Just in time for the 50th anniversary commemorations of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Birmingham author T.K. Thorne has a new book out, “Last Chance for Justice: How Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers.”
The Sept. 15, 1963 blast that killed four girls preparing for Sunday morning church services. Thorne picks up the story 37 years after the bombing, when the FBI reopens the case even though the one person who was convicted will not talk and key witnesses have died, making the chances of convicting the remaining two suspects slim.
The investigation was handled by FBI Special Agent Bill Fleming and Birmingham Police Detective Ben Herren, who at first do not get along, but they begin to work together and unravel the case.
A native of Montgomery’s Jewish community, Thorne is a retired Birmingham Police captain and now is executive director of CAP: City Action Partnership, which works with businesses, residents and the police and has reduced crime in the central city by almost two-thirds since 1995. She is said to be the first Jewish police officer in Birmingham.
Her debut novel, “Noah’s Wife,” received an award as Book of the Year for Historical Fiction. A short film from her screenplay “Six Blocks Wide” was a finalist in a film festival in Italy and has shown at other juried festivals in the U.S. and Europe.
She started thinking about this book in 2004 when she attended “The Gathering,” which brought together people affected by the 1963 bombing — victims’ families, civil rights activists, community members, investigators, attorneys. The two FBI investigators who had worked the last case spoke, and “I realized so many people had misconceptions about this case.”
There were a total of three major investigations of the bombing, with the final one lasting five years and involving “some real heroes to bring the last two living suspects to justice,” she said.
She started doing interviews in the summer of 2009 and after two years started organizing the book.
She said there were two aspects of her background that helped her with the book. In Montgomery, her parents “strongly supported civil rights” and the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross on her grandparents’ front yard for being involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her background in law enforcement brought an understanding of the process into her writing.
After the bombing, President John Kennedy told the FBI to solve the case, but the case was closed in 1968. There were four strong suspects — Robert Chambliss, Thomas E. Blanton Jr, Herman Cash, and Bobby Frank Cherry. Chambliss, known as “Dynamite Bob,” was convicted simply of possessing dynamite without a permit and sentenced to six months, but no Federal charges were forthcoming.
In 1971 Bill Baxley reopened the case when he took office as Alabama attorney general. Six years later, Chambliss was indicted for murder, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He died there in 1985.
The 1977 case was detailed in Frank Sikora’s book, “Until Justice Rolls Down.” The case was reopened in 1996, and the book opens with Herren’s trip to Texas, to interview Cherry.
Cash had died in 1994, but in 2001 Blanton was tried and convicted, and in 2002 Cherry was also convicted. He died in 2004. Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones led the prosecution team that ultimately scored the convictions.
This year, the U.S. Senate awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the four girls.
There will be a book launch at 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. She will also speak as this year’s “Community Conversation” at Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El during the break on Yom Kippur, at 3:45 p.m. on Sept. 14.