of Oscar and Alice. Her father was a janitor and her mother a homemaker. She was one of seven children. Addie was the peacemaker between the bunch. She was also an avid softball player. A youth center dedicated to Addie and her ideals was created in Alabama.


Outrage at the bombing and the grief that followed resulted in violence across Birmingham, with two more African-American youths dead by the end of the day. Sixteen year-old Johnnie Robinson was shot and killed by police after throwing stones at cars with white people inside, while 13-year-old Virgil Ware was killed by two whites riding on a motor scooter.

Three days after the tragedy, former Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor further inflamed matters by saying to a crowd of 2,500 people at a Citizen's Council meeting, "If you're going to blame anyone for getting those children killed in Birmingham, it's your Supreme Court." Connor recalled that in 1954, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision had been reached, he said, "You're going to have bloodshed, and it's on them (the Court), not us." He also proposed that African-Americans may have set the bomb deliberately to provoke an emotional response, saying, "I wouldn't say it's above (Dr. Martin Luther) King's crowd."

Investigation and prosecution

Chambliss was initially charged for the murders, but there was no conviction at first. Years later it was found that the FBI had accumulated evidence against the bombers that had not been revealed to the prosecutors, by order of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1977, Chambliss was prosecuted by Alabama Attorney-General Bill Baxley and was convicted for the four murders and sentenced to several terms of life imprisonment. He died in prison in 1985.

After reopening the case several times, the FBI in 2000 assisted the state authorities in bringing charges against Cherry and Thomas Blanton. Blanton and Cherry were convicted by state court juries of all four murders and sentenced to life in prison. Though Cherry publicly denied involvement, relatives and friends testified that he "bragged" about being part of the bombing, and his ex-wife testified, "He said he lit the fuse."

"Following the tragic event, white strangers visited the grieving families to express their sorrow. At the funeral for three of the girls (one family preferred a separate, private funeral), Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about life being "as hard as crucible steel." More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of both races, attended the service.


  • The song "Birmingham Sunday", composed by Richard Farina and recorded by Joan Baez, chronicled the events and aftermath of the bombing.

  • The song "Mississippi Goddam" was composed and sung by Nina Simone in reaction to the racially-motivated bombings.

  • A 1997 documentary about the bombing, 4 Little Girls, directed by Spike Lee, was nominated for an Academy Award for "Best Documentary".

  • The song "Alabama' on John Coltrane's Live at Birdland (recorded November 18, 1963) served as an elegy to the bombing.

  • The song "Ronnie & Neil" on Drive-By Truckers' double album, Southern Rock Opera references the event in the opening line of the song, "Church blows up in Birmingham/ Four little black girls killed/ For no goddamned good reason."

  • The novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis mentions very vividly the events of the bombing.

  • The poem "The Ballad of Birmingham" by Dudley Randall

  • The song "American Guernica" by Adolphus Hailstork

  • A 2002 television drama Sins of the Father, directed by Robert Dornhelm, is based on the events of the bombing.

Further reading

  • Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954 -1963. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-68742-5. 

  • Sikora, Frank (April 1991). Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0520-3. 

  • Cobbs, Elizabeth H.; Smith, Petric J. (April 1994). Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World. Birmingham, AL: Crane Hill. ISBN 1-881548-10-4. 

  • Hamlin, Christopher M.: 1998, Behind the Stained Glass: A History of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Crane Hill Publishers, Birmingham, AL



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