The ghosts of Alabama
After 37 years, two men are indicted for a bombing that
transfigured the civil rights movement
Tom Cherry and his father Bobby Frank Cherry are separated by 200
ft. and four ghosts. The Cherrys both hail from Birmingham, Ala.,
but the family pulled up roots in 1971. Too many secrets, too
many whispers. "It was time to leave that place," says Tom, 47.
"Every time you turned around, some Cherry was getting into
trouble--because of the name." Now Tom lives in Mabank, Texas, a
tiny town of about 2,000 souls buried deep in the piney woods 50
miles southeast of Dallas. His father lives nearby--Tom can see
Bobby's place from his front porch--but the two haven't talked in
two years. Not since Tom and his daughter started talking to
grand juries and FBI agents, angering kinfolk and reopening old
wounds. At one point, when father met son, says Tom, "he jumped
on me" and then "started name-calling my kids in the papers."
Says Tom: "Right now is not a happy time. I'm the one he seems to
The Cherrys, it appears, pulled up dirt with their roots. Last
week it was old mud when Bobby Frank Cherry, 69, and Thomas E.
Blanton Jr., 61, both former Ku Klux Klansmen, were indicted by
an Alabama grand jury on murder charges stemming from the 1963
bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four black girls at
Sunday school. Both men maintain their innocence. The attack was
one of the most horrific crimes of the civil rights era, but only
one suspect in the case, Robert E. Chambliss--who was convicted of
murder in 1977 and died in jail in 1985--had been brought to
justice. The involvement of several others had long been
Tom Cherry has testified to an Alabama grand jury about his
father but, having been warned by prosecutors, is careful not to
repeat his testimony. All he says is that on the night the
dynamite was planted, he was with his father at a shop where
Klansmen made rebel signs. "When you're called in on a subpoena
and asked what you know ... I can only tell them where he was
at." He is anguished over his father, but he is also haunted by
the bombing. "There never was a family get-together where
someone wouldn't mention it," says Tom. Once he asked the FBI to
show him the pictures from the church. "Anytime you see a kid
that, you know, was decapitated..." His voice trails off.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church has been under
investigation by law-enforcement officials, off and on, for
almost four decades. Within days of the bombing, four
men--Cherry, Blanton, Chambliss and Herman Frank Cash--were
considered prime suspects. But according to some officials,
witness statements were hard to come by. First there was the
fear: If a person were to testify, would there be reprisals?
Then there was hopelessness: Would a court in segregationist
Alabama really do justice? And then there were the cops. During
the '60s, the Klan had ears and eyes and tongues within the
local police force. Nonetheless, after two years, FBI agents
felt they had a strong case but said J. Edgar Hoover and his
senior administrators blocked them from sharing their findings
"Back then, nobody would talk," says Rob Langford, a retired FBI
supervisor. "You'd interview people, and they wouldn't want to
testify. With the climate being different now, they are willing
to cooperate." In the '70s, Alabama attorney general Bill Baxley
successfully prosecuted "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss. But after
Baxley left office, the case went mostly dormant and was not
reopened until 1995. Langford, assigned to Alabama, met with
local black leaders who were tired of delays. Says he: "What it
took was a commitment to stick to it."
Doug Jones, the U.S. Attorney who will prosecute Cherry and
Blanton, hasn't disclosed what new evidence has been uncovered,
but experts believe ex-Klansmen and associates of Blanton's and
Cherry's may be ready to testify. Cherry's relatives--including
an ex-wife and a granddaughter who have said they heard him
boast about the bombing--have reportedly come forward. Willajean
Brogdon, one of Cherry's five wives, told the Jackson, Miss.,
Clarion-Ledger, "Bob told me he didn't put the bomb together. He
said, 'I lit it.'"
In 1963, Blanton was a 25-year-old 10th-grade dropout working in
a stockroom. Bobby Frank Cherry was 33 years old with only eight
years of school; he was missing all his upper teeth and had
already fathered seven children. Both men had been in the Klan
but found it too restrained for their liking. So, along with a
few others, they formed the Cahaba Boys, who met beneath the
Cahaba River bridge on U.S. 280 to drink beer and talk about
saving the South from Jews, Catholics and blacks.
Investigators believe that around 2 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1963,
Blanton drove his turquoise-and-white 1957 Chevy to 16th Street
with Chambliss, Cash and Cherry. While the others waited, Cherry
placed a 12-stick package of dynamite in a window well outside
the 16th Street Baptist Church. The bomb exploded eight hours
later, killing Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Carole
Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14. The martyred girls
horrified the nation and transfigured the civil rights movement.
Despite emboldened witnesses, prosecutors will still have
problems. One important witness who could have placed Blanton's
car at the scene has since died. There is also a sticky web of
alibis. Blanton claimed he was on a blind date with Jean Casey
(whom he later married and divorced). A couple of weeks after
the bombing, according to FBI files, Blanton called to ask her
to remind him what they had done that Saturday night: they had
dinner, and he stayed past midnight. "Her dad run old Tom off,"
says Wyman Lee, a Blanton crony. "Pretty hard to put Tom down
there the same time the bomb was put down there." Casey, now
Jean Barnes, denied that Blanton coached her.
As for Cherry, he once said he was watching wrestling on TV
(there was no wrestling that night). He has also said he was
home with a wife who was dying of cancer. As it turns out, his
wife's cancer wasn't diagnosed until years after the bombing.
Once, former attorney general Baxley got to question Cherry in a
room in Texas. "He jumped up and was going to beat me up,"
Baxley recalls. "You knew he'd revert to his bully-boy ways."
But knowing he could face extradition to Alabama, Cherry backed
down. He has other defenses. In 1965, when asked about his
involvement, he replied, "That's when the Fifth Amendment will
come in handy."
Tom Cherry hates the scandalmongers--those with "an alligator
mouth on a hummingbird butt"--who have split his family into
feuding halves. But he is also haunted by the suffering of
others--the McNairs, the Robertsons, the Collinses, the Wesleys.
"It needs to be settled for those families. Whether Dad did it
or not, it needs to be finalized." Then perhaps four ghosts can
have some peace.
--Reported by Hilary Hylton/Austin, Timothy
Roche/Birmingham and Greg Fulton/Atlanta