Echoes of Hate

Bobby Frank Cherry is one of the most notorious racist killers in American history. To Tom Cherry, he was just "Dad."

Tom Cherry can only guess at what fueled his dad's volatile anger and hatred for blacks. Likely, he suggests, it was a mind-set he inherited from his own father. That was simply the way of many Southern whites then.

"There was this Christmas morning," he says, "when we were going over to my grandmother's house. We were in the area people called the Brick Garden--where the blacks lived--and Dad pulled up at this red light. The streets were pretty deserted, but all of a sudden, this black man appears and just lays across the hood of our car. He's cut and bleeding and asking for help."

Cherry remembers his father angrily backing up to force the man off the car, then just driving away. "I couldn't imagine why we didn't stop and help that fella," he says.

Last month, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted of murdering the four victims of the Birmingham church bombing and received a life sentence. "I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing," he said.
AP/Wide World
Last month, Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted of murdering the four victims of the Birmingham church bombing and received a life sentence. "I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing," he said.

Nor did he understand why Bobby Frank Cherry rushed onto his front porch, brandishing a shotgun on a long ago Halloween night when two small black children arrived to trick-or-treat. He tells of the time a black teen-ager stole a ball of twine he used to bind the newspapers he threw on his route. His dad immediately went in search of the youngster. When he found him, the elder Cherry stuck a pistol in the boy's face and suggested he never take his son's twine again.

Tom Cherry attended Ku Klux Klan gatherings with his father. He saw burning crosses fashioned from old telephone poles. He recalls fiery speeches warning of the horrors that would result from integration and racial equality. There was, Cherry says, a small "Klan church" hidden outside of town that he attended with his father on occasion.

The relationship ended when Tom was 15. Rather than enter the orphanage with his siblings after his mother's death in 1968, he remained at home for a short time. "In about six months, though, Dad had remarried. And every time he went through a new wife he went through a new set of kids. So I decided it was time for me to leave."

In truth, he was leaving behind few good memories. "Dad could be charming as hell when he wanted to be. [But] it seemed like he always had other things on his mind. Looking back, I think maybe we could have worked some things out if we'd just been able to talk to each other."

From the time he finally left home until he was an adult, he saw his father only occasionally. The parental influence, however, was never far from hand. He found work in the shipyards of Pascagoula, Mississippi; soon after, he joined the Klan. "It was back in the early '70s," he says, "and this fella I knew at the union hall talked me into it." He didn't stay long. "They were stupid, always talking out of both sides of their mouth. You would hear them talking about how sorry the blacks were, then the next thing I knew I saw one of them parked in front of a black whorehouse."

He put away the Klan robe for which he'd paid $35 and quit attending meetings. "I've only got a seventh-grade education," he says, "but I know an idiot when I see one."

For almost four decades, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, has, like so much of the nation's Old South, slowly and sometimes grudgingly advanced beyond the ugly reminders of a time when racial animosity was commonplace and condoned. Gone are the vows of a governor who once loudly promised segregation now and forever. Gone are the times when there was little hesitancy to say "nigger."

The angry and often-violent recollections of the '60s civil rights movement are now relegated to the history books, remembered as the battleground whereon the foundation of a new social enlightenment was built. Birmingham is still known as the place where a single event so unimaginably cruel and evil-spirited occurred that it forced the city--and nation--to wear its shame like a shroud. Unfortunately, that Sunday morning of September 1963 will forever be Birmingham's haunting moment, just as a tragic November day that same year indelibly marked Dallas.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was more than a place of worship for members of the black community in 1963. Civil rights leaders regularly visited its pulpit to promote racial equality. Demonstrations were often held there, sometimes ending with marchers dispersed by police with fire hoses and batons.

On that day 39 years ago, the Reverend John Cross had planned a traditional morning service that was to include a musical program performed by the youth choir. In preparation, four of its members--Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14, and 11-year-old Denise McNair--had made a last-minute visit to the basement rest room. It was 10:22 when an explosion triggered by a dozen sticks of dynamite placed outside the church ripped a jagged hole in a corner of the old red brick building and killed the four children.

The aftermath was nightmarish. One of the youngsters had been decapitated, another so badly ripped apart that she could only be identified by her clothing. A flying brick had lodged into the skull of another.

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