NEW YORK, June 1 (UPI) -- Thirty-nine years after one of the most heinous crimes of the civil rights era, the Birmingham Church Bombing of September 1963, 71-year-old Bobby Frank Cherry, the last of the killers to be brought to trial, was convicted of murder.
The racially-mixed jury sitting in Birmingham found Cherry, now 71 years old, guilty of helping to make the bomb that tore apart the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on the Sunday morning of September 15, 1963, wounding 22 and killing four teenage girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson.
Even among the many civil rights tragedies of those years, the Birmingham Church Bombing was a thing apart, viewed as the work of the most depraved of human beings -- even lower, if such a ranking was possible, than any of the other violent racists who infested the South of that time.
At its most obvious level, the bombing was revenge on Birmingham's black community for the pivotal role Sixteenth Street Baptist had played as a shelter for the civil rights demonstrators who had shaken the city's fiercely segregationist culture that previous spring.
More specifically, though, the bombing was revenge against the black children of Birmingham -- because they, flooding the streets to support the non-violent demonstrations and helping to fill the city's jails, had proved to be the critical factor in the demonstrations' success.
That is why the bomb was set to explode as the Sunday School session was getting underway.
Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation quickly identified four principal suspects, members of a Ku Klux Klan cell in Birmingham law officials considered one of the most violent in the South, it took a long time for justice to be done in this, as in other killings of the Civil Rights years.
It was not until 1977 that Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss, the alleged ringleader, was prosecuted and sent to prison, where he died a decade later. Herman Frank Cash, another alleged participant, died without ever being tried. Last year Thomas E. Blanton Jr. was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Now, Bobby Frank Cherry, like all the others, unrepentant, has met society's official judgment.
Because Cherry's conviction -- he was automatically sentenced to life in prison -- ends the judicial consideration of this great crime, you might be tempted to think that this particular chapter of our nation's history is now closed. But you could not be more wrong.
These trials have helped illuminate that recent period, and the decades before it, for our further examination, as the events which surrounded this trial indicated.
Bobby Frank Cherry's trial began and ended less than a week after the 48th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the school desegregation case which was the death knell of legal segregation in America.
While the Birmingham trial proceeded, a U.S. Court of Appeals in Michigan upheld the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action plan -- a decision which the U.S. Supreme Court will almost certainly be asked to consider.
And just before the Birmingham trial began, the exhibition, "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," which uses the graphic photographs and postcards of lynchings that were once ubiquitous as commercial merchandise and keepsakes for many white families to explore that troubling period of American history, opened in Atlanta at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site.
These and other events and incidents from our American past and our present underscore that there is no chapter of American history that we should consider "closed." The inspection -- and the introspection -- must go on if this society is to move forward.
That process must occur not only to recognize the wrongs that have been done -- and name the wrongdoers. It is also the only way to recognize with any accuracy the racial progress that has been made.
One example of that is the fact that the materials in the "Without Sanctuary" exhibit were purchased by James Allen, a white Atlanta art and antiques collector, in order "to show the world it happened," and that it is sponsored by Atlanta's Emory University, which houses Allen's collection, and by the National Park Service.
In addition, our further inspection of the Birmingham Church Bombing and the long effort to bring the killers to justice would show at least three things:
--First, the long, profoundly patriotic commitment of African Americans to make use of the processes of democracy in their quest for their full human rights.
--Second, that this patriotism was and remains a gift to the American nation whose value is beyond calculation.
--Finally, it would show, that there are many whites within and outside the Alabama state prosecutor's office in Birmingham, the local police department, the FBI, and that city's ordinary citizenry who agree with something Doug Jones, the lead prosecutor in the Blanton and Cherry trials, said after Blanton was convicted.
"It's never too late for the truth to be told," Jones said. "It is never too late for wounds to heal. It is never too late for a man to be held accountable for his crimes. It is never too late for justice."
(Hugh B. Price is president of the National Urban League, a civil rights organization.)