Guilty verdict doesn’t heal racism’s wounds

Today's Alabama church service first since justice meted out in bombing

? Members of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church are confronted each Sunday by the scars of a racist bombing that killed four girls in a basement lounge in 1963.

Though most damage was fixed years ago, subtle shifts in the building’s foundation keep exposing fissures caused by the shattering blast.

Members say the ghostly fractures cannot be concealed and will not go away.

“It’s haunting,” says church member Kenneth Long.

Still, there will be a spirit of revival today at the old church, the first Sunday service since the conviction of aging ex-Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry, the final suspect in the bombing.

“This will be a great Sunday,” says the church’s associate pastor, the Rev. Joe Decatur. “I expect the church to be full.”

The bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, was an epochal event for a nation defending its creed of equality. In the aftermath, racial moderates came off the sidelines to hasten the transition away from segregation across the South.

Sixteenth Street Baptist changed, too. Relatives of victims Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11 moved elsewhere. Nearby homes were torn down.

Church membership slipped to about 500. Decatur doesn’t blame the decline solely on the bombing, though he says the crime played a role.

“It’s almost been like the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness,” Decatur says.

The former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rev. Joseph Lowery of Atlanta, recalled visiting the church the spring after the bombing and seeing its windows still blown out.

“The scars will always be on the church and on the hearts of those who lost loved ones during that era of terror,” Lowery says.

The downstairs lounge where the girls died is now a small men’s restroom. The off-white walls still bear a jagged scar that shows exactly where the bomb blew away a stone and masonry wall 30 inches thick.

“The tile, even though we replaced it, still separates,” Decatur says.

In a hall outside the bathroom, a plastic gauge glued to a back wall monitors the width of another crack caused by the blast. The building could still become unsafe 39 years later if the fissure grows too wide.

The bombing came the weekend after Birmingham’s public schools were integrated after a six-year fight. It was a horrific year that began with new Gov. George Wallace’s inaugural pledge of “segregation forever,” his failed “stand in the schoolhouse door” as two blacks enrolled at the University of Alabama, and the snarling dogs and fire hoses turned on black protesters in Birmingham.

Cherry, 71, and Thomas Blanton Jr., Klansmen who were bombing suspects from the start, were indicted two years ago. Blanton was convicted last year and is serving a life sentence.

Another former Klansman, Robert Chambliss, was convicted in the bombing in 1977 and died in custody in 1985. A fourth prime suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being charged.

For all the stop-and-go investigations and three convictions, church members still don’t know for sure what happened that mournful weekend.

“It doesn’t matter,” says church member Carolyn McKinstry, who was 15 at the time and knew the victims. “I think the world was watching for this verdict,” she says of Cherry’s conviction.

So were the victims’ families.

“We feel like we can go on with our lives now,” says Junie Collins Peavy, a sister of Addie Mae.