T.K. Thorne discusses new book about Birmingham church bombing in Columbus State University lecture

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 24, 2013 

ROBIN TRIMARCHI rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Author and former Birmingham police detective T.K. Thorne discusses the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed three young teenaged African-American girls. Her book, "Last Chance for Justice," explores the decades of investigation that ultimately lead to convictions in the bombing. 10.24.13

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

Teresa "T.K." Thorne grew up during segregation in Montgomery, Ala., where her family taught her "very strongly that nobody is less than." Then she became the first Jewish officer in the Birmingham Police Department and retired in 1999 as a captain after 22 years of service.

So in 2004, when she attended an event called "The Gathering," which brought together folks associated with the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, she was personally and professionally primed to act on the significant opportunity she sensed.

One of the speakers was detective Ben Herren, a former colleague on the police force.

"I had no idea he had been one of the primary investigators on the church bombing case," Thorne told a crowd of more than 100 Thursday in the Schwob Memorial Library as part of Columbus State University's series of civil rights events.

But she did know the Birmingham community, especially blacks, thought that "there was never a real effort to convict these people," Thorne said. "Somewhere between a third and 40 percent of the police department in the 1960s were either members of or sympathizers with the Ku Klux Klan. There were judges who wore white robes beneath their black, so to speak. It was a different time and a very frightening time for blacks and whites who dared to challenge the existing segregation laws."

It wasn't until 2008, however, when she heard Herren speak about the investigation again at another event, that she convinced him and FBI agent Bill Fleming to allow her to interview them for the book she felt compelled to write.

"I asked them if I could tape-record their stories, because they were so fascinating," she said, "and I was afraid they would be lost to history."

The result is "Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers." It was published last month, in time for the 50th anniversary of the bombing.

The case

Four members of the Ku Klux Klan drove to the church before sunrise Sept. 15, 1963, a Sunday. Bobby Frank Cherry hid a box of dynamite with a time-delayed explosion mechanism under outside steps of the church. At 10:22 a.m., five girls were in the adjacent restroom, primping for the youth service. The sermon was supposed to be "The Love that Forgives." Instead, they heard the bomb that hates.

The explosion killed 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley and 11-year-old Denise McNair. The fifth girl in the restroom, Addie Mae's sister Sarah, was blinded and among the 22 injured.

"It's hard to understand hate like that," Thorne said. "But I truly believe that these people who did this, underneath that hate was fear. They were afraid of their way of life changing. They were afraid, frankly, if different-looking children went to school together they might end up liking each other and might end up marrying each other. They believed that white blood should be kept pure.

"Unfortunately, there are still people in the world today who believe that. So if you find yourself hating, please look inside yourself and see if there is a fear underneath there. That fear is the same fear the Nazis used in Germany."

The bombing was among the events that led to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The investigation

Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was the first to be convicted in the case, 14 years after the bombing. It took another quarter century for Thomas Blanton (2001) and Bobby Frank Cherry (2002) to be convicted. Herman Frank Cash, the fourth suspect, died in 1994 without being prosecuted. Thorne's book focuses on the investigation that led to the conviction of Blanton and Cherry.

Fleming had retired from the FBI, so he was free to speak Thorne. Herren, however, had left the police department and was working for the FBI, so he had to sneak away during his lunch hour for the interviews with Thorne. They told her about the cold case they were assigned in 1995.

Herren was conflicted, Thorne said. He realized nearly 100 witnesses already had died, only two suspects were left, including one in poor health, and he didn't want his final years as a cop stuck in a failed investigation.

"On the other hand," Thorne said, "he knew this was absolutely the last chance to ever find justice for those little girls."

Fleming, the oldest FBI agent in the Birmingham office, also wasn't thrilled when he was assigned the case, Thorne said.

"He thought it was all political and wasn't going anywhere," she said. "So he was rather cold to Sgt. Herren in the beginning. He basically came and slapped a file down on his desk and left."

It took Herren and Fleming 18 months to comb through 19 volumes of case files and 30-40 of volumes of intelligence files before they started interviews, Thorne said.

"It all had to be kept secret," she said, "because they didn't want the news to spoil it."

Their big break in the case came when Fleming discovered an FBI tape-recording that linked the suspects to the bomb. A clerk in charge of the files had said she couldn't find the tape, but Fleming wouldn't take no for an answer. He searched the storage room himself.

"He finally was about to give up, and he started to walk out," Thorne said, "but he noticed a pile of trash in the back corner. He said, 'Well, hell, I've looked everywhere else so I might as well look in the trash.' He went over there and opened a box, and there were reels of recordings from that time."

Asked after her lecture, Thorne was asked whether she has received any backlash for writing a book about such a controversial subject.

Thorne smiled and replied, "Not yet. The book came out in September. To tell you the truth, I never even considered it. As a police officer, I've put bad guys in jail. You just can't worry about that kind of thing. You've got to do your job and do what's right."

CIVIL RIGHTS EVENTS AT CSU

Here some other events in Columbus State University's year-long retrospective of the American civil rights movement:

Continuing through Nov. 7: Freedom Riders exhibition, Schwob Memorial Library.

Oct. 29: American Experience documentary film, "Freedom Riders," 7 p.m., Davidson Student Center auditorium.

Nov. 7: Lecture by Thomas Aiello, assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Valdosta State University, on "Leaving the Promised Land: The Atlanta Hawks, Race and the NBA's Move to the Deep South," 12:30 p.m., Schwob Memorial Library.

Gary Sprayberry, chairman of CSU's history and geography department, said this semester's civil rights events focus on the national level, and the spring semester's events will focus on the local level. "I want to have a panel of local civil rights activists," he said.

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