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Alabama Considers Parole For Birmingham Church Bomber


It's one of the most notorious racially motivated crimes of the civil rights era - the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four young black girls were killed. Now the Ku Klux Klansman convicted in those murders is up for parole. The hearing is set for tomorrow. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. has been in jail since he was convicted in 2001, more than three decades after his crime. Now 78 years old, he's segregated from the rest of the prisoners for his own safety. When his case comes up before the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, there will be a steady chorus objecting to his release, including Lisa McNair, the sister of bombing victim Denise McNair who was 11 at the time.

LISA MCNAIR: You know he's supposed to serve four life terms, and he's been in there 15 years. And he had 30 some odd years of freedom.

ELLIOTT: On September 15, 1963, a Ku Klux Klan bomb exploded during the Sunday school hour at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. The dynamite blast killed Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins and seriously wounded Addie Mae's sister Sarah. The girls had gone to the restroom to freshen up before serving on Youth Sunday.

MCNAIR: They - these people took their kids to church to learn about Jesus and got killed in church, which is supposed to be your sanctuary and safe.

ELLIOTT: McNair says Blanton might be an old man now but should serve out his time.

MCNAIR: Particularly since we have found that he has not had any remorse. He has not admitted guilt. He's not, you know, tried to say he was sorry.

ELLIOTT: Blanton has maintained his innocence since his trial in 2001. He was convicted under 1963 laws which did not provide for life without parole. So now he's up for routine parole consideration after 15 years. But this parole hearing will be anything but routine given the interest from around the country.

Groups including the NAACP and the family organization Jack and Jill of America have sent letters objecting to Blanton's possible release. The current pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church plans to attend the hearing. So does bombing survivor Sarah Collins Rudolph.

Doug Jones also hopes to speak. He was the federal prosecutor who tried and convicted Blanton and another Klansman after the FBI reopened the case in the 1990s. Only one other person had been convicted in 1977. Jones considers Blanton a terrorist.

DOUG JONES: He killed four children on a Sunday morning - innocent kids - you know, trying to achieve a political goal of maintaining a basically immoral way of life - the segregated South.

ELLIOTT: Jones says Blanton might be technically eligible for parole now, but given the racial tensions today, he says the best place for the elderly Klansman is behind bars.

JONES: What that bombing and the deaths of those children remind us so much about what's going on in the country today that we've got to continue to have these dialogues. We've got to continue to understand what motivates people in the name of hate.

ELLIOTT: Blanton will not be at the parole hearing and is not represented by an attorney. The two other Klansman convicted in the church bombing both died in prison. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.