Echoes of Hate

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

It was a prophetic statement. Soon the elder Cherry received a call from a Henderson County law enforcement officer who said that the reason his son was talking to the FBI was because he'd reached a deal with them. If Tom Cherry provided information that advanced their investigation, the FBI allegedly told Tom, there was a good chance that the robbery sentence his own son was serving might be shortened.

"That," Tom says, "wasn't the case. It never happened. But Dad chose to take their word over mine." After that phone call, the father and son would never speak again.

For decades Bobby Frank Cherry had steadfastly insisted that he had been nowhere near the Sixteenth Street Church on the night the bomb was put into place. He had, he repeatedly told authorities, been at home watching Saturday-night wrestling on television and tending to his cancer-ridden wife, Virginia. His alibi lost all credibility when investigators determined that there had been no televised wrestling on the evening of September 14, 1963, and that his wife's cancer had not been diagnosed until several years later.

In September 1963, four young girls attending services at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church were murdered when an explosion ripped through the church. Above, firemen and ambulance workers tend to the dead and examine the aftermath. Below, Tom Cherry, the son of Bobby Frank Cherry, has a standard answer to those who ask if his father really lit the dynamite that day: "I wasn't there."
Top: AP/Wide World Below: Carlton Stowers
In September 1963, four young girls attending services at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church were murdered when an explosion ripped through the church. Above, firemen and ambulance workers tend to the dead and examine the aftermath. Below, Tom Cherry, the son of Bobby Frank Cherry, has a standard answer to those who ask if his father really lit the dynamite that day: "I wasn't there."
Top, the murder victims were, left to right, Denise McNair, 11, and Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, all 14. Mourners carry the body of one of the dead girls; the bombing, says one expert, was "the most important moment in the history of the civil rights movement." Bottom, the parents of Denise McNair, one day after the bombing, holding a picture of their daughter.
Photos this page: AP/Wide World
Top, the murder victims were, left to right, Denise McNair, 11, and Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, all 14. Mourners carry the body of one of the dead girls; the bombing, says one expert, was "the most important moment in the history of the civil rights movement." Bottom, the parents of Denise McNair, one day after the bombing, holding a picture of their daughter.

It would be another three years before Bobby Frank Cherry was arrested, in part because of information provided by his own family. One by one, subpoenaed members of the Cherry clan told incriminating stories to investigators, a Birmingham grand jury and the press.

In summer 1999, 26-year-old Teresa Stacy, Tom Cherry's daughter who now lives near Fort Worth, was the first to point blame at her grandfather. The mother of two told reporters that her grandfather "said he helped bomb a church back in the '60s and killed a bunch of black folks." Cherry's involvement, in fact, had never been a big secret. At family gatherings, she said, her uncles would say things like, "Grandpa helped blow up a bunch of niggers in Birmingham."

"When you're young," she told the press, "you don't know it's wrong. You look back now, and it's pretty sick."

Federal prosecutor Robert Posey, 50, says it was Stacy's willingness to get involved that gave his case the boost it needed. "After seeing her grandfather's news conference on television, she had called the FBI there in Texas to tell them what she'd heard as a youngster. When we contacted her she agreed to appear before a grand jury. That took a great deal of courage."

It was after Stacy spoke out that her grandfather angrily retaliated, insisting to an Associated Press reporter that she was a "dopehead and a prostitute."

"I can't forgive that," Tom Cherry says.

Soon, other former and current family members were coming forward. Willadean Brogdon, the third of Cherry's wives, had arrived from Montana and also went public following her grand jury appearance. "He admitted it; he bragged about it," she told reporters. Her daughter, Gloria LaDow, by then living in Florida, also testified before the grand jury and later told media members that "[Cherry] bragged about lighting the fuse."


Finally, in May 2000, Cherry, then 70, and Blanton, a 61-year-old Wal-Mart cashier still living near Birmingham, were arrested then indicted on eight counts of murder. Four counts were for the deaths of the children, with four additional counts added under the "universal malice" statute because the bomb was placed where it could have claimed the lives of others.

Blanton was ultimately convicted after a two-week trial where secretly recorded FBI tapes of conversations in which he admitted his role in the bombing were played. It appeared, though, that Cherry might still escape prosecution. To the amazement of legal experts, none of the four ex-Klansmen had ever offered information that might implicate the others.

Following a hearing in late 2001, at which his attorney argued that his client was suffering from severe dementia, Jefferson County Circuit Judge James Garrett ruled that Cherry was incompetent to stand trial and ordered him placed in a Tuscaloosa mental facility for treatment and further testing. During the hearing, a two-day exchange of mental-health experts, a doctor who testified for the prosecution argued that Cherry was only faking and was fully capable of assisting his lawyer and understanding the procedures of a trial.

In January, following additional evaluation, the judge reversed his earlier ruling and declared Cherry competent.

The trial began last month at Birmingham's Criminal Justice Center with a jury of nine whites and three blacks listening to the opening statement of U.S. Assistant District Attorney Posey: "He [Cherry] wore this crime on his chest like a badge of honor, like a Klan medal. He said his only regret was that he didn't kill more people."

Jurors, aging relatives of the victims and members of the national media saw old black-and-white photographs of the damage the dynamite had done, viewed smiling pictures of the young victims and heard painful recollections from several who had survived the blast.

They viewed grainy 1957 home-movie footage of a white mob attacking the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a local black civil rights leader, as he attempted to enroll his daughter in an all-white Birmingham school. It offered, the prosecutors noted, a graphic example of the racial hatred and violence that had roamed their city's streets in those days.

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