It was one of the most horrific events in the long struggle for African-American civil rights. Four young girls preparing for Sunday services in the basement dressing room of the 16th Street Baptist Church were killed when a dynamite bomb planted outside exploded. Two of their killers remained beyond the grasp of the law for nearly 40 years. FBI Special Agent William Fleming and FBI Investigative Research Specialist Ben Herren took the lead in bringing them to justice.
Birmingham, Alabama was ground zero for the civil rights movement in September 1963. Its epicenter was the 16th Street Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. and hundreds of other African-Americans met and planned sit-ins and demonstrations for equal rights. They were met with massive resistance from the white state and local officials and the Ku Klux Klan. The city—known as “Bombingham” because there were so many bombings of black homes there—was infamous for the water hoses and dogs its police department unleashed on nonviolent civil rights demonstrators earlier that year.
Yet no one was prepared for what happened on Sunday morning, September 15. “No other incident had such a dramatic effect on those of us in the civil rights movement than the bombing of this church,” recalled Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a veteran of the campaign for civil rights. The tragedy galvanized the civil rights movement and helped lead to enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The wheels of justice would prove to move slower than the dismantling of segregation. It wasn’t until 1977 that Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was found guilty for his role in the bombing and sentenced to life in prison, where he later died. Another two decades would pass before two other perpetrators were held accountable.
In 1996, the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Birmingham FBI office reopened the case to address the concern that the men responsible would never be brought to justice. The case was assigned to William Fleming and Ben Herren, then a Birmingham police sergeant. Despite long odds that had thwarted the success of two previous investigations in 1965 and 1977, Fleming and Herren went to work.
During the course of their investigation, they learned that over 130 witnesses had since died, with more passing away as the investigation moved forward. This limited access to valuable evidence and information, but they found new avenues of investigation to develop proof that suspects Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were also involved in the bombing.
They also relied on solid, old-fashioned investigative skills, such as re-interviewing witnesses who had not talked about the case in decades, and interviewing additional witnesses, including family and local 1960s-era KKK members, who offered never-before-revealed information. In fact, several witnesses indicated that they specifically heard Cherry make statements regarding his involvement in the crime.
As they meticulously dug through old files, Fleming also uncovered crucial tape recordings of Blanton’s conversations originally recorded during the initial investigation in the 1960s. He and Herren spent hundreds of hours reviewing the tapes; their contents proved to be essential evidence against Blanton.
A Birmingham jury of eight whites and four blacks took just 2 ½ hours to find Blanton guilty of murder in 2001, while another jury of nine whites and three blacks found Cherry guilty in May 2002. Both men are now serving life sentences.
Both Fleming and Herren displayed remarkable devotion to seeing the case through to its conclusion. Fleming continually delayed his retirement for several years and, although scheduled for mandatory retirement in March 2001, even applied for an extension to continue to lend his expertise and institutional knowledge to the Cherry trial. After retiring from the Birmingham Police Department in 1997, Herren was immediately hired by the FBI to continue working on the case. His lifelong residence in Birmingham and his experiences in the city during the civil rights era helped investigators relate to witnesses.
Fleming and Herren’s devotion to pursuing justice for the four girls who lost their lives in 1963 is truly extraordinary.