It was a quiet Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama—around 10:24 on September 15, 1963—when a dynamite bomb exploded in the back stairwell of the downtown Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
The violent blast ripped through the wall, killing four African-American girls on the other side and injuring more than 20 inside the church.
It was a clear act of racial hatred: the church was a key civil rights meeting place and had been a frequent target of bomb threats.
Our Birmingham office launched an immediate investigation and wired the FBI Director about the crime. FBI bomb experts raced to the scene—via military jet—and an additional dozen personnel from other offices were sent to assist Birmingham.
At 10:00 p.m. that night, Assistant Director Al Rosen assured Assistant Attorney General Katzenbach that “the Bureau considered this a most heinous offense…[and]…we had entered the investigation with no holds barred.”
And we backed that promise up. Dozens of FBI agents worked the case throughout September and October and into the new year—as many as 36 at one point. One internal memo noted that:
“…we have practically torn Birmingham apart and have interviewed thousands of persons. We have seriously disrupted Klan activities by our pressure and interviews so that these organizations have lost members and support. …We have made extensive use of the polygraph, surveillances, microphone surveillances and technical surveillances…”
By 1965, we had serious suspects—namely, Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., all KKK members—but witnesses were reluctant to talk and physical evidence was lacking. Also, at that time, information from our surveillances was not admissible in court. As a result, no federal charges were filed in the ‘60s.
It has been claimed that Director Hoover held back evidence from prosecutors in the ‘60s or even tried to block prosecution. But it’s simply not true. His concern was to prevent leaks, not to stifle justice. In one memo concerning a Justice Department prosecutor seeking information, he wrote, “Haven’t these reports already been furnished to the Dept.?” In 1966, Hoover overruled his staff and made transcripts of wiretaps available to Justice. And he couldn’t have blocked the prosecution and didn’t—he simply didn’t think the evidence was there to convict.
In the end, justice was served.
Chambliss received life in prison in 1977 following a case led by Alabama Attorney General Robert Baxley. And eventually the fear, prejudice, and reticence that kept witnesses from coming forward began to subside. We re-opened our case in the mid-1990s, and Blanton and Cherry were indicted in May 2000. Both were convicted at trial and sentenced to life in prison. The fourth man, Herman Frank Cash, had died in 1994.