By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The elder Long took his children to his hotel office and began a futile attempt to call home and let their mother know they were OK. "The lobby of the motel was chaos," Long recalls. "People were on the phones, trying to make calls. Dad finally got in touch with my grandmother and asked that she go over to our house and tell my mother we weren't hurt."
Outside, the streets were filling with angered residents forming an impromptu demonstration that would evolve into a full-blown riot. It wasn't until later in the day that the Long family heard a radio report announcing the deaths of the four children. The devastating news hit close to home. Cynthia Wesley, also a clarinet player, had sat next to Dale in the youth orchestra. Carol Robinson's mother had grown up with Dale's mother. The McNairs were close friends of the Long family. Often, they had given Addie Mae Collins a ride home from church.
And suddenly they were gone, victims of a hatred none was old enough to understand.
Long remembers accompanying his mother as she delivered food to the homes of the grieving parents the following day, then, along with 8,000 others, attending the funerals at which the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered moving eulogies.
"I grew up a lot in those days after the bombing, realizing how precious and tenuous life really was," says Long, now the father of two daughters. Two weeks later, he recalls, he made the walk down the aisle of the church to profess his faith.
And several years later, the clarinet rescued from that dust and smoke-filled church library would provide Long an escape from his troubled birthplace. Offered a band scholarship to Houston's Texas Southern University after graduating from high school, he distanced himself from the taunts that blacks still heard on Birmingham streets, the parading Klansmen waving Confederate flags and the frustration that lingered over the fact no one had been called to answer for the deaths of his friends.
After earning a degree in industrial technology, he went to work for McDonnell-Douglas' space shuttle program at NASA, then later moved to the Dallas area to work for Texas Instruments. Today, in addition to working for the city of Dallas, he busies himself with community volunteer activities. In 1989 he received the National Big Brother of the Year Award. "What I've tried to do," he explains, "is give something of myself that might fill the void left by those little girls. I've attempted to do some of the things they weren't able to."
And while Texas is now home, Long regularly returns to Birmingham to visit his mother and brother, attend class reunions and to remember. When Tom Blanton, one of the men finally indicted for the crime, was tried, Dale Long was in the courtroom to hear the guilty verdict. He had planned on attending the final days of the Cherry trial, but it ended before most had expected.
"When I go home," he says, "one of the first places I visit is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I've been there hundreds of times, but the next time I'm there, I'll go again. It's a place I'll be drawn to for the rest of my life."
With Klansmen Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Blanton and Cherry finally publicly acknowledged as the men responsible for the bombing, how does he feel about the event that has so long been a part of his life? "We've all come a long way since those days," he acknowledges, "African-Americans and Anglos alike.
"What the judicial system has finally done is provide the lesson that one can't ever escape punishment for that kind of evil act." That alone, he acknowledges, is an important signal of progress from which a new generation will benefit.