The overly detailed story of a decades-late and yearslong investigation into the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, in which four young black girls were killed.
Thorne, a retired Birmingham police officer, focuses on two men: Ben Herren, a Birmingham police sergeant (later an FBI analyst), and his partner Bill Fleming, an FBI special agent. In 1997, Herren and Fleming were assigned to reopen the investigation into the bombing, which had been investigated twice before—once in the 1960s by the FBI and again in the ’70s by the state; the first was closed with no convictions, and the second led to a single conviction. Sorting through mountains of old files, the men compiled lists of possible witnesses, including Ku Klux Klan members and their associates and relatives. Tracking down these people, many of them now old and sick, and then interviewing them and persuading some to talk, took years. In 2001, and again in 2002, a suspect was brought to trial and convicted. Thorne presents the arguments of both the prosecution and the defense in these two trials. The portrait of the two hardworking, persistent investigators contrasts with that of the violent Klansmen, a powerful force in 1960s Birmingham. If Southern racists are the villains, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover also comes across badly, with the Alabama attorney general later accusing the bureau of refusing to share evidence and thwarting the state’s first investigation. Thorne attempts to guide readers through the long years of interviews by providing a front-of-the-book list of names; it helps, but some judicious pruning would have made for a smoother, more readable story.
Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham bombing, this account, though ineptly written, does wrap up a sorry episode in the city’s history and may have considerable local appeal.