(AL.com) – The last surviving Ku Klux Klan member convicted in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four little girls has died.
Thomas E. Blanton, 82, died of natural causes Friday morning at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County. He was found at 5 a.m. having cardiac issues and taken to the infirmary at Donaldson. He went into full arrest and was pronounced dead at 6:10 a.m., according to Jefferson County Chief Deputy Coroner Bill Yates.
An autopsy performed found no evidence of trauma or foul play, but did reveal Blanton had significant natural disease consistent with his known documented medical history. The final autopsy results will be available in approximately four to six weeks pending toxicology and other laboratory studies.
Blanton was one of three Klansmen eventually convicted in the Sept. 15, 1963 10:15 a.m. blast that killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cythnia Wesley and Carole Robertson. The girls were killed as they changed into their choir robes.
Collins’ sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, survived the blast but lost her right eye and is known as the “fifth little girl.” Glass fragments remained in her chest, left eye and abdomen for decades after the explosion.
Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry both were arrested in 2000 on murder charges, nearly four decades after the deadly Birmingham bombing.
A parole hearing was scheduled next year for Blanton, and Rudolph and her husband planned to attend in opposition to his release, which was denied during a previous hearing.
“She hopes that he found Jesus Christ and repented,” George Rudolph said on behalf of his wife.
Lisa McNair, the sister of Denise McNair, said she also hoped Blanton had repented and added: “I wish I could have sat down with him to find out if he had had a change of heart.”
“While serving a life sentence, Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr., the last surviving 16th Street Baptist Church bomber, has passed away from natural causes. His role in the hateful act on September 15, 1963 stole the lives of four innocent girls and injured many others,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a public statement. “That was a dark day that will never be forgotten in both Alabama’s history and that of our nation. Although his passing will never fully take away the pain or restore the loss of life, I pray on behalf of the loved ones of all involved that our entire state can continue taking steps forward to create a better Alabama for future generations.
“Let us never forget that Sunday morning in September of 1963 and the four young ladies whose lives ended far too soon, but let us continue taking steps forward to heal, do better and honor those who sacrificed everything for Alabama and our nation to be a home of opportunity for all.”
Cherry and Blanton were two of the four longtime suspects in the bombing. The initial investigation in the 1960s yielded no charges. Then, a decade later, Attorney General Bill Baxley conducted a second investigation which led to the conviction of Robert Chambliss, who died in prison in 1985. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994.
A 1993 meeting in Birmingham between FBI officials and Black ministers led to the reopening of the bombing case against Blanton and Cherry.
A decade earlier, the U.S. Justice Department concluded that former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had blocked prosecution of Klansmen in the bombing.
The case was reopened secretly in 1996 at the direction of former FBI Birmingham head Rob Langford. FBI Special Agent Bill Fleming and retired Birmingham police Sgt. Ben Herren were assigned the case in 1996, spending a year poring through voluminous case files and then interviewing more than 800 people.
The FBI in 1997, by then under the leadership of Special Agent in Charge Joseph Lewis, announced it had reopened its investigation. The agency went public with the information as it prepared to expand the probe to begin questioning people with possible knowledge of the crime.
In the 1960s, Blanton was a KKK member and a staunch fighter against Birmingham school integration. He was 25 years old in the fall of 1963. At the time of the arrest, he was guarding property in Fultondale.
“At that time (1963), he was pretty wild and crazy,” said former Klansman Wyman S. Lee. “He has a lot of hate, anger and resentment built up in him,” Lee said.
Though the case was federally investigated, Blanton and Cherry were arrested on state murder charges.
U.S. Senator Doug Jones – then a federal prosecutor – was appointed a special prosecutor in the state case. At Blanton’s trial in 2001, the biggest pieces of evidence against him were secretly recorded FBI tapes from the 1960s in which he told his then-wife that he had been at a meeting where “we planned the bomb.”
“Tommy Blanton is responsible for one of the darkest days in Alabama’s history, and he will go to his resting place without ever having atoned for his actions or apologizing to the countless people he hurt. The fact that after the bombing, he went on to remain a free man for nearly four decades speaks to a broader systemic failure to hold him and his accomplices accountable,” Jones said today.
“That he died at this moment, when the country is trying to reconcile the multi-generational failure to end systemic racism, seems fitting.
“However, what the families of those girls, and the entire community of Birmingham, do know today is that when we come together and demand justice, we can achieve it. At this moment in our nation when we have all come to realize that the journey to racial justice has taken far too long, we must come together. Tommy Blanton may be gone, but we still have work to do.”
Blanton never admitted any role in the blast, but evidence showed he was part of a group of hard-core Klansmen who made a bomb and planted it on a Sunday morning.
When asked by the judge during sentencing if he had any comment, Blanton said: “I guess the good Lord will settle it on judgment day.”
Blanton proclaimed his innocence years after being sent to prison. In a 2006 interview with Birmingham station WBRC-TV, he claimed the government used trumped-up evidence and lies to gain his conviction.
“I think I was cleverly set up by the government ... and that’s why I’m here,” Blanton told the television station from St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville. “I’m sorry it happened. Deeply sorry. But I’m not responsible for it.”
(Carol Robinson, AL.com)