Sen. Doug Jones: We must learn the "unvarnished" truth of history of racism

Sen. Doug Jones on Birmingham church bombing

Before being elected to the U.S. Senate, Doug Jones was a U.S. attorney for north Alabama who focused on righting a historic wrong: the unsolved bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963. Four black girls – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – were killed while they were getting ready for church.

It would be 14 years before Robert Chambliss was convicted in the attack. Later, nearly 40 years after the bombing, Jones won the conviction of two other men, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, in 2001 and 2002.

Jones writes about the process in his new book, "Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing That Changed the Course of Civil Rights." (The title comes from a famous quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.")

Appearing on "CBS This Morning" Monday, Jones said the bombing (which occurred when he was nine years old), had been swept under the carpet for so long, but he defended pursuing justice so many years later.

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All Points Books

"I think you have to understand what happened in order to try to prevent things from happening in the future," he said. "We've unfortunately seen a lot of hate-filled rhetoric these days; we've seen more hate crimes. I think when we keep [the history of racism] to the front, and people understand, we can prevent things from going on in the future."

Jones said the death of the little girls in the bombing, which was conducted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, was a gamechanger when it came to racist acts. "We had had so many bombings in Birmingham. The fact is, no one had been even hurt, much less killed. And now four innocent children, they weren't part of the movement, they were kids going to a worship service. That changed everything.

"It woke up the conscience of America, I think, when these children died, and the conscience of a Congress and a president."

Co-host Norah O'Donnell asked, "Where are we now, do you think, as a former prosecutor? Where are we in terms of is racism getting worse, or we hear more about it?"

"I think we hear more about it; it's been below the surface, but we hear more," he replied. "And what worries me more is the social media. We all are in our silos – we only hear what we want to hear, and talk what we want to talk. Social media, really, I think propagates a lot of racist [talk].

"I think not talking about it in a very honest and straightforward way … is wrong. We've seen Charlottesville, we've seen South Carolina, we've seen Pittsburgh, it's not just black-and-white anymore. It is race, it's religion, it's gender, it's nationality. And so, we've got to have more dialogues about this, I think, in this country.

Jones said he believes the teaching of the history of the civil rights movement also needs to be re-evaluated. "When we were selecting a jury, there were young African-American kids that didn't know, they really didn't appreciate and fully understand, Dr. King and his legacy," he said. "I think we need to teach more about what happened, and just do it unvarnished. Let the good and the bad come out so that people can understand.

"We can only go forward if we learn from the lessons."

O'Donnell asked, "What was the biggest challenge in terms of prosecuting [the bombers] four decades later?"

"The biggest challenge was time," Jones said. "I mean, if people were dying, people were older, they were forgetting, we were trying to pull together old evidence, some new evidence from admissions. I think what people got was such a sense of healing. I don't use the word 'closure' for these cases. You should never 'close' these cases. We always need to remember.

"But it was such healing for my community, for Birmingham, for the state, particularly for these families. That's incredibly important. That's why I think this new cold case bill that Ted Cruz and I did is also going to help bring these records to light and let people learn about them."


"Bending Toward Justice: The Birmingham Church Bombing that Changed the Course of Civil Rights" by Doug Jones (All Points Books), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.