Two former members of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group, have been charged with murdering four black girls, aged between 11 and 14, in a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Announcing the arrests on May 17, law enforcement officials did not say what new or specific information had led them to arrest Thomas Blanton Jr., 61, of Birmingham, and Bobby Frank Cherry, 69, of Mabank, Texas, on charges of murder. However, the media reported that Cherry's granddaughter and ex-wife had said that Cherry talked openly of his participation in the bombing. Both men have denied the charges. Both have long been suspects in investigations of the bombing on September 15, 1963, that shocked the United States and proved a pivotal event in the struggle for civil rights for black Americans.The girls killed in the explosion-11-year-old Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all aged 14-were preparing for Sunday services at the 16th Street Baptist Church when a bomb planted outside the church exploded, crushing them beneath a wall.At the time Birmingham was known as one of the most racist cities in the US, and the bombing followed demonstrations earlier that year by civil rights advocates-led by Martin Luther King Jr.-that the authorities tried to crush with police fire hoses and dogs."In numbers of people killed at a single stroke, the 16th Street bombing was the most heinous crime of the civil rights era," The New York Times said in an editorial on May 18. "It was a crime that helped bring white Alabama to what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called an accord with its conscience."President Bill Clinton declared in a statement on May 18: "The terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 ended the lives of four young girls and broke the hearts of millions of Americans. To this day, the deaths of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley stand out as a powerful symbol of the terrible toll of racial hatred."The case has a long and unsettled history. Initially no charges were made against four Klansmen-including Blanton and Cherry-who fell under suspicion. One of the other men, Robert Chambliss, was eventually tried and convicted for the murders. He died in 1985, eight years after being sentenced to life in prison. The fourth suspect died in 1994, but was never charged for the crime.The case was re-opened and closed twice in the 1980s, without any resolution. Continued pressure from black clergy prompted the federal authorities to re-open the case again. The bombing was the subject of a 1997 documentary film by the director Spike Lee.In its editorial The New York Times said the zeal shown by a new generation of southern prosecutors in these and other cases was "warranted and was too long in coming." The editorial noted that two national figures at the time who were famously hostile to the civil rights movement, George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, and J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), had "hampered efforts by state and federal investigators to prosecute the 16th Street bombing."Copyright © 2000 ENI.

Related Elsewhere

Recent headlines elsewhere on the case include:Church bombing suspect free on bond (CNN) After '63 Bombing, Hard Lives for Suspects (The New York Times) In Alabama, Better Late Than Never (Washington Post) Echoes of a Klan Killing (Newsweek) Agent says ‘time was right' for closure in 1963 bombing (Baltimore Sun) Bombing suspect lived a quiet life (The Dallas Morning News)For more articles and resources, see Yahoo!'s full coverage area on the subject.The 16th Street Baptist Church Web site offers a history of the congregation. The National Park Service site also has a page about the church and bombingSpike Lee's 1997 documentary, Four Little Girls, can be purchased at or other video retailers.