Thomas Blanton, KKK bomber of the 16th St Baptist Church

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., the last of three one-time Ku Klux Klansmen convicted of a church bombing of Alabama in 1963 that killed four black girls and was the deadliest single attack by the civil rights movement, has died in prison. Governor office Friday. He was 81.

In May 2001, Blanton was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for bombing 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

When asked if the judge had any comment, Blanton said, “I think the Good Lord will settle it on Judgment Day.”

Governor Kay Ivey’s office said Blanton died of natural causes.

The bombing of the church, which exposed the hatred of white supremacists when Birmingham integrated its public schools, was a turning point in the civil rights movement. Moderates could no longer remain silent and the struggle to overthrow segregation laws got a new boost.

The bombing investigation was halted early and remained inactive for a long time, but two other ex-Klansmen, Robert Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry, were also convicted of the bombings in separate trials. Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and died in prison in 1985. Cherry was convicted in 2002 and died in prison in 2004.

On September 15, 1963, a bomb ripped through an outer wall of the brick church, killing four girls preparing for a youth program. The bodies of Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, were found in the downstairs lounge.

Collins’ sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, survived the explosion, but lost her right eye. Glass fragments remained in her chest, left eye and abdomen for decades after the explosion.

A conditional hearing was scheduled for Blanton next year. “We were getting ready to be against it,” said Rudolph’s husband, George Rudolph.

At the trial, then-US attorney Doug Jones, who was appointed as a state special prosecutor, said Blanton responded in response to months of civil rights demonstrations. The intended church was a gathering place for protesters.

“Tom Blanton saw change and didn’t like it,” Jones, now a democratic US senator, said at the trial.

Blanton declared his innocence years after he was sent to prison. In a 2006 interview with WBRC-TV station in Birmingham, he claimed that the government used fabricated evidence and lies to win his conviction.

“I think I’ve been cleverly set up by the government … and that’s why I’m here,” Blanton told the St. Clair Correctional Facility television station in Springville, Alabama. “I’m sorry it happened. I am deeply sorry. But I am not responsible for it. ‘

A 1993 meeting in Birmingham between FBI officials and black ministers led to the reopening of the bombing case against Blanton and Cherry. The investigation remained silent until 1997, when officers went to Texas to speak to Cherry.

A decade earlier, the United States Department of Justice concluded that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had blocked the prosecution of Klansmen in the bombing.

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Associated Press Writer Daniel Yee of Atlanta contributed to this report.

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