Bending toward justice The Birmingham church bombing that changed the course of civil rights

Doug Jones, 1954-

Book - 2019

"The story of the decades-long fight to bring justice to the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, culminating in Senator Doug Jones' prosecution of the last living bombers. On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. The blast killed four young girls and injured twenty-two others. The FBI suspected four particularly radical Ku Klux Klan members. Yet due to reluctant witnesses, a lack of physical evidence, and pervasive racial prejudice the case was closed without any indictments. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. famously expressed it, 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.' Years later, Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened ...the case, ultimately convicting one of the bombers in 1977. Another suspect passed away in 1994, and then-US Attorney Doug Jones tried and convicted the final two in 2001 and 2002. This represented the correction of an outrageous miscarriage of justice nearly forty years in the making. Jones went on to win election as Alabama's first Democratic Senator since 1992 in a dramatic race against Republican challenger Roy Moore. [This book] is a compulsively readable account of a key moment in our long national struggle for equality and justice, related by an author who played a major role in these events."--Dust jacket.

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True crime stories
New York : All Points Books 2019.
Main Author
Doug Jones, 1954- (author)
Other Authors
Greg Truman (author)
First edition
Item Description
Foreword information from jacket.
Includes index.
Physical Description
xix, 363 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
  • Foreword
  • Author's Note
  • Part 1.
  • Introduction: The Arc of History
  • 1. The Bombing
  • 2. Baxley
  • 3. Langford
  • Part 2.
  • 4. The Job
  • 5. Rudolph
  • 6. Grand Juries
  • 7. Sucker Punched
  • 8. Blanton
  • 9. Politics and Dementia
  • Part 3.
  • 10. Cherry
  • 11. Epiphanies
  • 12. Honoring the Children
  • 13. One More Chance
  • 14. Connecting the Dots
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

As he fell behind an accused sexual predator in returns from Alabama's 2017 Senate election, Doug Jones admits, he allowed himself an almost "unbearable" lament familiar to thousands of frustrated Alabamians who came of age in the George Wallace era: "Oh, my poor home state." Near midnight, it appeared that Jones's pistol-waving opponent, the former Alabama Supreme Court justice Roy Moore, would join the century-iong parade of reactionary buffoons Alabama's white majority has sent to Congress and the governor's mansion. But in the final count for that Dec. 12 election, a cresting wave of modern sentiment among black voters and white women in the state's rich Republican suburbs handed Jones a 22,000-vote victory, making Alabama the last state of the old Confederacy to join the New South. It was the biggest upset in Alabama political history, especially given Jones's background as a successful prosecutor of Ku Klux Klansmen who perpetrated the signature civil rights crime of the 1960s, the fatal bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. "Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing That Changed the Course of Civil Rights" is a valuable addition to the historical record of Alabama's role as the battleground state of the civil rights revolution. It provides an inside look at how Jones, a former United States attorney from Birmingham, and his role model, the former Alabama attorney general Bill Baxley, sent to prison three Birmingham Klansmen who murdered four black girls by dynamiting their church on Sept. 15, 1963. The four children, aged 11 to 14 - Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Morris Wesley - died instantly in a women's restroom where they were preparing for Sunday school. Without Jones and Baxley, both white men born in Alabama and educated in the state's law schools, the murders of the children killed on that "bloody Sunday" and memorialized in Spike Lee's wrenching film "4 Little Girls" would have gone forever unpunished. (I was interviewed in Lee's film, and my reports that first identified the four bombers by name were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting by this newspaper in 1983.) With this book, Jones invites us - indeed, challenges us - to look anew at the central paradox of the case. The three bombers were all convicted on evidence from confidential interviews and wiretaps conducted by F.B.I. agents who were on the scene in Birmingham in the mid-60s. Yet the agency's Washington leadership sought at every opportunity to impede Jones, Baxley and their chief investigator, the former Alabama state detective Bob Eddy. During the past year, I was lucky enough to talk to all three men in Alabama, and Jones's account provides an opportunity to revisit both the remarkable dark-horse campaign that made him the first Democratic senator from the South's reddest state in nearly three decades, as well as this tormenting saga of justice long delayed by Justice Department ineptitude and the personal malfeasance of the longtime F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover. Jones's account is evenhanded to a fault: He fails to emphasize the villainous role of Hoover as the chief reason that Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss and his two thuggish accomplices, Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were all old men before Baxley and Jones were able to put them behind bars in a series of three dramatic trials conducted in 1977, 2001 and 2002. A Justice Department task force reviewing F.B.I. misconduct in investigating crimes in Alabama proved that Hoover stalled the investigation in 1965, causing a delay that continued well beyond his death in 1972. I first got on the trail of "Dynamite Bob" in 1974 when conducting interviews for an oral history of the civil rights movement, "My Soul Is Rested." An Alabama detective, Ben Allen, showed me a memo listing Chambliss, Blanton, Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Troy Ingram as members of the Cahaba River group, a Klan bombing squad that planned the attack on the 16 th Street Church. (Cash and Ingram died before they could be indicted when Baxley reopened the case in 1974.) I was back in Birmingham in 1977 to report on Baxley's prosecution of Chambliss before an integrated jury, and learned from "Bending Toward Justice" that Jones was in the balcony of the same courtroom. He had cut law school classes to watch his hero argue the case. Although we did not meet until 2000, Jones and I have in common that we were drawn to the 16 th Street case with a near-obsessional intensity because we grew up in the steel-mill neighborhoods frequented by the bombers. Jones went on to become a breakthrough figure in Alabama politics. His victory in the Senate race stunned the state's complacent machine Republicans. Jones explains how he bushwhacked Moore, a randy Bible-thumper endorsed by President Trump, with a combination of hightech and grass-roots tactics that Democrats could deploy again in other sleepy red states in 2020. It was later revealed that the Jones campaign used some of the same tactics as Russian tricksters who influenced the 2016 presidential campaign. That aside, Jones assembled a Heart of Dixie version of the Obama coalition, and was well positioned when The Washington Post revealed that Roy Moore had been a serial stalker of high school girls when he was in his 30s. Both Trump and Steve Bannon came south to campaign for Moore, giving the Republican effort a kooky carnival atmosphere, but by that time disaffected Republican women had come to regard Moore as unfit. Jones takes rightful pride in recounting how he and his Washington campaign consultant, Joe Trippi, used a multimillion-dollar television campaign to defeat a deep-pocketed but listless Republican Party funded by Birmingham lawyers and the corporate manipulators who rule Montgomery. This book ought to be studied by national Democrats looking to rescue populist idealism from its Trumpian captivity. Bill Baxley and Doug Jones have earned high places in Southern history by helping Alabama - at least for a few precious moments - overcome the reputational damage done by Wallace, Bull Connor and Chambliss's claque of K.K.K. bombers. For years, Chambliss had walk-in, coffeedrinking privileges at Connor's police command center. Chambliss also told 16th Street investigators that he had turned on Wallace only when the governor, who knew him on sight, tried to avoid shaking hands with him and his wife at a segregationist rally in a Birmingham hotel. Jones's account of the trials of Bobby Cherry and Tommy Blanton add important details to the agonizing story. His account of Klan infiltration of the Birmingham Police Department (a "snake pit") is ruthlessly candid. He is both accurate and generous in telling how Eddy and the F.B.I. field agents helped him reconstruct the building of the bomb and its placement on the outer wall of the women's restroom at the church. It should be remembered that those agents were defying instructions from bureau headquarters to give Alabama investigators a cold shoulder and lie about the true extent of the files labeled "BAPBOMB" in F.B.I. archives. It is one of the supreme ironies of the case that Chambliss, Cherry and Blanton all talked themselves into prison. Chambliss and Cherry boasted to relatives about "blowing up" the church, and an F.B.I. bug planted in Blanton's kitchen caught him telling his wife about "making the bomb." The Blanton tapes were among the thousands of pieces of evidence eventually provided to Jones for the Blanton trial in 2001 and the Cherry trial in 2002, but withheld from Baxley when he indicted Chambliss in 1977. In a joint appearance with Jones at a civil rights panel in Montgomery on Jan. 23 of this year, Baxley said flatly that he could have convicted Blanton along with "Dynamite Bob" in 1977. Baxley furiously denounced Hoover for sabotaging his investigation, but in his book, Jones does not fully come to grips with Hoover's treachery: He concludes that Hoover "decided with some justification" that trying the case in Birmingham would be "a fruitless endeavor." On Feb. 17,1980,1 wrote about a series of memos to Hoover in 1965 in which the energetic F.B.I. agents in Birmingham asked permission to take the case to trial "due to the climate of public opinion favoring prosecution." My italics about the likelihood of prosecution underscore the remarkable backlash among Birmingham whites because of the heinous nature of the crime. As Jones notes, a force of 40 agents with "boots on the ground" in Alabama had found two female relatives of Chambliss, his sister-in-law, Mary Frances Cunningham, and niece, the Rev. Elizabeth Cobbs, willing to testify against him. On May 13, 1965, the special agent in charge in Birmingham said "the case was ripe for departmental action." But in less than a week, Hoover pulled the plug on the case. "From an evaluation of the evidence received so far in this investigation, the chance of successful prosecution in state or federal court is very remote," Hoover wrote. "In view of this, the bureau disapproves at this time of the conference you recommend with the U.S. attorney and the solicitor for the 10th Judicial Circuit in Birmingham." This was Hoover hubris at its most extreme. Without ever setting foot in Birmingham, Hoover fenced off Macon Weaver, a seasoned federal prosecutor, from receiving the evidence that dozens of F.B.I. agents on the scene believed sufficient to put Chambliss, Blanton and possibly Cherry away in one fell swoop. Jones touches inconclusively on a mystery that has confounded every journalist, historian and prosecutor who has delved into the "whodunit" details. In 1965, Chambliss's niece and sister-in-law told F.B.I. agents that they had watched in hiding as the four Klansmen planted the bomb. They said they had disguised themselves in wigs and followed Blanton's 1957 Chevrolet to the church. Over time, their ticktock of the case has held up, matching all the known facts to near perfection. But Cobbs later said she was passing along hearsay provided by Chambliss's much-abused wife, Tee. Cunningham later recanted the wig story entirely and failed a lie-detector test about her original statement to investigators. An additional complication arose when it emerged that Cunningham and James Hancock, a deputy for the Jefferson County sheriff's department, may have been involved romantically and therefore delayed warning the police and church members in a timely way. "Just one phone call from Hancock," Bob Eddy told Jones, "ft would never have happened." this mass of conflicting details will probably never be untangled, but the confusion does not undermine the core of the case as set forth in uncontested supporting evidence. When I talked to Eddy and Baxley last year, both expressed the view that the later recantations by Cobbs and Cunningham were dubious. They believe that Cunningham, Cobbs and perhaps Chambliss's wife were at the church that night and witnessed some or all of the events involving the placing of the bomb. The scenario described to F.B.I. agents by Cobbs and Cunningham in 1965 is now generally accepted. As Jones correctly notes, the evidentiary trail in this case is full of conflicts and contradictions, and at this late date, it is unlikely that even a painstaking book devoted solely to the investigation could answer all the questions. But one home truth shines clear and earns "Bending Toward Justice" a permanent place in the civil rights canon. Simply stated, using piecemeal evidence that a dishonest F.B.I. director wanted to keep out of court, Bill Baxley and Doug Jones put together a convincing case that proved beyond reasonable doubt that Alabama juries convicted the right men for murder. Chambliss and Cherry died in prison, and Tommy Blanton, whose Chevy delivered the bomb to the church in the midnight hours more than 50 years ago, cannot, at the age of 80, be far behind. HOWELL raines is a former executive editor of The Times and the author of "My Soul Is Rested," an oral history of the civil rights movement. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for a Times Magazine article about coming of age in segregated Birmingham.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 11, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

Alabama U.S. Senator Jones' recounting of the Birmingham church tragedy is less a history than an account of his own tortured journey toward racial awareness. We could happily do without self-absorbed reflections, such as how the murders provided provenance for a white nine-year-old's lifelong quest for justice and redemption. Yet Jones, with journalist Truman, manages a deeply affecting portrait of the devastation wrought by the 16th Street Church bombing and the enduring blight and bitterness it left in the black community. His decision to prosecute the Klansmen responsible, nearly 40 years later, was largely motivated by a desire to save Alabama from itself. Initially optimistic about the guilty verdicts of 2002, he ruefully acknowledges the renewed outbursts of racial hatred since 2016, noting that many of the good people of the South in the fifties and sixties ignored or were deceived by the resilience of their bigotry .... After all, an underlying idea behind segregation is to exclude that which you don't want to deal with. A decent account of a key moment in the antisegregation movement told primarily from the white perspective.--Lesley Williams Copyright 2019 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Library Journal Review

Jones has served a junior U.S. senator for Alabama since 2018. Prior to that, he was U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 1997 to 2001. He presents a detailed account of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, which killed four little girls. Jones documents events leading up to the attack, what occurred in its immediate aftermath, and the investigation into the bombing, including the attempt to protect those involved, and the events leading to the trial and conviction of some of the men involved. He also presents a highly personal account of growing up in the segregated south and living with changes that came through the civil rights moment in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. In 2001 and 2002, Jones tried and convicted two men involved in the attack. Another bomber was convicted in 1977, and the last died in 1994. Jones also provides detailed commentary on the state of the American union as a whole and southern politics in particular, along with his successful run for the Senate in 2018. The author does an excellent job presenting his story. VERDICT This audiobook is recommended to listeners interested in politics and southern history.--Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Parkersburg Lib.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A former U.S. attorney nominated by Bill Clinton chronicles his successful attempt to prosecute the last of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church bombers.Jones has led a rather remarkable career. His most recent accomplishment was a victory in a special election that made him Alabama's first Democratic Senator since 1992; he defeated Republican Roy Moore for Jeff Sessions' vacated Senate seat. Raised in the Jim Crow era of segregated Birmingham, the author was deeply influenced as a young college student by the model lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. More importantly, in 1977, he watched Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley work a legal miracle by securing a murder conviction against "Dynamite" Bob Chambliss, the Klansman who had eluded justice 14 years earlier for the bombing that killed four African-American girls. In this lively first-person account, written with Truman, Jones (b. 1954) walks us through his early life as a middle-class white boy who grew up mostly unaware of racial tensions in the Birmingham suburbsuntil 1963, when white supremacists launched a campaign of terror against the civil rights protesters, especially the young people's demonstrations at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The author was 9 when the horrendous bombing occurred. The subsequent FBI investigation went on for years and was thwarted at every turn, shut down in 1968 without any charges against the three prime suspects: Chambliss, Tommy Blanton, and Bobby Frank Cherry. As an up-and-coming federal prosecutor and defense attorney, Jones tied himself to the Democratic Party. Building on what he had witnessed Baxley achieve, he decided it was time to strike at Blanton when he was nominated U.S. Attorney in 1997. The bulk of this compelling account focuses on that extraordinary trial and 2001 conviction.A useful firsthand account of a series of civil rights landmarks, with some additional analysis of our current political climate. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.