Ghosts of the Birmingham church bombing still haunt America

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 9/18/2013, 11:37 a.m.

The Birmingham church bombing that killed four African American girls 50 years ago was no isolated racial horror.

At the time, the 16th Street Baptist church bombing was just another in the decade-long train of racist terror attacks that included beatings, shootings, mob attacks, ambushes and of course, bombings. Dozens were killed in the attacks.

The victims had two things in common. The first was that hey were either targeted for their civil rights work, or targeted solely out of racial hate and revenge. The other was that in nearly every case their killers were never prosecuted, and in more cases they were not even arrested, though their identities were often well-known. In several cases, they were known because the FBI had fingered them.

The Birmingham bombing was a near textbook example of how officials turned a blind eye toward murder. The man who actually planted the bomb, Robert Chambliss, was quickly identified. He was arrested, but not on murder charges — simply for illegal possession of dynamite. He got a paltry fine and a hand-slap six-month sentence. His other three accomplices, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were also soon identified. They were not arrested.

It would take nearly two decades before Chambliss was finally tried and convicted and got a life sentence for the bombing, and more than two decades after before Blanton and Cherry (Cash had died) were convicted and got life sentences.

This closed the legal book on this horror. In a few other cases federal prosecutors and district attorneys in the South were determined to nail the perpetrators of old racial crimes. They scored some notable victories. State prosecutors in Mississippi convicted Byron De La Beckwith in 1994 for the 1963 murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers. Former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers was convicted in 1998 for the 1965 firebomb murder of Mississippi NAACP official Vernon Dahmer.

While their prosecution and jailing is commendable, the racial atrocity book still remains wide open in many other cases. Some of them are well known and shocking.

• In 1959, Mack Charles Parker was seized from a Mississippi jail by a group of armed white men. Parker was accused of raping a white woman. Ten days later Parker’s mutilated body was fished out of a river in Louisiana. Within three weeks of the killing, FBI agents identified his killers. They had solid evidence that the murderers had crossed state lines, and that law enforcement officers had conspired with the killers. No state or federal charges were ever brought.

• In 1961, a white Mississippi state representative murdered Herbert Lee, a NAACP worker, on an open highway during a traffic dispute. He was unarmed. No state or federal charges were ever brought.

• In 1965, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a black church deacon, was gunned down by an Alabama state trooper following a voting rights protest march and rally in Marion, Ala. Eyewitnesses insisted that Jackson was unarmed and did not threaten the officer. No state or federal charges were ever brought.