Last Chance for Justice, the newest book by local author T.K. Thorne, launched just in time for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. The book follows FBI investigators Ben Herren and Bill Fleming on their five year journey, from 1995 to 2000, to uncover enough evidence to convict the remaining two church bombers, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry.
Thorne, a retired captain from the Birmingham Police Department, was inspired to write Last Chance for Justice by her family and contacts she made in law enforcement.
“My mother and grandmother supported early Civil Rights efforts in Montgomery. The Klan burned a cross on my grandparents’ front yard during the Montgomery bus boycott,” said Thorne. “Another major factor was that I knew one of the primary investigators in the church bombing case, a fact I didn’t realize until I heard him speak in 2004. That was the moment when I felt a real pull.”
The bombing took place on September 15, 1963, and sent shock waves through Birmingham and throughout the world. Four young girls — Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins — died that day at the hands of four Ku Klux Klan members.
Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were suspected of the bombing, but due to the lack of physical evidence and witnesses’ reluctance to talk for fear of the KKK’s “kiss of death,” none of the accused were tried in the ‘60s.
The church bombing investigation was closed, then re-opened in the ‘70s when Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley took office. This led to the conviction in 1977 of Chambliss, who was known to espouse racial hatred and to have explosives at the time of the church bombing.
Following Chambliss’ conviction, the investigation was again closed. Cash died in 1994 without being brought to trial. Realizing that time to try Blanton and Cherry was running out because of their ages, the investigation was re-opened in 1995 as the last chance for justice for the families of the four slain girls.
Last Chance for Justice details the investigative efforts of Herren and Fleming as they sought witness statements about the church bombing. Unlike tales where investigators are idealized, Thorne shows the realistic and complicated nature of the investigation. Told through the perspectives of Herren and Fleming, the reader learns of the many challenges the investigators faced.
Conducting interviews of those who had witnessed the bombing or had known Blanton and Cherry was a race against time. Many key potential witnesses had died by the time the investigation was re-opened in 1995, and Herren and Fleming feared some of the remaining elderly witnesses would pass away before Blanton and Cherry could be brought to trial. Additionally, some of the witnesses who gave statements to Herren and Fleming were unfit or unwilling to testify in court for various reasons.
Despite the book’s more technical law enforcement details, Last Chance for Justice doesn’t read like a textbook. It’s broken down into easily digestible chapters where Thorne tells the story, weaving all the facts inside the larger narrative of the bombing. Also included are passages about the working relationship, and later friendship, that developed between Herren and Fleming as they worked closely together. It is in these passages that readers get messages of hope and the occasional bit of comic relief.
It is evident by Last Chance for Justice’s comprehensive details of the church bombing and the relentless investigators’ efforts that writing the book was no small undertaking. Thorne researched and wrote the book from 2009 to 2012 after hearing Herren and Fleming tell their story at an event at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2008.
“I learned that Bill Fleming had retired and that Ben Herren was getting close to retirement. It struck me that their stories might be lost, so I suggested that we do taped interviews. We met weekly for a year and a half,” Thorne said.
Thorne’s primary resources were her recordings of Herren and Fleming, FBI files, microfiche records at the Birmingham Public Library and Fleming’s personal collection of files and photos.
And with the help of her husband, Roger Thorne, also a retired police sergeant, she was able to find Blanton’s court transcripts, which were thought to be lost.
“The transcript for the 1977 Chambliss trial was included in the files donated to the Birmingham Public Library. However, the county clerk’s office had destroyed the court transcripts (as per policy) for both the Blanton and Cherry trials.
“I tried the Alabama Attorney General’s office. They had all the documentation related to Cherry’s trial because they had handled the appeal, but did not have anything on Blanton’s trial. But my husband tracked down Julie Carter, the court reporter who had taken the original dictation during the trials, and she generously supplied her files and recordings,” Thorne said.
Further, Thorne’s background with the Birmingham Police Department informed her writing.
“Police are natural storytellers. The investigators trusted me to tell the story from their perspective, through their eyes and experience. I have a basic understanding of criminal and constitutional law, as well as court procedures and what is needed to build a case,” said Thorne.
The book launch for Last Chance for Justice was held in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, just a few yards from the former Ladies Lounge where the four young girls were killed the day of the bombing. Herren and Fleming were there, and when asked to speak, they said the real credit for the Blanton and Cherry convictions goes to the brave witnesses who, still fearing KKK backlash, testified in court.
Thorne said that she wished we lived in a time when we didn’t have to remember tragedies, but noted that we aren’t there yet.
“Knowing where we came from and how we got here is an important step in knowing who we are,” Thorne said. “In that sense, writing this book has stretched my understanding of what it means to be human.”
Upcoming events include book signings at Reed Books on Friday, September 13 from 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and at Books-A-Million (Brookwood) Saturday, September 28 from 1-3 pm., as well as speaking engagements at Temple Beth-El on September 14 at 3:45 p.m. and Temple Emanu-El on October 4 at 7 p.m. For more information on T.K. Thorne, visit her website.