Dynamite Bob.

That was my first thought when I heard that an 88-year-old racist was the alleged gunman in Wednesday's shoot-out at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Killed was a black security guard, Stephen T. Johns, 39. I wondered whether the gunman had purposely set his sights on the African American, an added bonus for him in a museum dedicated to the Jewish genocide.

Charged with murder in the crime is James Wenneker von Brunn, a name familiar to hate-crime monitoring groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. They know von Brunn from his racist Web site.

That an old man such as von Brunn could be so filled with hatred that he would kill another human being immediately brought to my mind memories of Robert Edward Chambliss.

Civil-rights historians should remember Chambliss. "Dynamite Bob" was convicted of murder in the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Four black girls were killed in the blast. Chambliss was convicted 14 years later. He was 73 and unrepentant, keeping his Ku Klux Klan vow of silence even unto death, which came in 1985 while he was serving his lifetime prison term.

I'll never forget Chambliss because I'll never forget the September day of the church bombing. You could hear the blast from my house. One of the dead girls attended my school; her mother taught there.

In 1963, my hometown was nicknamed "Bombingham" because of all the racially motivated blasts at black churches and the homes of civil-rights leaders. The Sixteenth Street bombing led to rioting and rumors of Klan reprisals. That night, my father and others stood guard in the projects where we lived.

Chambliss was actually arrested a few weeks after the bombing on a charge of possession of dynamite, but he was acquitted on appeal. The FBI named him and four other men suspects in the church bombing but dropped the case. One suspect apparently was a paid FBI informant who had infiltrated the Klan.

The case lay dormant until 1975, when Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley finally was granted access to 200 volumes of FBI records that he had been requesting for four years. Chambliss was tried two years later. He never admitted his guilt. Key testimony came from a niece who remembered the retired auto mechanic saying on the day before the bombing that he had enough dynamite "to flatten half of Birmingham." An eyewitness also placed him at the scene.

Eventually, two other Klansmen would pay for the crime. Thomas Blanton Jr. was convicted in 2001 and is still serving a life sentence. Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in 2002 and died in prison two years later, at 74.

I've found no record that either of the men ever said he was sorry or denounced the racial hatred that accepted murder as a means to an end. Their old age did not soften them in that regard, which brings me back to von Brunn.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says von Brunn once worked for Noontide Press, part of the Institute of Historical Review, which denies the Holocaust. He's written a book, Kill the Best Gentiles, which accuses Jews of mongrelizing Europe.

In addition to being a hatemonger, von Brunn may be mentally unbalanced. His Web site says he was convicted in 1981 of trying to make a citizen's arrest of the entire board of governors of the Federal Reserve, leading to a sentence of 11 years in prison.

His insanity went to an extreme Wednesday. But though von Brunn apparently acted alone, others may be eager to emulate him. The election of Barack Obama, the recession, and immigration have increased membership in hate groups (of which there were 926 nationwide in 2008) and attacks on minorities.

"They believe the white gene pool is being polluted," Marilyn Mayo, director of right-wing research at the ADL's Center on Extremism, told the Inquirer Editorial Board. "People are moving from ideology to action."

Helping to spur that action is the hateful rhetoric that has crept into the mainstream. For example, in criticizing Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado called the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights group, "a Latino KKK." Rush Limbaugh and others called Sotomayor a "racist" for promoting diversity in the judiciary.

When an extremist hears that kind of language in the mainstream, it can motivate him to do something extreme. Especially when he's 88 years old, filled with hatred, and figures he's got nothing to lose.

E-mail Inquirer editorial page editor Harold Jackson at hjackson@phillynews.com.