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Former Alabama Senator Doug Jones Recounts Prosecuting Birmingham Bombing Case

Former Alabama Senator Doug Jones missed his law school classes one day in 1977 to watch the trial of Robert Chambliss, a Ku Klux Klan member and one of the perpetrators behind the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four young African American girls. 

“I saw an amazing trial, never ever dreaming at that point that 24 years later I would have an opportunity to do the second and third trial in the same courtroom I [watched] … as a kid,” Jones said. 

Jones, the current Jerome Lyle Rappaport distinguished visiting professor at Boston College Law School, spoke in a lecture on Monday about his role in the conviction of two of the other perpetrators of the Birmingham bombing almost 40 years later.

“It is history because what happened in Birmingham, and particularly on September 15, 1963, was one of those real horrific acts of the civil rights era,” Jones said. “It is part of Birmingham’s history, but more importantly, it’s part of America’s history.”

Jones said he grew up in the midst of the tense social and political climate of Alabama in the 1960s. This climate, he said, would serve as a precursor for the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

“I was 9 years old when that bomb blew up,” Jones said. “In those days, folks, everything was segregated.” 

There were two main targets of the KKK’s wrath in 1960s Birmingham, according to Jones.

“Number one, the church,” he said. “The church became a symbol of the movement. And second, it was the youth of Birmingham that became a target. When you became the symbols of the movement, you had a target on your chest and your back.” 

Jones started his legal career as an assistant U.S. attorney. In 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated him as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, where he prosecuted the Birmingham bombing cases. 

According to Jones, there were significant challenges to prosecuting a case almost 40 years old—it was a race against time, he said. 

“There were a number of witnesses who died that we thought could tell us what happened,” he said. “There are a lot of people that knew a lot about this case that never came forward.”

Jones ultimately helped convict Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, two of the other co-conspirators, but the effects of the bombing still linger to this day, he said. 

“The whole world did shake after this bomb in Birmingham, Alabama,” he said. “People all over the world [were] asking why, and the questions have never really been fully answered even with the convictions.”

Jones also shared some words of advice for the aspiring lawyers in the room, urging them to take any chance to do good in the world.

“Somebody here is going to have a chance to do something, something really special, something really good,” Jones said. “You’re getting prepared for it right now, but it will be up to you to take it.” 

Elizabeth Platonova, BC Law ’22, said she was inspired by Jones’ words and experiences. 

“As someone who’s always been interested in public service, it’s incredibly endearing to hear other people who have gone through it and have had really hard situations come up like this case and have held onto their values and morals,” Platonova said.

Recently, President Joe Biden appointed Jones to serve as an adviser for his Supreme Court nominee. During the lecture, Jones described standing only feet from the president as he announced Ketanji Brown Jackson—a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—as his nominee.

“You can understand how I felt this past Friday in the White House, literally in the room, 20 feet away from the president of the United States, introducing the first African American woman to be on the United States Supreme Court,” Jones said.

Watching Jackson from behind a presidential podium, Jones said he remembered the tragic loss of the four bombing victums and the subsequent convictions of those responsible, which he said reminded him of what justice means.

“You look at Ketanji Brown Jackson and you see the possibilities that we lose when children die,” Jones said. “That was a really special moment for me last Friday, to think about these kids and to see Judge Jackson get behind that presidential podium.” 

Madison Sarka / Heights Archives

March 5, 2022