BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Two former Ku Klux Klansmen were arrested on murder charges Wednesday in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls on a Sunday morning - a crime that shocked the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement.
Thomas E. Blanton Jr. of Birmingham, who is in his early 60s, and Bobby Frank Cherry, 69, of Mabank, Texas, surrendered on the state charges and were jailed without bail. If convicted, they could get life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors have long suspected that Blanton and Cherry plotted with former Klansman Robert Edward Chambliss to bomb the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, was never charged; he, too, is dead.
U.S. Attorney Doug Jones would not say what led to the break in the case after 37 years. But over the past year, estranged family members of Cherry have said publicly that he talked of helping plant the dynamite.
The blast was one of the most shocking crimes of the civil rights era and came just months after police in Birmingham used dogs and firehoses to drive back black marchers.
The Sept. 15, 1963, blast demolished an outside wall of the church and killed four girls who were in a basement restroom, preparing for a youth program: 11-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins.
The indictment marked the latest in a series of 1960s racial crimes in the South that are being brought for prosecution decades later.
In 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted in the 1963 assassination in Jackson, Miss., of NAACP organizer Medgar Evers. In 1998, former KKK leader Samuel H. Bowers, 73, was found guilty in the 1966 firebomb death of Mississippi civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer.
''No one should stop until the people who are responsible are brought to justice,'' Attorney General Janet Reno said in Washington.
Blanton and Cherry for years have denied any role in the Birmingham bombing.
Mickey Johnson, Cherry's lawyer, said his client is in ill health. ''He wants the world to know his story, and he thinks he'll be vindicated,'' said Johnson.
Blanton and Cherry were charged with eight counts of murder each - two counts covering each of the four slain girls. One count was for intentional murder and the other involved ''universal malice'' because the bomb was placed where it could have killed any number of people.
Jones said the evidence lent itself better to state charges than to federal ones. He said the capital murder statute on the books in 1963 could not be used because it was replaced in the mid-1970s after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment.
Stanley Wilson, 39, a black man who works for a staffing services company, said it was unfair that whoever bombed the church had remained free for decades. ''They should have taken care of this a long time ago,'' he said.
But a white resident, Stan Leo, who was 16 when the church was bombed, questioned the point of pursuing the case.
''I'm sorry it all happened,'' he said, ''but it needs to be buried and put aside and let the city go on. Why keep bringing up the past?''
The bombing shocked and embittered civil rights workers. Widespread revulsion over the killing of girls at Sunday services added many moderates - in Birmingham and elsewhere - to the civil rights cause.
The Rev. Christopher Hamlin, pastor of the church since 1990, said there is a ''strong sense of some beginning of a conclusion'' to the bombing. ''The city has come a long way in race relations'' since 1963, he said.
The initial federal investigation into the bombing resulted in no charges, though the FBI named the four Ku Klux Klansmen as suspects. After the probe that led to Chambliss' conviction, the case was reopened in 1980 and 1988, without additional charges. It was reopened yet again in 1997.
The same year, the bombing was the subject of director Spike Lee's Oscar-nominated documentary ''4 Little Girls.''
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a leader of the Birmingham demonstrations in the 1960s and now a pastor in Cincinnati, said the charges should have been brought long ago.
''The FBI, they knew back then what they know now,'' he said.