Echoes of Hate
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
The winding footpath that once connected the next-door homes of the two men is now overgrown, lost in a tangle of waist-high weeds and the shadows of the ancient oaks that green this serene Cedar Creek Lake area. Tom Cherry, wandering his back yard with his dogs, points toward the property he had helped clear in preparation for the home where his aging and notorious father, Bobby Frank Cherry, used to live. He takes a long drag on one of the Kools he chain-smokes and shakes his head. The dogs rush to his side, barking in concert, as if recognizing some hidden torment Tom Cherry is feeling.
The old man's house is vacant, sold a few years ago to help defray legal expenses. Tom's father--a man with whom he has endured a love-hate relationship for most of his 49 years; the person he once called his "hero" yet has not spoken to since an angry estrangement in 1997--now sits in an Alabama prison, convicted last month of a horrendous crime he was accused of committing 39 years ago.
Bobby Frank Cherry, jurors agreed, was one of four Ku Klux Klansmen who, at the height of the civil rights movement, bombed an all-black church in Birmingham in 1963, killing four young girls and injuring 20 others.
Now, on this clear, bright blue summer weekend, the eldest of the seven Cherry children is alone, reflecting on the doubt and confusion that has haunted him and his family for decades.
"Dad and I always had a rocky, off-and-on relationship," the husky-voiced long-haul truck driver says. "If you agreed with him, you were his buddy. If you didn't, you weren't. There was never any in-between. It wasn't until I was a grown man that I finally figured out that he wasn't ever going to change."
He admits his father's prejudice did not prevent Tom Cherry's lifelong attempt to forge a bond between them. That, he explains, is just what sons do, even if their father was mean and abusive, even if he abandoned his children to an orphanage soon after their mother died, even if he was a man who spewed racial slurs, wore his Klan robe proudly and held to the belief that violence was the answer to the world's social ills.
So, after years of going his separate way, Tom Cherry followed his father to Texas and became his next-door neighbor.
"If I told you how I feel about my dad right now," he says after a quick burst of laughter, "you'd think I'm crazy."
He continues pensively: "There hasn't been an hour go by since the trial that I haven't thought about him sitting in jail, wondering what he's going through. It's an awful feeling, knowing there's nothing you can do about it. I feel so sorry for him.
"I love him. And I hate him. There's one part of me that wishes I'd killed him 30 years ago. There's another that feels that all of what's happened to him is a result of the government plotting against him. And there's another that feels he got what he deserved."
It is difficult to determine which Bobby Frank Cherry his conflicted son is remembering: the one who worked long, hard hours to provide for his family; the man he once wanted to grow up to be like; the one who, his son says, had a great sense of humor; or the one who would rage and physically abuse his mother, who died when he was 15.
"I never knew what it was that set him off," Tom says. "Actually, I don't think it was ever anything in particular." He recalls a Sunday morning in the Cherry family kitchen. "All my mother did was ask him to go to church with us," he says, "and Dad jumped up and cleared the breakfast table, throwing things and knocking stuff onto the floor. That's just the way he was."
It was such tantrums that motivated a 9-year-old Tom Cherry to first run away from home. "I got to where I'd do it just about every time Mama and Dad would start fighting," he recalls. Watching his father punch and slap his mother, Tom would pack his clothes and--except the time he pointed a shotgun at his father to make him stop--walk away. "I never got very far, though," he says.
Indeed, try as he would over the years to distance himself from his father and his murderous legacy, Tom Cherry could never get far enough away. He was with his father through a childhood that, with a few exceptions, was draped in hate. He was pulled into his world of Klan meetings and random violence. Even as an adult, Tom Cherry had to face investigators, divided family members and numerous ghosts, all of whom wanted to know what he knew--about his father, about the bombing, about his lifetime of accusations and unanswered questions.
There was, he says, one occasion that typified his futile efforts to flee his father. One evening when he had run away, a friend of the family stopped him a short distance from home and persuaded him to call his mother and tell her where he was. When he phoned, it was his father who angrily instructed him to stay where he was so he might come get him. "I was so nervous by the time he got there," Tom says, "that my stomach was hurting." When he told his father of this, Bobby Frank Cherry doubled his fist and punched his son in his belly.
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.
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.
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.
Though most media accounts state Bobby Frank Cherry lived in the lakeside community of Mabank, it is only because it was there that he received his mail. The closest town, in fact, is a little wide spot in the road called Payne Springs (population 683). There is in this rural area a gothic-like removal from the modern world; secrets are tightly guarded, and there is a palpable distrust of strangers. Few apparently knew that the grandfatherly Cherry, called "Cowboy" by those who knew him, was one of those with a secret.
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.'"
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.
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.
Afterward, Bobby Birdwell, once a boyhood friend of Tom Cherry, was called to the stand to identify one of the attackers shown beating the minister. The wavy-haired man with a cigarette dangling from his lips, he testified, was a young Bobby Frank Cherry.
Birdwell, 11 at the time of the bombing, told of an afternoon visit to the defendant's home just days before the church bombing. Cherry and three other men, he recalled, were seated at the kitchen table as he entered to get a glass of water. "I heard them mention 'bomb' and 'Sixteenth Street,'" he told the jury. He also remembered seeing a white robe, similar to those worn by Klan members, draped across the couch in the living room.
Witness Michael Gowins recalled a mid-'80s conversation with Cherry, whom he had hired to clean carpets in a Dallas apartment complex he managed at the time. After the two men realized they were both originally from Birmingham, he testified, Cherry had spoken openly of his involvement in the church bombing.
Retired FBI agent John Downey, who had interviewed Cherry a year after the bombing, remembered the defendant repeatedly denying any involvement in the crime but saying, "The only reason I didn't do the church bombing was because someone beat me to it."
For the aging defendant, the testimony would only become more damaging in the days to come. His ex-wife, Brogdon, took the stand to repeat what she had earlier detailed for the grand jury. She told of a time shortly after their 1970 marriage when Cherry's car had broken down near the rebuilt Sixteenth Street Church. "I went to get him, and he said that was the church where he put the bomb," she testified. "He said he got out of the car and put the bomb under the stairs the night before. He said he lit the fuse."
Brogdon then told the jury that her former husband had expressed regret that the four children were killed, only to add, "At least they can't grow up to have any more niggers."
Then Teresa Stacy described sitting on the porch of the Cherrys' Texas home and hearing her grandfather tell of "blowing up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham." "He seemed rather jovial, braggish," she testified.
After a week of testimony, on May 22, the jury deliberated less than seven hours during a two-day period before returning with a guilty verdict on four counts of murder. The life sentence he was dealt and his failing health all but assure he will spend what time remains for him behind bars.
If there is repentance for the crime of which he was convicted, even the bigoted attitude that finally caused his downfall, it is yet to come. Asked by the judge at trial's end if he had anything he wished to say, Cherry quickly lashed out at those who had testified against him. "This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing," he said, pointing to the nearby prosecutors. "I told the truth. I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing."
By then, Tom Cherry, subpoenaed as a witness but never asked to testify, was headed back to Texas, fearful that his father would be convicted and knowing that his family was irreparably shattered. Years ago, his siblings who stood firmly in his father's corner had issued a "you're with us or against us" ultimatum, which he chose to ignore. As a result, they no longer speak to him. "I've got one sister I still talk to; that's about it," he says.
His relationship with his daughter, Teresa Stacy, is now strained. "We did finally have a long talk one night in Birmingham during the trial," he says. "I told her that despite everything that had happened, everything we'd disagreed about, I still want to be a part of her life and a part of my grandkids' lives. There were a lot of tears, and we hugged." She told her father that she would be in touch after she returned home but is yet to do so.
Stacy isn't likely to. "We talked [in Birmingham]," she says, "but it was all pretty superficial. My father wouldn't know the truth if it hit him in the face. He still seems to be able to forgive just about everything his dad ever did."
A stay-at-home mom, Stacy now looks back on her involvement in the prosecution of her grandfather as "a shameful experience" that she is glad to have behind her but quickly adds, "If there is justice in the universe, he will be shoveling shit in hell."
Which leaves little doubt about her feelings for Bobby Frank Cherry. But does she anticipate ever making that call to her dad? "No," she says.
Perhaps, her father suggests, the damage that has been done is too severe to overcome. "I think maybe there's been too much said," he somberly admits. "Too many lies have been told. A misunderstanding, I can understand, but a blatant lie I can't deal with.
"If it hadn't been for so many witnesses who I know lied," he reflects, "I'd have no problem [with the verdict]." Boyhood friend Bobby Birdwell, he insists, was never inside the Cherry home. "He told a bald-faced lie." And his father's ex-wife "lied through her teeth."
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.
"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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