By Emily Williams
Birmingham lawyer Doug Jones spoke during the Vestavia Hills Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon Nov. 10, sharing his personal story and the story of those affected by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 and a trial that followed much later.
Under his leadership as U.S. attorney, prosecutors sought to re-open the cold case in 1997 and secure convictions for two of the four members of the Ku Klux Klan who aided in making, securing and detonating the bomb that killed four young girls and injured another Sept. 15, 1963.
“What was happening in September of 1963 was the desegregation of the Birmingham City Schools for the first time,” Jones said.
He set the scene for the bombing, recounting the historical dates and events of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, including the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education court ruling and George Wallace’s staged stand in the schoolhouse door, an attack on the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and his wife in 1957 and the Freedom Rides in 1961.
Jones said many of the acts of hate in Alabama during that time were centered on children and their growing rights as desegregation came into fruition.
The surviving victim, Sarah Collins, served as the last witness in the trial of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry. Jones said her testimony ended the trial on a high note and was the reason a conclusion to the case was reached quickly and the two Klansmen were sentenced to life in prison.
Jones showed a photograph taken of Collins before the bombing in which she was smiling with her favorite doll in hand, and he said it was the photograph that captures the message of the Civil Rights movement – the hope of those fighting segregation that their children would one day be acknowledged members of society.
“At the end of the day, this is a photograph of hope: a young black girl holding her best friend, a white Chatty Cathy doll,” Jones said.
Jones said he and his colleagues see a push-back occurring around the nation through violent acts such as those in Charleston, South Carolina, and Missouri, and in recent debates over the use of the Confederate flag.
“There are times that we have got to stop and think about what happened and the messages and what was learned right here in Birmingham,” Jones said. He recalled a time when Birmingham was the leader in the Civil Rights movement, how far we have come since 1963 and how far we can go in the future.
“We are better than (racism) and that is the lesson of the 16th Street Baptist Church,” Jones said.