Thomas Blanton got away with murder for almost 40 years. But just 15 years after being sentenced to life in prison for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls, he was considered for parole.
That bombing, of the 16th Street Baptist Church, has burned itself into the American psyche, as it underscored the urgency of the Civil Rights movement and the crisis of violence against black people. At the time, people feared that the Klansmen of “Bombingham” — the nickname the city acquired following a series of bombings targeting black communities even before 16th Street — would inspire violence elsewhere. It was highly unlikely that anyone would ever be brought to justice; black lives mattered even less to 1960s America than they do today.
To see one of the high-profile perpetrators of this violence even potentially earning early release in an era when black men and women are locked away for far longer and for much less has a particular sting. We still see black people murdered by vigilantes, white supremacist terrorists, and trigger-happy police officers with little to no consequence. Our justice system can’t curb mass incarceration or police the police, yet it allow for an infamous terrorist who got away with murder for almost 40 years to get a glimpse of freedom.
It took decades for Blanton to be brought to trial, even though J. Edgar Hoover named him as one of four suspects in FBI files regarding the attack in 1965. The case was closed in 1968, however, due to a lack of interest on Hoover’s part, and only three of those four suspects were ever brought to justice. The first, Robert Chambliss, wasn’t convicted until 1977, when Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley — who later said the bombing made him “almost physically ill,” and that he “made a vow” to “do something about it” — reopened the case after years of demands for prosecution from the families of the victims. Chambliss died in 1985 while serving his sentence. It wasn’t until more than 15 years later that his accomplices Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were brought to trial. They both received life sentences, in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Cherry died in prison. The fourth suspect, Herman Frank Cash, died in 1994 without ever facing charges, though he had been named by witnesses and the FBI had evidence against him in its initial investigation.
And yet Blanton, who evaded justice for 38 years, had the opportunity to see a parole board at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama.
How did it take nearly four decades to get a conviction for such a blatant act of domestic terrorism? For one thing, the investigation into the bombing was difficult; some witnesses withheld testimony out of fear of or loyalty to the KKK, a group to which the suspects all had known ties. The FBI was also reluctant to bring charges based on what evidence they did have, given that some of it had been obtained by recording private conversations and would be inadmissible in court. (Thanks to Baxley and the tireless efforts of the victims’ families, that same evidence, however, would lead to convictions years later). Hoover wrote in 1965 that “the chance of successful prosecution in State or Federal Court is very remote.” Activists and historians believe the FBI’s initial mishandling of the case was a combination of incompetence and indifference; FBI records indicate that Hoover backed down from prosecuting the suspects despite field agents believing they had a strong chance of conviction. As for Blanton becoming eligible for parole after only serving 15 years, Alabama’s standard procedure for life sentences dictates that inmates can be considered for parole after just a decade, or one-third of their remaining life expectancy.
To be clear, Blanton was, expectedly, quickly denied parole. But in this moment when so many are finally saying “black lives matter,” allowing Blanton to catch even a whiff of freedom is a punch in the gut. This is someone who, for almost 40 years after murdering four black children, got to live and breathe as a free man. Seeing Blanton’s name in the news can’t help but bring to mind the justice system’s long-standing failure to punish white murderers of black people. Legal loopholes for excusing violence against black people continue to be an American tradition today. Look at the Stand Your Ground laws that defended George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, or at the numerous cases of police officers who have not been held accountable in the deaths of a growing list of black folks — men and women like Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Michael Brown, whose families have yet to receive any justice.
Echoes of violent, self-proclaimed white supremacists dodging justice also live on in the case of Dylann Roof, whose attorneys have asked that the existing federal hate crime charges against him be dropped. For murdering nine black people in a South Carolina church, these lawyers instead would have Roof only tried by that state. The reason? They claim the federal government is overstepping its jurisdiction and violating due process by pressing federal charges for a crime committed solely within the boundaries of a single state. This move is part of a plea to avoid the death penalty for Roof and receive a life sentence instead.
This is all part of a pattern woven into the fabric of our racially biased justice system: Black people are incarcerated at five to 10 times the rate of white people for similar charges, and more than half of those charges are tied to nonviolent drug offenses. In 2013, the ACLU found that 65 percent of people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent offenses were black. They also found that black people were 20 times more likely to be sentenced to life without parole than white people who were convicted of similar nonviolent federal crimes. That’s what happened in the case of Fate Vincent Winslow, who was sentenced to life in prison in Louisiana for selling $20 worth of weed to an undercover officer.
There are thousands of other people, most of whom are black and/or Latinx, serving long sentences with little hope of ever seeing freedom again. Meanwhile, a terrorist whom the system took a lifetime to bring to justice gets to waste the time of a parole board.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the inconsistencies and blatant racial bias within our justice system, but some groups are offering alternative solutions. The Movement For Black Lives (M4BL) has put forth a platform that includes not just reforming the prison system, but overhauling prosecution and sentencing as we know it.
What we have now efficiently imprisons people of color for nonviolent crimes, but can’t be bothered to consistently bring what it calls justice to those who take black lives. How do we fix this? We start by addressing the problems within our criminal system and getting behind the efforts to create something better. Regardless of what any of us thinks that should look like, it is an undeniable injustice that Thomas Blanton got 38 years of freedom and 53 years of life that Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair never did.