Thomas Blanton, Who Bombed a Birmingham Church, Dies at 82

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Thomas E. Blanton Jr., the last survivor of three Ku Klux Klansmen who were convicted in the church bombing that killed four black girls in 1963 in Birmingham, Ala. — a case that stands as one of the ugliest and most galvanizing crimes of the civil rights era — died in prison on Friday in Bessemer, Ala. He was 82.

The Alabama Corrections Department did not specify the cause of death, at the Donaldson Correctional Facility, but said that Mr. Blanton had not been thought to have the Covid-19 virus.

Mr. Blanton was a suspect in the church bombing early on but escaped justice for decades, thanks in part to interference by J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the F.B.I., who in 1964 derailed efforts by the bureau’s Birmingham office to bring charges against him and three other men.

The case against Mr. Blanton was eventually revived, and in 2001 a jury convicted him of four counts of first-degree murder. He was given four consecutive life sentences.

The bombing occurred on Sept. 15, 1963, a Sunday, at the 16th Street Baptist Church, which had been a center of civil rights activity in Birmingham. Three 14-year-olds — Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — and an 11-year-old, Denise McNair, were killed in the blast, and many others were injured. The attack heightened national outrage over segregationist policies and racial oppression in the South.

“The Birmingham bombing holds a special place in civil rights history because of the randomness of its violence, the sacredness of its target and the innocence of its victims,” Kevin Sack wrote in The New York Times in 2000, when Mr. Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were finally indicted in the case.

Mr. Cherry, tried separately, was convicted in 2002 and died in prison at 74 in 2004. A third man, Robert Chambliss, was convicted in 1977 and died in prison eight years later at 81. The last suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 at 75 without being tried.

All four were Klan members in the early 1960s.

Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. was born on June 20, 1938, in Washington. News accounts said his father, known as Pops, was a notorious racist in Birmingham.

The younger Mr. Blanton had a 10th-grade education and served as an aircraft mechanic in the Navy from 1956 to 1959, according to F.B.I. files. When he was arrested in 2000, he was living in a trailer with no running water and working at a Walmart.

An F.B.I. report that became public in 1980 said that Mr. Hoover, who died in 1972, had blocked efforts to charge the four suspects shortly after the crime, although three people told F.B.I. agents that they had seen the four near the church about eight hours before the explosion. Mr. Hoover was said to have blocked the case because he thought a successful prosecution was unlikely. But the jury that convicted Mr. Chambliss in 1977 heard less direct evidence than was available to Mr. Hoover in 1964.

In 1997, a group of black ministers urged Doug Jones, then the United States attorney in Birmingham, to open a new investigation into the remaining suspects.

“Tom Blanton saw change and didn’t like it,” Mr. Jones, now a United States senator from Alabama, said at the trial. Mr. Blanton maintained his innocence.

Evidence presented at the trial included incriminating tape recordings made by the F.B.I. that implicated both Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry.

After Mr. Blanton’s conviction in 2001, Bill Baxley, who had prosecuted Mr. Chambliss as Alabama’s attorney general in 1977, wrote an angry opinion article in The New York Times asserting that the F.B.I. had not been forthcoming in the Chambliss case and had not revealed the existence of the tapes.

“For more than two decades, Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry evaded indictment and prosecution because the F.B.I. held back these recordings,” Mr. Baxley wrote. “This was evidence we desperately needed in 1977 — evidence whose existence F.B.I. officials had denied. Had it been provided in 1977, we could have convicted all three of these Klansmen.”

Information on Mr. Blanton’s survivors was not immediately available.

Robert Posey, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in his closing arguments at Mr. Blanton’s trial, “The defendant didn’t care who he killed as long as he killed someone and as long as that person was black.”

At the trial’s end, the judge asked Mr. Blanton if he had any comment. “I guess the good Lord will settle it on Judgment Day,” he said.

Christina Morales contributed reporting.


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