By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
What possible motive could there have been? Just five days earlier Birmingham officials had reached a controversial decision to integrate the public schools.
"In many ways," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, "the Sixteenth Street Church bombing was the most important moment in the history of the civil rights movement. What happened that day awoke the conscience of white America, a conscience that had been silently sleeping for a long time. The spectacle of these four little girls in their white dresses, blown to pieces, changed the political landscape of America."
For all the public outrage, there was legitimate concern, particularly in the black community, that justice would never be served. Although investigators quickly focused on four suspects--local Klan members with long histories of violent acts--no arrests were made. By 1968, the FBI had closed its investigation without filing any charges, despite reports that a memorandum had been submitted to director J. Edgar Hoover, concluding that the bombing was plotted and carried out by four men: Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry. Years later, a Justice Department report would determine that Hoover, wary of acquittal verdicts by all-white juries, had blocked all prosecution in the case.
Tom Cherry was only 11 when the bombing occurred but was keenly aware of the interest the authorities immediately took in his father. "They began following him everywhere he went," he remembers. And, he says, even neighbors informed on him, telling the FBI anything they saw the elder Cherry do.
Tom recalls his mother rushing him to the hospital after he'd badly burned three fingers with matches. An FBI agent appeared and asked if the accident had resulted from playing with his daddy's dynamite. "I never saw any dynamite in our home or anywhere else," Tom insists.
It was not until 1977, after aggressive Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, that Chambliss, a man who reportedly delighted in his nickname of "Dynamite Bob," was finally tried, convicted and given a life sentence. He died in prison eight years later at 81.
After Baxley left office, the case became an afterthought, despite the repeated outcries of locals that justice was not yet completed. Herman Cash died without being charged at age 75 in 1994, leaving only Blanton and Cherry as surviving suspects.
Then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ordered a reopening of the investigation in 1997, and a new generation of FBI agents went in search of Thomas Blanton, the man long suspected of driving his associates to the bombing site, and Bobby Frank Cherry, who allegedly put the fatal bomb in place.
Their quest brought them to Cedar Creek Lake.
A former Marine, truck driver and welder with an eighth-grade education, he'd moved from Birmingham in 1971, settling in Grand Prairie where he opened a small carpet-cleaning business. In 1988, suffering a bad back, diabetes and recovering from triple-bypass heart surgery, Cherry retired and moved to Cedar Creek Lake.
The FBI came calling again in summer 1997. It shocked some of his neighbors. "He's been a wonderful neighbor," a young woman says. "Nice as he can be," adds a local businessman. "Oh, there might have been an instance or two when it was pretty obvious that he didn't like blacks, but he never did anything but walk away. To the best of my knowledge he never hurt anybody."
"We never had a bit of trouble out of him," says former Henderson County Sheriff Howard "Slick" Alfred. "A few times the FBI would meet him at my office to talk, and he and I always got along just fine."
Because of the FBI attention, Cherry quickly hired nearby Athens lawyer Gil Hargrave and demanded that he call a news conference. When members of the local media gathered, Cherry said, "I don't know anything about that bombing. I've never handled a stick of dynamite in my life, and I've never been on the grounds of that church. Still, they've been trying to arrest me for 15 years."
On that day, his son Tom stood supportively at his side, labeling the renewal of the investigation nothing more than a "witch hunt."
It wasn't long after the Athens news conference, however, that the FBI visited Tom. "I spoke with them--what else could I do?--and answered their questions as best I could," he says, "then called Dad over to the house so we could talk about it. I assured him that what I'd told them didn't amount to anything. But his reaction was pretty negative. The first thing he said to me was, 'You know they're going to try to drive a wedge between us.'"