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The Long Wait for Justice

How Visiting Rappaport professor brought closure in racist 1963 church bombing.

Doug Jones  Photograph by Vicki Sanders

Former US Senator and Rappaport Distinguished Visiting Professor Doug Jones built his career on winning what some might call impossible battles. In 2017 he became the first Democrat in 24 years to fill a US Senate seat in the state of Alabama, making him the only statewide federally elected Democrat in the deep South during his term.

But an earlier victory won while he was serving as US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 1997 to 2001 remains was one of the Senator’s most meaningful experiences.

That was when Jones brought long-overdue justice to the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing—the historic, domestic terrorist attack by members of the Ku Klux Klan—that killed four young Black girls in 1963: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.

Jones discussed the bombing and prosecutions at Boston College Law School on February 28 during a Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy event co-sponsored by BC Law’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA).

Jones recounted that he was nine years old and living in Fairfield, Alabama (part of the Birmingham metropolitan area), when the bombs went off. In “Justice Delayed, Not Justice Denied: The Prosecutions of the 16th Baptist Church Bombing,” he walked the audience through his first-person experiences at the time as well as the civil rights movement as a whole, a narration similar to how he presented his case during the prosecutions in 2001 and 2002.

It was his personal connection to the events that made the prosecution all the more meaningful, he said, and it remains relevant to this day—especially in light of President Biden’s recent selection of Jones to shepherd the newly announced Supreme Court nominee through the US Senate. “You can understand how I felt this past Friday [February 25] in the White House, literally in the room, 20-feet away from the President of the United States, who was introducing the first African American woman to be on the United States Supreme Court,” Jones explained.

“As a prosecutor, I wanted to tell the story to my jury—a story that talks about the civil rights movement, a story that talks about these families and the children and the terror they went through on September 15,” said Jones. “At the same time, it is also a story of reconciliation and redemption; it is also a story of justice delayed, not justice denied.”

Jones was a second-year law student in Birmingham when the first case was tried in 1977. He said he cut his classes to go watch the trial. “I saw an amazing trial, never—ever—dreaming at that point that 24 years later I would have an opportunity to do the second and third of those trials in the same courtroom I watched from the balcony as a kid,” said Jones.

One of the bombers Jones prosecuted was Bobby Frank Cherry, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Jones framed the prosecution as a puzzle, with the first piece being a video from 1957 showing a mob attacking Black lawyer and preacher Fred Shuttlesworth and his wife as they tried to enroll their kids in a white school. This was in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), when many white people in southern states like Alabama were fighting to keep schools segregated. Jones showed the video in which Cherry is shown reaching into his pocket for brass knuckles to beat Shuttlesworth. According to Jones, Cherry represented the first piece of the puzzle for the trial.

He went on to highlight major occurrences leading up to the 1963 bombings such as the arrival of the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, the children’s protests organized at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the peaceful march to Birmingham City Hall for civil rights where the protestors were met with fire hoses and police dogs at the hand of the infamous Birmingham Mayor Bull Connor.

“These family folks were just amazing. They waited patiently for the wheels of justice to turn, and it took a long time.”

Doug Jones, in reference to the victims’ families

“At this point there were two targets of the Klan’s wrath. Number one, the church—the church became a symbol of the movement because that’s where everybody went. Second, the youth of Birmingham became the target,” Jones said. “When you became the symbols of the movement, you had a target on your chest and your back, and now the youth and the church were both symbols—a couple more pieces of the puzzle for our trial fell into place.”

He said the puzzle began to form a clear picture when the prosecution team acquired evidence that confirmed two locations used as meeting places for the Klan as they plotted the church bombing.

In May of 2000, Jones and his team finally got indictments on Cherry and Tommy Blanton, both of whom were found to play major roles in the bombing. On day one of the first trial against Blanton, nearly 40 years after the bombing, all of the families of the victims were in the courtroom. “They were there every day,” said Jones.

He talked through the importance of the involvement in the case of certain family members, including Maxine and Chris McNair, whose 11-year-old daughter Denise was killed in the bombing.

Jones explained that when Chris McNair arrived at the church after the bombing, he was directed to the makeshift morgue where he had to identify his then-only daughter with a piece of mortar embedded in her skull. Jones said McNair kept the piece of mortar over the years as part of a memorial for his daughter, and when Jones finally built up the courage to ask him why, McNair said, “People come and see this all the time, and they mourn for those girls and they learn about the history and they are despondent about what happened, but until they see that piece of mortar, they really don’t fully appreciate what people can do in the name of hate.”

At trial, Jones said, “I made sure that both of my juries not only saw, but held that piece of mortar. These family folks were just amazing. They waited patiently for the wheels of justice to turn, and it took a long time.”

Again, Jones tied this back to his more recent experience seeing President Biden introduce Kentaji Brown Jackson as his US Supreme Court nominee. “You look at Kentaji Jackson and you see the possibilities that we lose when children die, and it was a really special moment for me to think about these kids and to see Judge Jackson behind that presidential podium.”

In closing, Jones showed a picture of Denise McNair, the same picture he showed when closing his prosecution. “This picture, this photograph says it all. It’s a photograph of the children who marched in the streets, it’s a photograph of a mother’s heart that never stops crying for the death of a child, it’s a photograph of the deaths of those four children and the injuries to Sarah [Collins Rudolph, who lost an eye and her sister, Addie Mae Collins], but most importantly, it’s a photo of hope,” said Jones.

“A young Black girl holding her best friend, a white Chatty Cathy doll. In 1963, it was really the hope of the African American community, but today it’s really the hope of us all—that we can do a lot more for each other, we can love each other more, and we can respect each other a hell of a lot more.”

Jones added, “There are people out there today that are still trying to destroy that hope. People like Cherry and Blanton; they all live today, and they’re still trying to destroy the hope, but just remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and good things never die.”