Thomas E. Blanton, the last surviving Ku Klux Klan member convicted in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four girls, died Friday. He was 81.
Jefferson County Chief Deputy Coroner Bill Yates said Blanton died of natural causes at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, AL.com reported. Blanton went into full cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead at 6:10 a.m., Yates said.
Blanton was serving a life sentence for his role in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the Alabama church that killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Morris Wesley and Carole Robertson, WRBC reported. The girls were killed as they were changing into their choir robes.
Collins’ sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, survived the blast but lost her right eye, AL.com reported.
Sen. Doug Jones, who at the time was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, led the prosecution of Blanton in 2001 and Bob Cherry in 2002, WRBC reported. Cherry died in 2004. The third KKK member, Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, was convicted in 1977 by then-Alabama Attorney General Robert Baxley.
Blanton and Cherry were arrested in 2000, 37 years after the bombing.
“Tommy Blanton is responsible for one of the darkest days in Alabama’s history, and he will go to his resting place without ever having atoned for his actions or apologizing to the countless people he hurt,” Jones said in a statement. “The fact that after the bombing, he went on to remain a free man for nearly four decades speaks to a broader systemic failure to hold him and his accomplices accountable. That he died at this moment, when the country is trying to reconcile the multi-generational failure to end systemic racism, seems fitting.
“Tommy Blanton may be gone, but we still have work to do.”
McNair’s sister, Lisa McNair, also issued a statement.
“I wished I could have sat down with him to find out if he had had a change of heart,” she said. “But ultimately, I hope that he repented to the Lord for this sin and made his peace before he died.”
Blanton, who was 25 in 1963, was a member of the KKK and a staunch opponent of integration in the Birmingham school system.
At the time of his arrest, Blanton was guarding property in Fultondale, AL.com reported.
“At that time (1963), he was pretty wild and crazy,” former Klansman Wyman S. Lee told the website. “He has a lot of hate, anger and resentment built up in him.”
When he was sentenced, Blanton was asked if he had any comment. He told the court, “I guess the good Lord will settle it on Judgment Day.”
Blanton maintained his innocence after his conviction. He told WBRC in 2006 that the government used lies and false evidence to gain a conviction.
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