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Robert Edward CHAMBLISS

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 


A.K.A.: "Dynamite Bob"
 
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Ku Klux Klan member - Bombing of a black church
Number of victims: 4
Date of murders: September 17, 1963
Date of birth: January 14, 1904
Victims profile: Denise McNair, 11 / Addie Mae Collins, 14 / Cynthia Wesley, 14 / Carole Robertson, 14
Method of murder: Planting 19 sticks of dynamite in the basement of the church
Location: Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in 1977. Died in prison on October 29, 1985
 
 

 
 

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Robert Edward Chambliss (aka: Dynamite Bob) (January 14, 1904–October 29, 1985) was a truck driver for an auto parts company who joined the Ku Klux Klan at age 20 and firebombed the houses of black families throughout the 1940s to the 1960s, culminating in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.

A May 13th 1965 memo to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover identified Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr..

Chambliss was initially acquitted of the murder charges, but years later it was found that the FBI had accumulated evidence against the bombers that had not been revealed to the prosecutors, by order of Hoover.

But in 1977 Chambliss was convicted for the murders by prosecutor Bill Baxley, and sentenced to several terms of life imprisonment. He died in prison in 1985, still claiming he was innocent.


Robert Edward Chambliss

On September 24, 1977, Ku Klux Klan member, Robert Edward Chambliss (also known as "Dynamite Bob"), was indicted and charged with murder for the 1963 16TH Street  Baptist Church Bombing, in Montgomery, Alabama.

Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carol Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were the four young black girls killed when the church exploded.

A witness identified Robert Chambliss as the man who placed the bomb under the Church steps on September 17, 1963.   He was arrested and charged with murder and for being in possession of 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit.

On October 8, 1963, he was found Not Guilty Of Murder, but received a $100 fine and six month jail sentence for the dynamite charge.

More than a decade later, Alabama Attorney General, Bill Baxley, re-opened the case and in  November, 1977, Chambliss was re-tried. At age 73, he was found guilty and Sentenced To Life In Prison. Chambliss died in an Alabama prison on October 29, 1985.


The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

From Jessica McElrath

The Murder of Four Girls

On the early Sunday morning of September 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan member, Robert Edward Chambliss stood a few blocks away from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. On this morning, five girls were changing into their choir robes in the church basement.

At 10:19 a.m., a bomb exploded, killing four of the girls and injuring twenty people. The four girls who died were eleven-year old Denise McNair, and fourteen year olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

The Significance of the 16th Street Baptist Church

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had served as an important part of the African-American community and was used as a meeting place during the civil rights movement.

The church was used for mass rallies and Martin Luther King Jr. was among the many leaders who spoke at these events. It had also been the headquarters for several desegregation protests. When the church was bombed, it was a sign of the hostility that segregationists had against the civil rights struggle.

The Aftermath of the Bombing

While the bomb came as a surprise, bomb threats had been made in the past. In those instances, the church had been able to take special precautions. This time, no threat had been made. The explosion blew a hole in the east side of the church. It shattered windows, walls, doors, and the air was filled with a thick cloud of dust and soot. As community members dug through the debris in search of survivors, they discovered the bodies of the four victims.

Grief was not only felt in the African American community, but white strangers expressed their sympathy to the families of the four girls. At the funeral of three of the girls, Martin Luther King gave the eulogy, which was witnessed by 8,000 mourners, both white and black.

The Investigation into the Bombing

The FBI led the initial investigation into the bombing. According to a 1965 FBI memorandum to director J. Edgar Hoover, it was determined that Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr. had planted the bomb.

Based on the investigation, the Birmingham FBI office recommended prosecuting the suspects. Hoover, however, blocked their prosecution by rejecting the recommendation that the federal prosecutor receive the testimony that identified the suspects. By 1968, charges had not been filed and the FBI closed the case.

In 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, reopened the case. On November 18, 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The case was again reopened in 1988 and in July 1997, after the FBI received a tip. Herman Frank Cash was still one of the prime suspects, but before a case could be established against him, he died in 1994.

On May 17, 2000, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were charged with the murder of the four girls. Blanton was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison on May 1, 2001. For the jurors who convicted him, the 1964 taped conversations that the FBI secretly recorded, weighed heavily on their decision.

The tapes had remained secret until 1997, when the case was reopened. In one recorded conversation that took place between Blanton and his wife, Blanton told her that he was at the Klan meeting where both the bombing was planned and the bomb was made.

In another recorded conversation, Blanton spoke about the bombing to an FBI informant while driving in a car. For the jurors, the taped conversations provided enough evidence to convict Blanton of murder.

Bobby Frank Cherry's trial was postponed after the judge ruled that he was mentally incompetent to assist his attorney. After Cherry was found competent to stand trail, on May 22, 2002 he was found guilty of four counts of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. For the family and friends of the four murdered girls, the conviction of Blanton and Cherry was a long awaited victory.


The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was a racially motivated terrorist incident at 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, in the United States. It was a turning-point in the U.S. civil-rights movement of the mid 20th century.

Bombing

The attack was intended to instill fear in those supporting equal civil rights without regard to race. Instead, it caused public outrage and spurred the civil-rights movement to further success.

The three-story 16th Street Baptist Church was a rallying point for civil-rights activities. In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, the church's Youth Day, United Klans of America, a Ku Klux Klan group, members Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton and Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss planted 19 sticks of dynamite in the basement of the church. Chambliss was also convicted of having 122 sticks of dynamite without a permit.

At about 10:25 a.m., when 26 children were walking into the basement assembly room for closing prayers after a sermon entitled "The Love That Forgives," the bombs exploded. Four girls—Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14)—were killed in the blast, and 22 more were injured.

The explosion blew a hole in the church's rear wall, destroyed the back steps, and left intact only the frames of all but one stained-glass window. The lone window that survived the concussion was one in which Jesus Christ was depicted leading young children, although Christ's face was destroyed. In addition, five cars behind the church were damaged, two of them completely destroyed, while windows in the laundry across the street were blown out.

Victims

  • Born November 17, 1951, Denise McNair was the first child of photo shop owner Chris and schoolteacher Maxine McNair. Her playmates called her Niecie. A pupil at Center Street Elementary School, she had many friends. She held tea parties, was a member of the Brownies, and played baseball. She helped raise money to support muscular dystrophy by creating plays, dance routines, and poetry readings. These events became an annual event. People gathered in the yard to watch the show in Denise’s carport, the main stage. Children donated their pennies, dimes, and nickels. Denise was a schoolmate and friend of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

  • Born April 30, 1949, Cynthia Wesley was the first adopted daughter of Claude and Gertrude Wesley, who were both teachers. Her mother made her clothes because of her petite size. Cynthia went to school at Ullman High School, which no longer exists. She excelled in math, reading, and band. Cynthia held parties in her backyard for all her friends. Upon Cynthia’s death she was so mutilated the only way to identify her was by the ring she wore, which was recognized by her father.

  • Carole Robertson was born April 24, 1949. She was the third child of Alpha and Alvin Robertson. Her sister was Dianne and her brother was Alvin. Her father was a band master at the local elementary school. Her mother was a librarian, avid reader, dancer, and clarinet player. Carole, like her mother, enjoyed reading. She excelled at school and was a straight-A student, a member of Parker High School marching band and science club. She was also a Girl Scout and belonged to Jack and Jill of America. When she was at Wilkerson Elementary School she sang in the choir. Her legacy helped create the Carole Robertson Center for Learning in Chicago, a social service agency that serves children and their families.

  • Addie Mae Collins was born April 18, 1949, the daughter of Oscar and Alice. Her father was a janitor and her mother a homemaker. She was one of seven children. Addie was the peacemaker between the bunch. She was also an avid softball player. A youth center dedicated to Addie and her ideals was created in Alabama.

Aftermath

Outrage at the bombing and the grief that followed resulted in violence across Birmingham, with two more African-American youths dead by the end of the day. Sixteen year-old Johnnie Robinson was shot and killed by police after throwing stones at cars with white people inside, while 13-year-old Virgil Ware was killed by two whites riding on a motor scooter.

Three days after the tragedy, former Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor further inflamed matters by saying to a crowd of 2,500 people at a Citizen's Council meeting, "If you're going to blame anyone for getting those children killed in Birmingham, it's your Supreme Court." Connor recalled that in 1954, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision had been reached, he said, "You're going to have bloodshed, and it's on them (the Court), not us." He also proposed that African-Americans may have set the bomb deliberately to provoke an emotional response, saying, "I wouldn't say it's above (Dr. Martin Luther) King's crowd."

Investigation and prosecution

Chambliss was initially charged for the murders, but there was no conviction at first. Years later it was found that the FBI had accumulated evidence against the bombers that had not been revealed to the prosecutors, by order of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1977, Chambliss was prosecuted by Alabama Attorney-General Bill Baxley and was convicted for the four murders and sentenced to several terms of life imprisonment. He died in prison in 1985.

After reopening the case several times, the FBI in 2000 assisted the state authorities in bringing charges against Cherry and Thomas Blanton. Blanton and Cherry were convicted by state court juries of all four murders and sentenced to life in prison. Though Cherry publicly denied involvement, relatives and friends testified that he "bragged" about being part of the bombing, and his ex-wife testified, "He said he lit the fuse."

"Following the tragic event, white strangers visited the grieving families to express their sorrow. At the funeral for three of the girls (one family preferred a separate, private funeral), Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about life being "as hard as crucible steel." More than 8,000 mourners, including 800 clergymen of both races, attended the service.

Remembrances

  • The song "Birmingham Sunday", composed by Richard Farina and recorded by Joan Baez, chronicled the events and aftermath of the bombing.

  • The song "Mississippi Goddam" was composed and sung by Nina Simone in reaction to the racially-motivated bombings.

  • A 1997 documentary about the bombing, 4 Little Girls, directed by Spike Lee, was nominated for an Academy Award for "Best Documentary".

  • The song "Alabama' on John Coltrane's Live at Birdland (recorded November 18, 1963) served as an elegy to the bombing.

  • The song "Ronnie & Neil" on Drive-By Truckers' double album, Southern Rock Opera references the event in the opening line of the song, "Church blows up in Birmingham/ Four little black girls killed/ For no goddamned good reason."

  • The novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis mentions very vividly the events of the bombing.

  • The poem "The Ballad of Birmingham" by Dudley Randall

  • The song "American Guernica" by Adolphus Hailstork

  • A 2002 television drama Sins of the Father, directed by Robert Dornhelm, is based on the events of the bombing.

Further reading

  • Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954 -1963. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-68742-5. 

  • Sikora, Frank (April 1991). Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0520-3. 

  • Cobbs, Elizabeth H.; Smith, Petric J. (April 1994). Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World. Birmingham, AL: Crane Hill. ISBN 1-881548-10-4. 

  • Hamlin, Christopher M.: 1998, Behind the Stained Glass: A History of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Crane Hill Publishers, Birmingham, AL

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