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The BBC's Paul Reynolds
"The bombing both depressed and galvanised the civil rights movement"
 real 28k

Thursday, 18 May, 2000, 21:46 GMT 22:46 UK
Klansmen deny church bombing
Pastor Christopher Hamlin in front of the 16th St church
Two former Ku Klux Klan members, charged with murdering four black girls in 1963 by bombing a church, are maintaining their innocence.

But prosecutors are hoping that finally the people they believe carried out one of the worst race crimes of the civil rights era will be brought to justice.

Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry are accused of conspiring nearly 37 years ago to bomb Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church.

The long inquiry
1963: Bomb kills four
1965: Four men named but not charged
1971: Case reopened
1977: Chambliss convicted
1997-Case reopened
17 May 2000: Blanton and Cherry on murder charges
Both surrendered on Wednesday to face state murder charges and were kept in custody.

The bombing, on 15 September 1963, was a watershed moment in the fight for civil rights.

It was a crime so horrific it galvanised the movement and spurred moderate whites to embrace the cause.

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who led demonstrations in Birmingham in the 1960s, said the arrests were good not just for the victims' families but for others who suffered during the reign of Klan violence in Birmingham.

"It brings some relief", the Cincinnati pastor said.

Reverend Christopher Hamlin, pastor of the 16th Street church since 1990, said there was a "strong sense of some beginning of a conclusion" to the bombing.

doug jones
Doug Jones: Alabama State Attorney

But victims' relatives worry it will be difficult to obtain convictions after so long.

"It remains to be seen whether this evidence will warrant justice", Dianne Braddock, sister of victim Carole Robertson, said on ABC's Good Morning America.

Thomas Blanton, 61, of Birmingham, and Bobby Frank Cherry, 69, of Mabank, Texas, are suspected of plotting with former Klansman Robert Chambliss.

Chambliss, convicted in 1977, died in prison in 1985.

A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, was never charged and also has died.

Over the past year, some of Mr Cherry's relatives have appeared before a federal grand jury, and have said publicly that he talked of helping plant the dynamite.

Thomas Blanton: In custody

But US attorney Doug Jones would not say what led to a break in the case.

President Bill Clinton applauded the arrests.

"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," Mr Clinton said on Thursday.

"We must not rest until all those responsible for this horrific crime are held accountable for what they have done."

The church bombing came just months after police in Birmingham used dogs and fire hoses to drive back black marchers.

The explosion demolished an outside wall of the church and killed the girls, who were in the basement.

The men's lawyers are still saying they were not involved.

Mickey Johnson, acting for Mr Cherry said his client is in ill health.

"He wants the world to know his story, and he thinks he'll be vindicated", the lawyer said.

The two men have been charged with eight counts of murder - two counts for each of the four girls.

If convicted, each could be sentenced to life in prison.

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18 May 00 | Americas
Two accused of racist bombing
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