The 1963 Birmingham church bombing was a signal event in the civil rights movement in this country because it showed that hate and violence could not diminish the cause of equality but had the opposite effect of strengthening that ideal.
Justice has now been served - nearly 40 years late, but served nonetheless - with final guilty verdicts in the horrific deaths of four young black girls who were killed when a dynamite blast tore through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as they prepared for a youth day program.
Denise McNair was just 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson were all 14. They died that day but live forever in the annals of freedom's fight.
The bombing came just 18 days after the fabled March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and two months before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The revulsion, shame, and guilt that swept the nation provided the impetus for passage by Congress of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
It is testament to the continuing battle to assure the rights of all Americans that it took so long to bring to justice the last of four men who had been identified early on as suspects in the girls' murders.
In the end, it was strong circumstantial evidence that persuaded a mostly white jury in Birmingham last week to convict Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, a Ku Klux Klan member who, witnesses testified, had bragged about the killings.
The path to justice should not have been so long or arduous. By 1965, FBI investigators had concluded that the bombing was the work of Cherry, Thomas Blanton, Jr., Robert Chambliss, and Herman Frank Cash. But FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover summarily closed the investigation in 1968, and prosecutors weren't told for nine more years that the FBI had tape recordings that incriminated Cherry and Blanton.
Chambliss was convicted after the case was reopened in 1977. He died in prison. Blanton was convicted last year. Cash died before he could be charged.
Credit for refusing to let the bombing case die goes to Bill Baxley, the former Alabama attorney general, and Doug Jones, the U.S. attorney in Birmingham. They had the courage and tenacity to finally overcome the old South's legacy of racial animosity and separation.
Before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Dr. King exhorted his followers to never give up the civil rights struggle “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Regrettably, as we know now, justice sometimes comes not in a torrent but a trickle.
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