Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., the lone survivor of a group of Klansmen convicted in an Alabama church bombing that killed four black girls in 1963, is up for parole after spending 15 years in prison for murder. Alabama’s parole board will decide whether 78-year-old Blanton deserves to be free, but members of the Birmingham NAACP and other civil rights leaders held a news conference on Friday across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church to speak out against any early release.
Watch video from that press conference below.
The 16th Street Baptist Church was the first black church to organize in Birmingham in 1873. The church is still in operation and is a central landmark in the Birmingham Civil Rights District. On September 15, 1963, Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Robert Edward Chambliss planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of the church, and when they exploded, four young girls — Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair — were instantly killed and 22 others were injured. More than 8,000 mourners, white and black, attended their funeral, but no city officials were there.
Following the bombing, the church was gifted with more than $300,000 by citizens from all over the world to help with repairs. The church reopened in June 1964. In 1997, Spike Lee released a documentary titled 4 Little Girls, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson & Cynthia Morris Wesley! 51 yrs ago they were killed in church! pic.twitter.com/TsGoaphwEs
— Rev Alethea (@RevAlethea) September 26, 2014
A three-person parole board has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday in Montgomery to consider releasing Blanton, who is serving a life sentence. Inmates are not allowed to attend parole hearings in Alabama, but opponents of Blanton’s release are expected to address the board, including the girls’ surviving family members, Rawstory.com reports.
Hezekiah Jackson, president of the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP, said, “It is our further position that it would be a travesty of justice” to release Thomas early.
— Nina Turner (@ninaturner) September 15, 2014
Pulseheadlines.com notes that Bernard Simelton, the president of the Alabama NAACP, said it would reflect poorly on the nation to release Blanton at a time when civil unrest and protests are occurring nationwide over police killings of black people.
“It would be a slap in the face to those young ladies and their families to release him,” Simelton said.
— JJ Westchester (@JackandJill_WNY) July 29, 2016
Blanton wasn’t convicted of murdering the four girls until 2001. He and Cherry were indicted in 2000 after the FBI reopened an investigation of the racially-motivated bombing. Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Thomas, called his crime “terrorism,” and said the killer should not be freed because he has never expressed remorse or accepted responsibility for the crime, which occurred at a time when whites opposed the court-ordered desegregation of Birmingham’s public schools. Blanton has always denied any involvement with the bombing.
“This was, as I said during the trial, an act of terrorism before the word ‘terrorism’ was part of our everyday lives,” Jones said.
He plans to attend the parole hearing in opposition to Thomas’ early release, and says the board should not consider Blanton’s age when deciding whether to grant parole.
“It took (38) years for him to be brought to justice to begin with,” Jones said. “I think that mitigates against the fact that he is an elderly man now.”
Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr.’s co-conspirators Robert Chambliss, who was convicted in 1977, and Bobby Frank Cherry, who was convicted in 2002, both died in prison.
[Photo by AP Photo/Brynn Anderson]