Sen. Doug Jones Discusses His Memoir 'Bending Toward Justice'
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The year was 1963. The names were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair - four little girls who were killed in one of the most notorious bombings of the civil rights era.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sunday morning September 15 - in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., the Sunday school lesson is from Matthew. I say unto you, love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you. Then a bomb blows up under the church steps.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The attack made national headlines. Martin Luther King described it in his eulogy as one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. Alabama Senator Doug Jones was 9 years old at the time, living in an all-white neighborhood outside Birmingham. And for him, the violence of the civil rights battles was a world away.
DOUG JONES: You know, it just was not something that affected me. I was concerned about Alabama football, whether the Yankees would get in the World Series. I mean, those were the things that a 9-year-old white kid cared about. And I think we were also sheltered during that time when - as things were coming up, I think our parents took great pains to shelter us, to keep us from seeing all of the good, the bad and the ugly.
SHAPIRO: You think a 9-year-old black kid would have been aware of it.
JONES: Oh, absolutely. There is no question about that. It would have been - they would have been aware of it, and their parents would have been talking about this and other things for them because they had to be on guard. I didn't have to be on guard in my neighborhood.
SHAPIRO: In 1963, no one was held accountable for the crime. That changed in 1977. By then, Doug Jones was a law student, and he cut class to sit in on the trial of the first bomber to be prosecuted in the case, ringleader Robert Dynamite Bob Chambliss. For Jones, that closing argument of Alabama Attorney General William Baxley is still vivid more than 40 years later.
JONES: Baxley's emotional closing argument with the black and white photographs that were taken of these girls in the makeshift morgue at the hospital and the people in the audience, the people in the jury and the tears in their eyes, including mine - it was an amazing experience not only for the history of Birmingham and what it meant for me to sit there and watch that history come to life and to see that justice be done but as a lawyer watching what can be done for a community - good lawyering and good public servants.
SHAPIRO: I sat down with Alabama Senator Doug Jones to talk about the bombings because they are at the center of his new book called "Bending Toward Justice." In the late 1990s shortly after Jones was appointed U.S. attorney in Alabama, he picked up the morning paper and saw that the investigation into the bombing had been reopened.
JONES: And it was just stunning. I sat on this little rock wall and read it. When I walked in, I told my wife, who didn't know my history - she just did not know the history of watching the cases and all. And I said, look at this. This is incredible. And her response is, yeah, you know, that's awesome. I really hope they can be successful this time. I said, no, no, you don't understand. That's my case. That's why you want to go back...
SHAPIRO: It's not they. It's we.
JONES: Yeah. It's why you want to go back into public service. And it's almost just like, you know, there was a higher power, the planets lining up just right to say, we need to put you right here at this time.
SHAPIRO: I know that there were questions about whether the case could succeed. Were there are also questions in your mind about the value of reopening something so painful so many decades after the fact...
JONES: No, no.
SHAPIRO: ...When the wound had scarred over and healed over.
JONES: It had not healed over.
SHAPIRO: It had not.
JONES: That's the thing. No, there was never a question in our mind about that. I mean, these families - you - healing had not occurred. It wasn't scarred. It was still kind of an open wound in Alabama.
SHAPIRO: Tell me what you mean when you say it was still an open wound.
JONES: It was...
SHAPIRO: How did that manifest itself?
JONES: It was still an open wound because no one had been brought to justice. You couldn't tell the story.
SHAPIRO: Well, one person had in 1977.
JONES: Yeah. But everybody knew that there were more people involved. And it was just one of those open questions that Birmingham lived with. It wasn't just the black and white images of the fire hoses and the dogs. We had a community in which a bomb occurred that killed four innocent little children that never had seen the full measure of justice. And we did hear some of the naysayers saying we - you know, those are old wounds; we don't want to see the fire hoses and dogs again. But we were always going to do the right thing. The only question was whether or not we would be able to get enough evidence to bring the case, to bring an indictment and to get a conviction.
SHAPIRO: I'd like you to describe one breakthrough in the case where the FBI goes to Texas to interview Bobby Cherry, the man believed to be at the center of the bombing, and he doesn't confess. And so the FBI leaves Texas feeling disappointed. And then what happens?
JONES: So they came back disappointed thinking they were probably going to close it. And he does one smart thing and then one dumb thing. The smart thing was he hired a lawyer. The dumb thing was his lawyer let him talk to the media, and he held this press conference to dog the FBI, to dog the Justice Department and the prosecutors, to say...
SHAPIRO: He says, they're out to get me; they're hounding me.
JONES: Out to get me - they've been...
SHAPIRO: They won't let me live in peace.
JONES: ...Persecuting me for all of these years. You know, yes, I was in Klan, but I was not a violent guy. I didn't do this. And when that video of those press conferences was shown in Texas where he was living and in Alabama, the phones started lighting up. And one of the first calls was his granddaughter who called us. We had another guy from - that was living in Birmingham who had been with Cherry in Texas in 1980.
SHAPIRO: And these are people Cherry had bragged to about...
SHAPIRO: ...Committing the crime.
JONES: Yeah. We found the ex-wife through a different way. There was another man who had grown up - he was, like, 11 or 12 at the time - with Cherry's son, saw them sitting around the kitchen table planning the bomb, talking about the 16th Street Baptist Church. And all of this had just kind of gotten back in everybody's recesses of their mind. And when they saw Cherry in all his glory in front of the TV cameras, it all came rushing back to them, and they picked up the phone to call the FBI. And they were critical, critical witnesses.
SHAPIRO: It was far from certain that you would be able to get these convictions 40 years after the crime was committed. And I'd like to play you a cut of tape from 2002.
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JONES: This verdict today doesn't have just the historical significance of 1963. This verdict today sends a message that's important today that the people that bomb and kill our innocent citizens and children - we will never give up. It doesn't matter how long it takes. We will never give up.
SHAPIRO: This verdict, guilty - what's it like for you to hear that?
JONES: It's pretty awesome. All I can say, it's just awesome. I, you know - look; I'm a United States senator right now, but there's nothing better than hearing those two guilty verdicts in 2001 and 2002.
SHAPIRO: These convictions can give people a sense of closure and reconciliation, and they speak to accountability. But just last month, an editor of an Alabama newspaper called for the KKK to ride again. He lost his job over that. But it does speak to racial attitudes that in some cases just seem not to have changed over all these decades.
JONES: And that's why, Ari, I want to correct you. It does bring a sense of reconciliation. But I don't think it brings a sense of closure. Or we shouldn't let it bring a sense of closure because it says, OK, all of this is behind us. And I think that editor from Linden, Ala., proved that it is not all behind us. I think that there is still a lot of tension throughout the country. I think that those tensions may be rising more now than they have been in years past.
And so one of the things for this book - there were two reasons I wanted to get this down on paper. One is just the historical significance of the bombing and the trials that we did. And the second one is to just make sure people understand where we were in those days, that we don't repeat those same mistakes.
SHAPIRO: Senator Jones, thank you so much.
JONES: Thank you. It's my pleasure.
SHAPIRO: Alabama Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat - his new book with Greg Truman is "Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing That Changed The Course Of Civil Rights." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.