June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

Sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. About 250 worshippers are celebrating a joyous Sunday service, singing along with the gospel choir and sharing warm embraces when time comes for the passing of the peace. But downstairs in the basement there is evidence that something terrible once happened here. An old clock resting against a wall is stopped at 10:22, frozen forever at the moment when the church lost electrical power 37 years ago. It was at 10:22 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1963, that 19 bundled sticks of dynamite blew a jagged hole through a corner of the church, killing four young black girls—a heinous crime that marked a turning point for the civil rights movement.

Since that moment, time has passed at an agonizing pace for those seeking justice in the Birmingham bombing. While authorities quickly identified several suspects, only one, Robert E. Chambliss, was ever sent to prison—in 1977—for the murders; he died eight years later, at 81, behind bars. His alleged coconspirators walked free for years and years until, on May 16, an Alabama grand jury charged former Ku Klux Klansmen Bobby Frank Cherry, 69, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr., 61, with murder. “We’re trying to bring some end to one of the more infamous crimes in this country’s history,” says U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who will prosecute the case. “It’s a tragedy of monumental proportions, and we need, to bring some closure to it.”

Cherry and Blanton—along with a fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, who died at 75 in 1994—escaped prosecution for so long largely because fearful witnesses refused to testify against them. “There was a feeling that if we got the ringleader, we could loosen some tongues,” says Bill Baxley, 59, the now retired Alabama attorney general who prosecuted Chambliss, the bombing’s instigator. It took a while, but tongues have at last been loosened: The current indictments are based in part on testimony from Cherry’s own relatives, who say that they heard him brag about the crime. “This is just something that had to be done,” says Cherry’s estranged granddaughter Teresa Stacy, 24, who told her story to the grand jury last July. “Four little girls died for nothing.”

In fact, the death of the four girls—Denise McNair, 11, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14—had a profoundly galvanizing effect. In the early ’60s, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the spiritual center of the civil rights movement, a place where activists gathered before staging demonstrations that often ended with police deploying water cannons and attack dogs. On Sept. 15, 1963—only three weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.—the four girls, all in white party dresses and patent-leather shoes, were getting ready for a youth service at the church when the bomb went off under a stairwell. “We hadn’t done but a prayer and a song when we heard it and felt it,” says Denise McNair’s cousin Helen Pegues, now 81, who was teaching Sunday school in the basement that day. Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a 23-year-old civil rights activist at the time, remembers rushing to the site and seeing “this hole in the side of the church and broken stones and glass everywhere. People were just staring and crying. There was this great sense of disbelief.”

The cowardice of the bombers and the cruelty of the crime “was the slap in the face to white Americans that finally woke them up” to the need for racial justice, says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. But while Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination based on race, prosecuting the bombers proved more difficult. “No one believed that a local jury would return any kind of guilty verdict, so things just sat for a while,” explains retired FBI supervisor Rob Langford, who set the stage for the convictions by reopening the case in late 1994. With fresh testimony from less fearful witnesses, investigators zeroed in on Bobby Cherry and Thomas Blanton, former members of a virulently racist KKK offshoot known as the Cahaba Boys.

Blanton, who police believe drove the 1957 Chevy that carried the bombers to the church early in the morning of Sept. 15, has worked as a security guard and most recently as a Wal-Mart cashier despite graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in commerce and business. Indoctrinated in white supremacy by his father, “Pops” Blanton, a notorious Birmingham racist, Blanton “just didn’t like colored people,” says Wyman Lee, owner of a plumbing business, who has let Blanton live in a sagging old trailer on his property in Fultondale, Ala., for the last eight years.

Cherry, now a retired truck driver who lived in a trailer near his son Tom’s home in Payne Springs, Texas, was known as the Cahaba Boys’ enforcer. “He was a bully and a loudmouth,” says former Alabama Attorney General Baxley, who interviewed Cherry years after the bombing. Indeed, it was Cherry’s talkative nature that helped the law catch up with him. “I just remember him bragging about [the bombing] once or twice,” says Teresa Stacy. “He said something like, ‘I helped blow up a bunch of n——-s back in Birmingham.’ ” Another key witness, Cherry’s ex-wife Willadean Brogdon, 60, recalls driving past the Sixteenth Street church with him in 1970. “He said that was the place he had bombed,” she says. “He used to tell me if I ever talked, the same thing would happen to me.”

Those alleged admissions—as well as testimony from Cherry’s son Tom—led to the arrest of Cherry and Blanton on May 17. Both men have steadfastly maintained their innocence and, their lawyers say, will plead not guilty. “What in the heck do [prosecutors] have now that they haven’t had in 36 years?” asks David S. Luker, Blanton’s attorney. “Memories don’t get better with time.”

While memories may have faded, the pain of losing the four young girls is still keenly felt. “That is still there for all of us,” says Rev. John Cross, 75, who was senior pastor at the Sixteenth Street church in 1963. Diane Braddock, 55, whose sister Carole Robertson died in the blast, says she’s glad that Cherry and Blanton “aren’t out there walking. around freely anymore. But that’s just what they’ve been doing for 37 years. And Carole never had those 37 years.” Helen Pegues agrees that even convictions won’t heal all wounds. “It’s too late,” she says. “They waited too long. It makes me so angry that these men have been free for all these years.”

Yet amid the lingering anguish, some hope the trial of Cherry and Blanton, tentatively set for November, will bring a measure of relief. “I don’t think you can have closure on something of this magnitude,” says Rev. Dr. Christopher Hamlin, 40, current senior pastor at the Sixteenth Street church. “But if the trial ends with a conviction, there will be a real sense of peace.” Hamlin’s message to his congregation this past May 21 included the words of 8th-century-B.C. prophet Amos: “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever growing stream.” In Birmingham, those waters may finally be flowing.

Alex Tresniowski

Gail Wescott, Lori Rozsa, Nancy Wilstach, and Maureen Harrington in Birmingham, Rose Ellen O’Connor in Washington, D.C., Jerry Mitchell in Jackson, Miss., and Sam Saucedo in Payne Springs

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