Echoes of Hate

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

But what of the damaging testimony from his own daughter? "She's let too many people control her," he says, refusing to elaborate.

Never, he insists, did he ever hear Bobby Frank Cherry talk of any involvement in the historic tragedy. But did he ever directly ask his father if he committed the crime? "No," Tom says. Does the son believe his dad was, in fact, involved? He retreats to his standard answer: "I wasn't there."


In the years leading up to his father's arrest, Tom Cherry had testified before both federal and state grand juries, yet unlike other family members, he had remained silent about what he said. Still, a public perception, fanned by media reports, grew that it was he who had, in fact, provided the evidence that finally led to an indictment.
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.

"Actually, they only asked me a few questions," he now explains. "They wanted to know what kind of father he was, and I answered as truthfully as I knew how. They wanted to know if he'd had nightmares or trouble sleeping in the days after the bombing or if he'd seemed remorseful. I told them no. They wanted to know things like if he had become more abusive after it had happened, and I told them I couldn't remember."

They asked what he remembered about that Sunday morning when the bomb went off. He said he accompanied his father to the Modern Sign Company near downtown Birmingham earlier that day and was helping him and several other men who were printing Confederate flags. "I told them all I remembered was hearing the sound of the explosion and Dad asking, 'What the hell was that?'" Almost immediately, he recalls, they left the sign shop and returned home.

It was when both investigators and the grand jury had quizzed him about his father's alibi for the night before the bombing that Tom Cherry's recollection did prove damaging. "As far as him being at home watching wrestling on TV, all I could tell them was that I knew it was what we did just about every Saturday night back then." But when asked about his father tending his sick mother that night, he testified that she hadn't learned that she was suffering from cancer until much later. "That," he says, "was when they began checking hospital records."

Attorney Posey, a Birmingham native who was 12 when the crime he was prosecuting occurred, admits empathy for the family members tarnished by the tragic legacy of Bobby Frank Cherry. "Tom," he says, "was willing to meet and talk with us, and I know that was difficult for him. But I can honestly say that I don't think anything that he told us was untrue, that in any way he attempted to sabotage our case. On the other hand, it was difficult at times to know where he stood on things."

The same, for that matter, applies today. There are private thoughts, the divorced Cherry says, more than once, that he has no intention of sharing with anyone.

Still, he insists that he really had little information that would have dramatically advanced the state's case. And, since he had been financially compensated as a consultant for the FX made-for-television movie Sins of the Father, there was concern that his credibility would be called into question by the defense.

Relieved that he was not called as a witness, Cherry offers no apology for his involvement in the project that was based on a 2000 Texas Monthly article written by Pamela Colloff. "They [the producers] contacted me to say they were going to do the movie, with or without my input," he says. "I thought about it for a long time, and when they finally agreed to let me be a consultant, I decided to get involved. I didn't want them just lambasting him."

Having now seen the movie, which initially aired in January 2002, several times, he says he is "comfortable with it," despite its harsh portrayal of his father.

There is, for that matter, a sense that Thomas Frank Cherry, a likable man whose mood runs from outgoing to contemplative, is comfortable with himself, despite his proximity to that nightmarish event of 1963, despite the family ill-feelings and the haunting questions and troubling memories with which he lives.

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