Alabama church bombing attorney recounts emotional experience

jmink@macon.comFebruary 5, 2013 

Nearly 50 years ago in a Birmingham, Ala., church, five little girls were getting ready for that day’s youth service when an explosion shattered the room they were in, killing four of them.

The surviving girl was trapped in the rubble, unable to move or see, screaming for her sister, who never responded. Later, a father identified the body of his 11-year-old daughter, who had worn her new dress to church that day and was last seen getting the sash tied.

Doug Jones befriended the father of Denise McNair, and about 40 years after the tragedy, Jones prosecuted two of the former Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for the bombing.

As the 50th anniversary of the bombing approaches, Jones spoke Tuesday at Middle Georgia State College in Macon, at times choking back tears as he recounted both his experiences and the church bombing that “truly sent shock waves throughout the world,” he said.

Jones, a Birmingham native and former U.S. Attorney, was 9 years old when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963. He remembers hearing about the incident, but he did not fully understand the impact until years later.

As a second-year law student, Jones skipped class to witness the trial of the first man convicted of the bombing. He remembers the day of closing arguments -- it would have been Denise McNair’s 26th birthday.

Jones never dreamed that 24 years later, he would be delivering the closing argument against another former Klansman -- on what would have been Carole Robertson’s 51st birthday. Carole died in the blast alongside Denise, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley.

After witnessing that trial and befriending Denise McNair’s father, “I had a piece of it that I carried with me,” Jones said after Tuesday’s presentation.

The bombing case was reopened a year before Jones became U.S. attorney in 1997, and “a series of pieces of puzzles” came together, placing Jones at the helm of a team that prosecuted former Klansmen Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

Perhaps the biggest job for Jones was putting his own puzzle together. He dug through records, photographs, footage and conducted interviews to determine why the church was targeted. He showed video of an incident filmed in 1957, when Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth tried to enroll his children in an all-white Birmingham school, inciting protests from a mob of people. The footage shows Shuttlesworth being dragged into the street, beaten and kicked. A man, later identified as Cherry, reached into his back pocket and grabbed a pair of brass knuckles.

Shuttlesworth invited Martin Luther King Jr. to march in Birmingham, where a majority of the marchers were children. Jones showed photos of firefighters spraying black children with powerful water hoses and police officers unleashing dogs on the children. About 2,000 teenagers clustered inside Birmingham jails after the marches, and many of those children met at 16th Street Baptist Church, Jones said.

Sylvia McGee remembers the bombing from a child’s point of view. As an 11-year-old girl in Macon, McGee remembers people being afraid in the aftermath, but she also recalls people saying that “we cannot allow this to stop the (Civil Rights) cause,” she said. “It’s always been something that’s emotionally close to me.”

McGee was one of about 100 community members, students and faculty who gazed at photos of the church in shambles, of four girls in bows and dresses, of the surviving girl in a hospital bed with two white patches over her damaged eyes and of teary-eyed family members as they testified 40 years later.

“Forty years passed before they were brought to justice as old men,” said Andrew Manis, a professor of history at Middle Georgia State and author of Shuttlesworth’s biography. “A whole lot of white people had to keep quiet about the evils of racism in America ... in order for those young men to become old very happily.”

Manis met Jones at Shuttlesworth’s funeral in 2011 and asked if he would speak at the college during Black History Month. Jones tells his story because, while society is more diverse and tolerant than it was 50 years ago, there still is progress to be made, he said. It’s important that young people remember the “hatefulness and viciousness” of that era, Jones said.

“The importance for me, personally, is seeing the reactions and knowing the story has an impact on people,” he said.

Audience members wiped their eyes and clasped their mouths as Jones recounted testimonies of the bombers’ family and acquaintances, who testified that the men would brag and laugh about the bombing.

Cherry’s family recalled him talking about the bombing in his sleep and, years after the incident, talking about the dead girls as if they were animals. Jones retold Cherry’s granddaughter’s testimony of her grandfather asserting that no one was supposed to die, “but at least they can’t breed.”

After devoting five years to the two cases, Jones clinched the convictions. Both men were sentenced to life in prison; Cherry died in prison, and Blanton is still serving. Neither showed any remorse, Jones said.

But, for Jones, the trials “emotionally drained” him, he said.

“You could probably hear my voice crack a couple times in there,” he said, “and that’s 10 years after the fact.”

There were highs and lows. He compares winning the cases to a Super Bowl victory. But working with the families and reliving the horror of that day -- and that time period in the South -- was heart wrenching, Jones said, especially when he was not sure what the outcome would be.

One of his biggest worries was that the jury would view the case simply as part of history. Jones set out to show that “it was about families who had lost loved ones, families who had never gotten justice,” he said.

He worked with one witness who came from a nursing home to testify, despite having just suffered a stroke. Another witness testified with medical staff and equipment on standby after having a heart attack and being admitted to the Intensive Care Unit before the trial.

Jones questioned one woman who heard about her sister’s death on the radio. The mother of one girl was upstairs in another part of the church when the bomb exploded. She remembers screaming, “My baby, my baby,” Jones said.

Denise McNair’s father recalled the hours after the blast. When he identified his only daughter’s body, she still had a piece of mortar embedded in her skull. But Jones’ most powerful witness was Sarah Collins Rudolph, the only survivor of the five girls in the church classroom, he said.

Rudolph, who is still blind in one eye, remembers the last time she saw her sister, Addie Mae Collins. The girls were excited about the upcoming youth service and were complimenting Denise’s new dress. Sarah caught a glimpse of her sister tying Denise’s sash, and then everything went dark. Jones saved Rudolph as his last witness.

“It was a remarkable ending to a remarkable story,” he said.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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