Birmingham, Ala. — I came here to wait for justice. Wasn't at all sure I would find it here. Didn't even know that I would recognize it if it came.
Thirty-nine years after the fact, a 71-year-old former Ku Klux Klansman named Bobby Frank Cherry was tried this week for his part in the notorious civil rights-era bombing that left Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in shambles and four black girls Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson dead. He was found guilty and sentenced to spend what remains of his life behind bars.
I keep wondering if any of that is justice. Can it be justice, when investigators centered on four suspects as early as 1965, only to have FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover block prosecution? Can it be, when it took 14 years for the first of the bombing suspects to be tried and until just now for the last?
I decided to ask those who would know much better than I would the graying veterans of Birmingham's terrorism years.
James Armstrong, 79, a barber whose children integrated the city's schools, says yes, it satisfies him to see Bobby Frank Cherry on trial. "But I wish it was much earlier. That man could have been convicted 30-odd years ago."
Helen Clarinda George-Heath, a former schoolteacher who gives her age as past 80, says Cherry should receive "the works."
Does it trouble her that he is only now coming to trial?
"It certainly does," she says. "It certainly does."
And the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, whose activism on behalf of integration got him beaten and bombed in the 1950s, makes it unanimous. Yes, he says, it pains him that virtually all the men who committed those and dozens of other acts of terrorism got away with it.
"But," he says, "'they don't get away in God's eyes. He sees everybody. He sees the good, the bad. It's God's time, how and when they're punished. That satisfies me."
I wish I could say the same.
But then I remember that those who were children with Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley are adults deep into their 50s now. And many of those who were adults then are lying in sickbeds, nursing homes and graves now. All those years, waiting. All those years, while the men who set the bomb hid in plain sight. Like those who lynched thousands of black people in the Jim Crow years, often posing for photographs with the charred and twisted corpses, these men were sheltered from judgment by the indifference of police, prosecutors, presidents, public.
They sentenced innocent people to gruesome deaths. Then they went off and lived their lives.
Nothing will ever get those years back. And that, I suppose, is the frustration I feel, the nagging sense of incompletion.
The fact that Bobby Frank Cherry is judged guilty by a biracial jury just a few blocks from the scene of his crime is a sign of change. That seems to be the consensus. But the Bobby Frank Cherry we wanted, the one we needed to get, the one who was young, hot and hateful, determined to defend his delusions of supremacy at all costs, the one whose prosecution and conviction would have made a difference, would have been a profound statement of principle to a troubled and volatile nation that sorely needed it ... that one got away. We allowed him to get away. WATCHED him get away. And now we're left only with this stupid old man being carted off to jail.
Maybe it doesn't matter. In the end, after all, he who did the crime will do the time. I came here to wait for justice and this, I suppose, is it. But it doesn't feel that way. There seems little sense of triumph in it.
There is, instead, this sense that yesterday is gone and with it, a shining opportunity to be better than we have become.
It's funny how justice sometimes feels like anything but.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.