It was one of the most horrific events in the long struggle for African-American civil rights. Four young girls preparing for Sunday services in the basement dressing room of the 16th Street Baptist Church were killed when a dynamite bomb planted outside exploded. Two of their killers remained beyond the grasp of the law for nearly 40 years. FBI Special Agent William Fleming and FBI Investigative Research Specialist Ben Herren took the lead in bringing them to justice.
Birmingham, Alabama was ground zero for the civil rights movement in September 1963. Its epicenter was the 16th Street Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. and hundreds of other African-Americans met and planned sit-ins and demonstrations for equal rights. They were met with massive resistance from the white state and local officials and the Ku Klux Klan. The city—known as “Bombingham” because there were so many bombings of black homes there—was infamous for the water hoses and dogs its police department unleashed on nonviolent civil rights demonstrators earlier that year.
Yet no one was prepared for what happened on Sunday morning, September 15. “No other incident had such a dramatic effect on those of us in the civil rights movement than the bombing of this church,” recalled Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a veteran of the campaign for civil rights. The tragedy galvanized the civil rights movement and helped lead to enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The wheels of justice would prove to move slower than the dismantling of segregation. It wasn't until 1977 that Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was found guilty for his role in the bombing and sentenced to life in prison, where he later died. Another two decades would pass before two other perpetrators were held accountable.
In 1996, the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Birmingham FBI office reopened the case to address the concern that the men responsible would never be brought to justice. The case was assigned to William Fleming and Ben Herren, then a Birmingham police sergeant. Despite long odds that had thwarted the success of two previous investigations in 1965 and 1977, Fleming and Herren went to work.
During the course of their investigation, they learned that over 130 witnesses had since died, with more passing away as the investigation moved forward. This limited access to valuable evidence and information, but they found new avenues of investigation to develop proof that suspects Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were also involved in the bombing.
They also relied on solid, old-fashioned investigative skills, such as re-interviewing witnesses who had not talked about the case in decades, and interviewing additional witnesses, including family and local 1960s-era KKK members, who offered never-before-revealed information. In fact, several witnesses indicated that they specifically heard Cherry make statements regarding his involvement in the crime.
As they meticulously dug through old files, Fleming also uncovered crucial tape recordings of Blanton's conversations originally recorded during the initial investigation in the 1960s. He and Herren spent hundreds of hours reviewing the tapes; their contents proved to be essential evidence against Blanton.
A Birmingham jury of eight whites and four blacks took just 2 ½ hours to find Blanton guilty of murder in 2001, while another jury of nine whites and three blacks found Cherry guilty in May 2002. Both men are now serving life sentences.
Both Fleming and Herren displayed remarkable devotion to seeing the case through to its conclusion. Fleming continually delayed his retirement for several years and, although scheduled for mandatory retirement in March 2001, even applied for an extension to continue to lend his expertise and institutional knowledge to the Cherry trial. After retiring from the Birmingham Police Department in 1997, Herren was immediately hired by the FBI to continue working on the case. His lifelong residence in Birmingham and his experiences in the city during the civil rights era helped investigators relate to witnesses.
Fleming and Herren's devotion to pursuing justice for the four girls who lost their lives in 1963 is truly extraordinary.# vimeo.com/8769530 Uploaded 547 Plays 0 Likes 0 Comments
Often, young employees are seen and not heard. Not so with twenty-seven year old Department of Defense employee Rachel Billingslea. In just three years, she has played a leading role in opening a new front in better relations with the world's largest democracy—India—and the formulation of America's post-Cold War national security policy.
Billingslea entered federal service with the belief that she could—indeed, she should—make a difference by offering her talents through public service. A graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former Presidential Management Intern (PMI), she joined the Defense Department as one of only four policy staff working on ballistic missile defense, a central defense initiative of the Bush administration.
As part of the missile defense team, Billingslea pursued her vision of employing missile defense as a tool in the effort to build a more robust defense relationship between the United States and India—a relationship that could have a tremendous impact on geopolitics. She independently conceived ideas for missile defense engagements with India, championed and shepherded them through the complex interagency clearance process, and ultimately received approval by various department and agency leaders. She personally accompanied the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy to India to deliver these new policy ideas to the Indian government, where they were enthusiastically received.
“It is incredibly rare that a relatively junior federal employee is able to have such a tangible impact on the development of high-level U.S. foreign policy, and this accomplishment is testament to Rachel's vision and tenacity,” said a U.S. Senate aide.
With the withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty completed, Billingslea left the missile defense policy office to accept a position as the Department's Country Director for Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon—where she pursued efforts to devalue ballistic missiles and the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. It was in this position that Billingslea caught the attention of the Secretary of Defense. She now serves him as an assistant for managing the interagency process.
Taking on critical issues of national and international impact, Billingslea personifies the type of keen yet diplomatic public servant whose groundbreaking work strengthens the nation immeasurably.# vimeo.com/8768600 Uploaded 326 Plays 0 Likes 0 Comments
Dr. Katharine Gebbie's 34-year public service career has been distinguished by innovation and effective leadership. She has been a pioneer in bringing the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) into the 21st century as director of its Physics Laboratory. Her leadership has fostered a culture of excellence that has made NIST one of the world's preeminent research institutions: since 1997, two of its scientists have won the Nobel Prize, the only federal employees so honored for scientific work done in the line of their official duties.
Gebbie began her NIST career as a research astrophysicist. Her greatest accomplishments revolve around her establishment and management of the NIST Physics Laboratory that has undertaken such important projects as the development of a space-based atomic clock that could be 10 times more accurate than atomic clocks on Earth, improving techniques for mammography, and studying Bose-Einstein condensation, which has emerged since the mid-1990s as one of the most cutting-edge themes of contemporary physics.
Created in 1991, the laboratory merged elements of five predecessor facilities based in Maryland and Colorado. NIST's thriving culture of excellence is, in large part, directly attributable to Dr. Gebbie. She has provided guidance that has maintained a consistent focus on careful measurement, standards and service. These objectives are complemented by the sense of empowerment that Gebbie instills in her staff.
For example, Bose-Einstein condensation, a program created under Gebbie's leadership, has become a new subfield of physics. This is due to the development of powerful experimental techniques involving ultracold quantum gases, many of which were pioneered at NIST. Its recognition by the 2001 Nobel Prize, only five years after its discovery, underlines the groundbreaking changes it has caused in science.
Gebbie's belief in employing emerging technologies to improve society has indeed benefited the scientific community and the nation at large. For example, she was a pioneer in employing the Internet to share scientific information. Her initiation of Web access to the lab's reference databases in 1993 was far ahead of the national curve. The success of this endeavor prompted early adoption of Internet technology throughout NIST. The Institute is now one of the federal government's most prolific providers of information via the Internet, and its online Internet Time Service provides atomic time to over 700 million queries daily.
Gebbie has long taken the lead in encouraging diversity, vitality and expertise in her staff. As one of the few women ever to serve as an NIST Laboratory Director, she has been devoted to enhancing scientific career opportunities and research experience for women and minorities through her Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. This first-of-its-kind program has been so successful that it has been emulated throughout the institute.
The cumulative effect of Gebbie's monumental contributions is clear. The laboratory she leads is an integral and heralded part of the national and global scientific community. Her diligence and aptitude are responsible for not only scientific advancement but also for the institutionalization of excellence at NIST. Her combination of talents is truly remarkable, and so is impact of her life's work.# vimeo.com/8847332 Uploaded 115 Plays 1 Like 0 Comments
Public service is founded on the idea that one person can make a difference in the lives of others. Daniel Weinberg is the embodiment of that ideal. His work in the U.S. Census Bureau's Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division has had a demonstrable impact on the lives of America's less fortunate.
One of his early accomplishments was the initiation of the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) program to provide updated estimates of income and poverty statistics to help administer federal programs and allocate federal funds to local jurisdictions. The program was so successful at the county level that Congress directed it be expanded to produce estimates of the nation's roughly 15,000 school districts. The National Academy of Sciences endorsed these estimates for use in Title 1 funding to improve the teaching and learning of the 12.5 million U.S. children in high-poverty schools. As a result, for the first time since 1965, funding was allocated on a school district by school district basis, as originally intended.
Because of his strong intellectual interest and expertise in this field, Weinberg has been an active and vocal champion for updating the 40-year-old official poverty measure. Weinberg has testified before Congress on statistical measurement, and he was instrumental in organizing and supporting a National Academy of Sciences panel on poverty measurement. Subsequent to the panel's final report, he helped persuade the Office of Management and Budget to establish an interagency working group on poverty and to support a budget initiative to expand the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to improve measurement of this key indicator. He also initiated a research program at the Census Bureau that produced a landmark July 1999 report on experimental poverty measures that was updated in October 2001.
These new measures are slowly becoming the standard by which the vulnerabilities of those less well-off are being measured. These new measures are now a regular part of the annual release of official poverty statistics. Better measurement will lead in time to better program targeting and improved lives for those in need of assistance.
Weinberg's efforts have had a direct and lasting impact within the Department of Commerce and the federal agencies which manage means-tested programs. Americans who are financially struggling now receive programmatic support that more accurately reflects their economic needs.
Weinberg's leadership has been acknowledged by those with whom he has worked, although his contributions are felt by thousands of people he doesn't even know.# vimeo.com/8976389 Uploaded 67 Plays 0 Likes 0 Comments
Lower Manhattan was filled with thousands of bewildered and terrified people the morning of September 11. Many immediately realized the enormity of the World Trade Center attacks and knew they had to leave the area at once. Kenneth Concepcion of the U.S. Coast Guard made sure that 70,000 of those frightened souls made their way to safety amidst the mayhem of an unfathomable disaster.
He arrived at New York's Pier 11 just 20 minutes after the second World Trade Center tower had fallen, only 10 blocks away. The area's only private commuter ferry terminal still accessible after the collapse was a scene of chaos, confusion and mass hysteria. Vessels hastily and recklessly pulled in and departed from the pier as people scrambled to get aboard any vessel that stayed long enough for them to do so. A collision appeared imminent.
Concepcion, the first U.S. Coast Guard employee at the scene, quickly organized New York City police officers and Department of Transportation officials to organize the massive crowds into lines based on their specific point of destination. He then brought all vessels at the pier under his direct control and took charge of the seaborne evacuation of the crowds of people—including injured fire fighters on their way to first aid stations—in a calm and orderly fashion.
He also had to direct vessels carrying fire fighters, emergency personnel, medical supplies, and doctors responding to the catastrophe. This massive undertaking helped guarantee the safety of thousands of people and aided in the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero.
In the midst of all that chaos, commercial vessels also had to make their way in and out of New York harbor. Over the next 12 hours, Concepcion ensured that the port's commerce kept moving and prevented stoppage of critical fuel deliveries to power plants across the country. A failure to deliver these goods and fuel supplies could have drastically affected the nation's economy. He continued that vital work in the days following September 11 and ensured that over 140 passenger vessels had security plans in place allowing them to transport 140,000 daily commuters.
Concepcion's supervisor, Brian Fisher, aptly described the enormity of his contributions: "His leadership skills, organizational skills and calm authoritative demeanor were a significant factor in averting a major marine disaster."
Concepcion was honored with a Service to America Medal for his courage and dedication at a November 2002 ceremony, but his heroism goes beyond the September 11th attacks and their aftermath. When American Airlines flight 587 crashed into the Rockaway Beach community area two months later, Concepcion was the on-scene coordinator for the waterborne recovery of plane parts and debris. His teamwork with all the different agencies involved—including the FBI, National Transportation Safety Board, and the New York police and fire departments—led to a complete recovery of all significant debris in less then thirty-six hours.
In the year since September 11, the threat of terrorism persists and Concepcion's work continues. He worked with state and local officials and industry in New York to develop port security plans to meet future terrorist threats and now works at the newly created Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as the Branch Chief for Maritime Passenger Security.# vimeo.com/8845611 Uploaded 352 Plays 0 Likes 0 Comments
2002 Service to America Medals Recipients
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