BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA — Hours after church services ended on Sunday, the corner outside the historic 16th Street Baptist Church is quiet.
A few tourists stop by, taking photos with the plaques marking the spot where four young girls were killed in the 1963 bombing that sparked a major moment in the civil rights struggle. As two visitors look at the sculpture depicting the girls in Kelly Ingram Park, they turn around to see Democratic senate candidate Doug Jones, who had emerged from the Civil Rights Institute across the street. Spotting the politician, Birmingham residents across the park get up from the benches to greet him.
Outside Alabama, the name Doug Jones was likely unfamiliar before this summer, when the former prosecutor decided to launch a campaign for the Senate seat left vacant when President Trump chose Jeff Sessions to serve as attorney general. Jones has never held or run for office, and before the unlikely circumstances this year, Democrats in this deep red state typically don’t generate much attention.
But in Alabama, Doug Jones is not a new name. African American Birmingham residents told ThinkProgress they view Jones as a hero for his successful prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan bombers who planted dynamite in the basement of the church here one Sunday in September 1963, killing 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley.
The attack generated national attention, but the FBI closed the case soon after it began its investigation, deciding convictions were unlikely. Left unsolved for decades, the tragedy haunted a city still coming to grips with its deeply segregated past.
In 1977, Alabama’s attorney general reopened the case and prosecuted one of the suspects, Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss. At the time, Jones was a second-year law student who skipped class to sit in the courtroom to watch the trial.
He later testified that he never imagined he would one day become party of the story. More than 20 years later, after being appointed U.S. attorney in Alabama, Jones helped reopen the case and developed new evidence to convict Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, two more Klan members who had also boasted about their involvement. Both men were sentenced to life in prison.
“Everybody around here loves Doug Jones,” said Andrew Lewis, a 51-year-old Birmingham resident who now spends his days outside the church, telling tourists about its history in exchange for donations.
Lewis was born a few years after the bombing, but said his mother was part of the May 1963 marches to end segregation in Birmingham that ended at the park across from the church. Today, Lewis goes to the 16th Street Church, once a prominent meeting place for civil rights leaders, to sing and attend meetings and classes. He said that everyone he knows will be voting for Jones on December 12.
A prominent face in Birmingham, Jones has spoken about his days as a federal prosecutor during church events. The Rev. Arthur Price Jr., who has been the pastor of the 16th Street church for 15 years, said he has personally known Jones for decades and most of his congregants know and support him.
“Justice may have been delayed but it was not denied,” Price said about the prosecution, speaking to ThinkProgress Wednesday in his office next door to the chapel. “It said to this community, to this church, to African Americans all over the United States that the lives of the those four little girls mattered.”
Price called Jones “a stand-up guy,” largely because of his dogged search for justice for “one of the most horrendous acts in U.S. history,” and said he believes that most members of the church will vote for Jones.
“His record speaks for itself,” Price said.
Early Sunday morning, President Trump tweeted that Jones is “weak on crime,” among other insults common in his repertoire of accusations against Democrats. But Birmingham residents who know Jones and his record questioned Trump’s accusation.
“He couldn’t be weak on crime because he hunted them people down years after the bombing,” Lewis said. “Everybody else had given up, but he found a witness, presented the indictment, and convicted him.”
“Trump will call anybody weak on crime if they’re not opinionated with him,” Lewis added.
Jones responded to the president’s tweet on Tuesday, telling reporters that Trump’s insult is baseless.
“Look at my record,” he said. “I’m very proud of the record I have as a prosecutor. You don’t do all the things I’ve done as an assistant U.S. attorney and a federal prosecutor being soft on crime.”
Of the roughly 500 current members of the church, about a third were alive in 1963 and remember the day of the bombing, Price said. As part of the church’s ministry, some of them volunteer to share their stories with visitors who stop by the church on vacation, field trips, and group visits throughout the year.
On Wednesday, 75-year-old Theodore Debro guided a high school group through the building during his volunteer shift, sharing the history of the church and his own memory of the civil rights struggle. On the day of the bombing, Debro was a student in Atlanta and attended church at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he listened to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a sermon. He remembers the moment when King paused, learned of the bombing, and returned to the pulpit to share the tragic news.
Later, he moved to Birmingham and he and his family joined the 16th Street Baptist Church. He was a member in 1997 when Jones became U.S. attorney and helped deliver justice decades later.
“I was thankful,” Debro said. “I always believe that we need to pay for any crimes that we commit and even though we forgive, persons who commit such deadly acts should be punished and feel those actions, especially if they don’t own up to it.”
“He’s not new on the scene. He has been here and he has lived what he preaches.”
He said he believes Jones did an “outstanding job” in developing new evidence, despite the distance that had passed since the attack. Debro has also worked with Jones in advocating for low-income people in Birmingham and said he would be a “wonderful advocate” for the community.
“He’s not new on the scene,” he said. “He has been here and he has lived what he preaches.”
Chauncey Canada, now 67 years old, also remembers that day in 1963. “It tore up the city — it really did,” the lifelong Birmingham resident told ThinkProgess, standing in Kelly Ingram Park across from the church. “It started the riots right here in this park.”
Formerly West Park, the square city block of land across from the church served as a crucial staging ground for the demonstrations of the civil rights era. In May 1963, months before the bombing, city police and firemen were ordered to arrest student activists and to confront them with firehoses and dogs. Today, sculptures across the park depict the violence.
As for Jones’ convictions, Canada said he’s grateful for justice.
“I was glad that he was convicted but it took too long,” he said. “It really did.”
Canada and other Birmingham residents also spoke about how significant a Jones win would be for their city and state. Not only would it prevent Republican Roy Moore from holding office, but a Democratic senator would also be able to give a voice to so many people currently lacking representation in the south.
“I know Doug Jones is a man of integrity,” Price said. “He fights for what is right and I think he’ll do Alabama proud if he’s elected as senator.”