In Birmingham, the Smoke Finally Clears

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Wednesday, as word swept through the courthouse that a verdict had been reached, a crush of spectators pressed into the downtown courtroom. The forewoman began to read: "In the case of the State of Alabama versus Bobby Frank Cherry, we find the defendant guilty...''

And with that, after 39 years, the case that has haunted Birmingham, Ala. and is credited with awakening the nation to the savagery of the civil rights struggle in the South finally came to an end. Former Ku Klux Klansman Cherry, 71, was found guilty of four counts of murder in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 that killed four young girls.

Four men had long been suspected in the blast. One, Thomas E. Blanton, was convicted last year and is now serving life. 'Dynamite' Bob Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and died in jail. The fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being charged.

As the verdict was read, Cherry slumped back in his chair. He had been convicted of plotting the blast and planting the bomb that killed Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11. But Cherry remained unrepentant. "I have done nothing," he told the court after the verdict. "For years Doug Jones and some others have been telling lies about me. I don't know why I'm having to go to jail.''

He was then handcuffed by deputies and led out.

Addie Mae Collins' sister, Junie Collins Peavy, who was in the church sanctuary at the time of the blast, wiped tears after the verdict. "We just want it all to be over. It's been such a long time."

Frank Sikora covered the civil rights movement in Birmingham and is the author of the 1991 book "Until Justice Rolls Down" which chronicled the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, and "Selma, Lord, Selma," a verbal history of the civil rights struggle in that Alabama city.