I spent an enlightening hour with local barrister Doug Jones last week. It was in the company of a busload of kids who had traveled all the way from Manhattan to the Civil Rights Institute to learn about freedom. We were all impressed to hear the story of how two 1963 church bombers were brought to justice almost four decades later, from a guy who made that happen.
As impressive was the pedigree of the Yankee teacher (and Yankees fan) who brought the children here. For 17 years, Evan Meyers lived large as a Wall Street commodities trader, but in 2001, he started looking around for a truly scarce commodity, namely, career fulfillment.
His volunteer work with Facing History in Ourselves, a group that addresses racial issues in the classroom, led him to consider becoming a teacher. Eight years later, with a master’s degree and unflagging enthusiasm, Meyers became a history teacher at the High School for Language and Diplomacy in New York City.
As its name implies, HSLAD is not your usual secondary school. For most students, a field trip means a visit to a museum. Mr. Meyers’ idea in 2010 was to fly 18 of his charges, many of whom had never been aboard a plane before, to New Orleans, to participate in the restoration of that hurricane-ravaged metropolis.
Those kids, ninth- and 10th-graders, were members of the Community Service Club, a group Meyers organized to put into actions his belief that “altruism can lead to a life of meaning and purpose.” Now teaching American history to 11th graders, Meyers’ latest field trip would carry his students to Atlanta and Memphis, as well as Birmingham, to learn the history behind history.
In his dapper blazer and neatly pressed slacks, Doug Jones likely did not appear to them as a influential figure in the civil rights struggle, but once he started laying out the tortuous tale of how justice was finally meted out in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, he had their complete attention.
It would have been so easy for the killers to get away with it. It happened all the time in the Deep South of the Sixties, where the lives of people of color were of little value to many in law enforcement who shared sympathies, if not Ku Klux Klan membership, with the perpetrators of race violence. In the few instances when juries of these hate-filled murderers’ peers were convened, acquittal was a common outcome.
As time passed and attitudes changed, a new generation sought to put things right. One such was Bill Baxley, a Dothan native who had been in law school at the University of Alabama when the church blew up and who became subsequently the youngest state attorney general in U.S. history when elected in 1970. A progressive Democrat, his priority was to reopen the closed case of the 16th Street church bombing. “We know who did it,” he told the press, but what the press did not know was that Baxley lacked evidence to convict all parties, due in part to J. Edgar Hoover’s refusal to share with the state damning audio testimony acquired by the FBI.
Four men were suspected from the beginning: “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, Tommy Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Herman Frank Cash. There was insufficient evidence to make a case against all four, but in 1977, Baxley charged “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss with murder.
One of Baxley’s former interns, a young Cumberland School of Law student named Doug Jones, skipped classes so he could watch the trial in person downtown. What he witnessed from the balcony of the courtroom was a successful prosecution. Chambliss was convicted and would die in prison eight years later.
Justice, however, was incomplete. Thirty years after the bombing, an FBI agent named Rob Langford took over the Birmingham office and learned that the black community was still aggrieved that the other killers of those four little girls were at liberty. He reopened the investigation, succeeded after his retirement in 1996 by agent Bill Fleming, who redoubled FBI efforts. Birmingham police detective Ben Herren lent his skills as well, while Caryl Privett, then U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, started scraping rust off the wheels of justice.
Jones, meanwhile, worked his way up the legal food chain and became U.S. Attorney himself in 1997. He brought to that office the sort of zeal for justice his hero Bill Baxley had personified 20 years before. Time, though, had changed the playing field. Crucial witnesses were dead or infirm; one of the suspects, Herman Frank Cash, was dead as well. If Jones were to prosecute anyone, it would have to be in state court, where there was no statute of limitations on murder.
With the aid of Birmingham D.A. David Barber and a crack legal staff, Jones and his team, as he puts it, “repackaged” the existing evidence to present to a new generation of jurors. Blanton and Cherry were charged in 2000 and convicted in 2001 and 2002 respectively. The families of the victims, who had trusted so long that the system would work, received a measure of vindication.
Almost 50 years after the church bombing, the news reminds us that things may not have changed as much as we might have thought. In recent days, the names of Addie Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair have been joined in public discourse by that of Trayvon Martin as young people untimely dead, in circumstances tinged by racial prejudice.
As Evan Meyers and his students return to New York to share their experience of how things once were, we trust they will pay heed as well to how things are. More importantly, we hope they will use what they learned in Birmingham to focus their considerable energies and potential on the ultimate agenda; the way things ought to be.
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to email@example.com.