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The ghosts of Alabama

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After 37 years, two men are indicted for a bombing that transfigured the civil rights movement

May 22, 2000
Web posted at: 3:31 p.m. EDT (1931 GMT)

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 be blaming."

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 suspected.

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 with prosecutors.

"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


Cover Date: May 29, 2000



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