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'A Legacy Of Pain': Birmingham Church Bomber Is Denied Parole

Visitors look at 16th Street Baptist Church, the scene of the 1963 bombing, in Birmingham, Ala.
Jay Reeves

An Alabama parole board has denied early release to a 78-year-old Ku Klux Klansman who was convicted of killing four black girls in the 1963 bombing of the 16 th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

"It's one of the most notorious racially motivated crimes of the civil rights era," as NPR has reported. The victim's families vociferously argued against granting parole to Thomas Blanton Jr., who is serving four life sentences for killing Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins. This was Blanton's first chance at parole, according to AL.com.

The board denied parole and said the next hearing would be held in five years at the earliest — the maximum possible time.

As NPR's Debbie Elliott has reported, the dynamite exploded during Sunday school hour at the church. Blanton was free for more than 30 years before he was convicted of the crime. Here's more from Debbie:

Alabama inmate Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., who was among those convicted in the 1963 Ku Klux Klan church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Ala.
/ AP
Alabama inmate Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., who was among those convicted in the 1963 Ku Klux Klan church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Ala.

"Blanton has maintained his innocence since his trial in 2001. He was convicted under 1963 laws which did not provide for life without parole. So now he's up for routine parole consideration after 15 years. ... Groups including the NAACP and the family organization Jack and Jill of America have sent letters objecting to Blanton's possible release."

Lisa McNair, younger sister of victim Denise McNair, told the parole board that this has been "a legacy of pain in our family for our whole lives." McNair was born a year after her sister's death but says the bombing has profoundly impacted her, her family and her community. Here's more of her remarks, from a live Facebook video posted by journalist John Archibald:

"I had to watch my parents and their grief all of my life. They're strong and proud, and wonderful people, who waited patiently for 30-some-odd years for justice to be served, and justice was finally served in 2001 in the case of Thomas Blanton. And I believe he should continue to serve his justice in prison for the rest of his life.

"He's serving four life terms, and he should continue to serve the four life terms. We hold no ill will or malice against him but we have laws in this country. We have justice. And justice has finally said he needs to serve his time."

Along with those who died, McNair spoke about a woman who lost an eye during the bombing and others who were scarred by glass and debris. "There's a whole community, hundreds of people, who are suffering from what this man did in anger and hate," McNair said.

Alabama's attorney general, Luther Strange, also lodged an official protest against granting Blanton parole. "The cold-blooded callousness of his hate crime is not diminished by the passage of time, nor is any punishment sufficient to expunge the evil he unleashed," he said, and added that Blanton has "never shown any remorse whatsoever."

And as Debbie told our Newscast unit, "no one spoke on behalf of Blanton" at the hearing.

"That bombing and the deaths of those children remind us so much about what's going on in the country today that we've got to continue to have these dialogues," Doug Jones, the prosecutor who tried and convicted Blanton and another Klansman, told Debbie. "We've got to continue to understand what motivates people in the name of hate."

Blanton is the last living person convicted of involvement in the notorious bombing. Two others were previously found guilty and later died in prison.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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