Topic Page

Four Little Girls: The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing

Articles and information from The Clarion-Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell regarding the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama

More…

Related Pages

Pictures & Records (1)

Show More

Stories

Grand jury to hear 35-year-old firebombing case

Federal panel to probe Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

A federal grand jury in Alabama will begin to hear evidence Oct. 27 regarding the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four little girls.

It’s the start of a process that could lead to indictments in the 35-year-old case. “We’re going to use the grand jury to help ferret out evidence in the case,” Andrew Bringuel, special agent for the FBI in Birmingham, said Friday.

Bringuel would not discuss what was being presented to the panel, but said, “I can tell you some positive things are happening in the investigation.”

Developments are taking place just after the 35th anniversary of the Sept. 15, 1963, dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four girls — Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14 — were sitting in the basement when an explosion ripped through the building, killing them and injuring 20 others.

Their killings became a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil,” Martin Luther King Jr. told those gathered at the funeral. “The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.”

The FBI decided to dive into the past after Robert Langford, then in charge of the FBI office in Birmingham, heard after he took over in 1993 that many in the black community believed the FBI had never seriously pursued the bombing.

Langford assigned an agent to look into the case. What that agent found — documents listing potential witnesses who were now willing to talk — led to the case in 1996 being formally reopened.

Those documents also identified a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Birmingham, Klavern 13, as responsible for the bombing and other attacks. One FBI report listed three eyewitnesses who saw Klansman Robert Chambliss and three other men at the church around 2 a.m., about eight hours before the explosion.

Although the FBI suspected a number of Klansmen in plotting and carrying out the bombing, only Chambliss was prosecuted and convicted of the crime in 1977.

When the FBI’s probe became public last year, media attention focused on Bobby Frank Cherry, a former Alabama pipe fitter the agency identified as belonging to Klavern 13.

Contacted Friday, Cherry, who now lives in Mabank, Texas, called the ongoing investigation “a bunch of baloney.”

He admitted being in the Klan, but denied any part in the bombing. “I wasn’t even involved, didn’t know anything about the mess until I heard it on TV,” he said.

It was impossible for the Klan to have firebombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, Cherry said. “You couldn’t have gotten within 20 miles of it. Hell, there were cars all around the place.”

He said the girls weren’t killed by the Klan but by Birmingham police, the FBI and members of then-Gov. George Wallace’s staff.

“Hell, all of his officials belonged to the Klan,” he said. “There’s going to be a book wrote on it pretty soon.”

Cherry said he campaigned for Wallace and then worked for the new Alabama governor as a lieutenant colonel, an honorary position that carried no official position or pay. Some of those responsibilities included serving as a bodyguard for Wallace, Cherry said.

He criticized law enforcement officers who belonged to the Klan. “It’s wrong,” he said. “If you’re police, you ought to be police. If you’re a Ku Kluxer, you ought to be a Ku Kluxer and you ought to be good at it.”

He said he knew the suspects in the dynamiting — Chambliss, Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Herman Frank Cash. He said they had nothing to do with the bombing.

As for Chambliss, “I think he was covering up for people,” Cherry said. “All he (Cash) done wrong was drank whiskey.”

Chambliss died in prison in 1985. Cash died in 1994. Blanton could not be reached for comment.

Cherry said the FBI thinks he knows more than he’s saying. An FBI document claims a lie-detector test indicated he had previously bombed a house and was withholding information about the Birmingham bombing.

The truth, he said, is that he had left the Klan by the time the killings took place. “Hell, I didn’t know nothing about it.”

He criticized Spike Lee’s recent documentary Four Little Girls as “a bunch of baloney. A bunch of those people were lying. You could tell by looking at them.”

U.S. Attorney Doug Jones said it may be possible to pursue federal charges since interstate transportation of dynamite carried no statute of limitations in 1963.

“A straight civil rights act would,” he said. “We are working closely with the state and the district attorney’s office.”

Should the evidence prove sufficient to go to trial, authorities will try to determine if it best belongs in state or federal court, Jones said.

“The FBI wouldn’t be involved if we weren’t involved in exploring criminal charges,” Bringuel said.

Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber said he plans to prosecute if there’s enough evidence to support a murder charge. “There’s no statute on homicide.”

The 1963 bombing is something neither he nor Birmingham can forget, he said. “That’s the year I graduated from high school.”

Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch, whose books chronicle the civil rights movement, said the bombing led to the Selma march and the voting rights movement.

“This grand jury was the way this country should have responded in the first place. . . . If the crime was unspeakable, then it has been unspeakably shameful that the country has not been able to respond to the crime until now.”

Crimes of the Past

1963 killings of 4 girls in church reopened

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — Doug Jones sat in the balcony, leaning over the railing for a better view.

He had cut classes again at Cumberland School of Law, drawn to the history unfolding at the Jefferson County Courthouse. Robert Chambliss was being tried for scheming to plant dynamite beneath the 16th Street Baptist Church 14 years earlier. Four girls had been preparing for a special youth service when they were blown apart by a bomb.

In front of Jones and the jury, Attorney General Bill Baxley placed a picture of each girl — Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson. “It was the high drama that movies are made of,” Jones recalled of the 1977 trial.

Two decades later, it is Baxley who may get to watch Jones, who as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, is reconstructing the case that mesmerized him as a student.

The killings returned to center stage last year just before the Senate confirmed Jones. “I just about dropped my coffee when I saw the case was reopened,” he said. “I thought, ‘That will be my case.’ ”

A federal grand jury, which is reinvestigating the case, is expected to meet in January and wrap up in a few months.

Chambliss, who was convicted of murder in 1977, has since died. But two suspects are still alive: Tommy Blanton of Birmingham and Bobby Frank Cherry of Mabank, Texas, who say they’re innocent.

“It’s not the only unsolved case in Birmingham, but it’s one of the few where the United States has possible jurisdiction,” Jones said.

That jurisdiction is possible because the federal transportation of dynamite law in 1963 carries no statute of limitations.

On a gray fall day, smoke drifts sideways from a steel mill in this town of more than a quarter million once nicknamed “The Tragic City.”

Although three and a half decades have passed, the city's name is indelibly linked to the tragedy, a tragedy so unspeakable that many residents don’t want to talk about it, much less remember.

Yet it is the nation that cannot forget, permanently picturing this city in a series of grainy black-and-white images, jets of water smashing children against walls and sidewalks, German shepherds attacking black teenagers.

“We still suffer from those images,” Jones said. “Birmingham’s had a black mayor for 20 years. The images are still from 1963.”

Those images are preserved at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park, where many of the protests took place.

At the nearby 16th Street Baptist Church, there are few outward reminders of the blast that stunned the world. A sign outside says, “God Is Coming. Visitors Welcome.”

The church was one of many targets of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s and 1960s. The FBI identified Birmingham’s Klavern 13 as the group responsible for many explosions that rocked homes and churches.

In 1993, Rob Langford, who headed the FBI in Birmingham, decided to reopen the case after talking with black leaders. “One of the issues that popped up was that the FBI didn’t do anything on the 16th Street bombing, but had all the information,” he said.

That remark intrigued Langford, who assigned an agent to the case. The agent’s findings, along with Baxley’s success and Mississippi’s conviction of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for murdering Medgar Evers, convinced Langford in 1996 to formally reopen the bombing case, he said. “Knowing that it was successful over there had an obvious impact on what we were doing. It let us know, ‘Hey, it can be done.’ ”

Both Langford and Jones said several who have information about the bombing have yet to talk.

If Cherry and Blanton know something about the bombing, they aren’t saying.

Cherry said he had nothing to do with the killings and had quit the Klan by the time they occurred. He blames them on the FBI, local police and then-Gov. George Wallace’s staff. “Hell, all of his officials belonged to the Klan,” Cherry said.

He made this conclusion after reviewing documents and newspaper articles in a library. “I figured it out in archives,” he said. “I’m smarter than they are.”

He disputed an FBI document that claims a lie-detector test showed he had bombed a house and was withholding information about the Birmingham bombing.

Blanton would not agree to an interview with The Clarion-Ledger but complained to his congressman about the FBI investigation. “I had nothing whatsoever to do with that crime, but the fact that the government and media have told the same lies over and over again, it tends to cause people to believe those lies,” he wrote U.S. Rep. Bob Barr.

Attached to Blanton’s letter was a document discussing the FBI’s investigation of him as a suspect in various bombings: “The photograph of Blanton was exhibited to numerous individuals, all with negative results. When Blanton was interviewed with the aid of the polygraph, his chart indicated deception; however, the investigation did not develop positive information that Blanton was one of the perpetrators.”

Howell Raines, author of My Soul Is Rested, said there was a good deal of evidence in the case that was never exploited. “The FBI office thought it could get a conviction,’’ he said, “but Hoover overruled that. He didn’t want to expose some informers.”

Time has passed here but not the horror. Hardly a day passes that the Rev. John Cross, then pastor at the 16th Street Baptist Church, doesn’t think of the bombing.

His mind goes back. He hears an explosion, smells gunpowder and gasoline, rushes down stairs, finding the bodies of four little girls buried beneath the rubble.

“I think about it practically every night,” he said. “It gets on my nerves so I can’t go to sleep. I have some restless nights.”

Lately, there has been more peace, he said. “It satisfies me to know that the FBI is still not giving up and they’re trying to pursue every avenue they can conceive of.”

The time is right, Jones said. “There is a generation who … would like to see the South viewed in a much different light. They see the unfairness in the criminal justice system that was supposed to protect people, but failed.”

Texas man implicated in church bombing

 

Granddaughter of suspect says he bragged about ’63 attack in Alabama.

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

A Texas woman who appeared Wednesday before a federal grand jury implicated her grandfather in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls.

Teresa Stacy, 23, who now lives in Fort Worth, said her grandfather, Bobby Frank Cherry, a longtime suspect in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, “said he helped bomb a church back in the ’60s and killed a bunch of black folks.”

The children who died in the Birmingham church bombing were Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14 — all of whom were sitting in the basement when an explosion ripped through the building, killing them and injuring 20 others.

Stacy’s remarks are the first public indication that authorities have at least one new witness in the renewed federal investigation into the bombing, a moment in U.S. history that inspired many to join the civil rights movement.

Contacted Wednesday night in Mabank, Texas, Cherry disputed Stacy’s assertion he admitted bombing a church and killing black people. “I never said nothing like that in my life,” he said. “That girl, I hadn’t spent two days around her in my life. I don’t miss her at all.”

He denied making any such statement to Stacy or anyone else: “I didn’t talk about that during that time. I didn’t talk about it after.”

In fact, Cherry said he has a solid alibi. “There ain’t nobody alive or dead who can say I had anything to do with it,” he said. “I was home watching wrestling that night.”

If the FBI wants to catch the real killers, “they’d be looking at themselves, looking at their own men,” said Cherry, who admits he belonged to the Klan at one time.

The grand jury is showing signs of moving closer to resolution. The panel has already heard the testimony of two former Klansmen, including Wyman S. Lee, a friend of both Cherry and fellow suspect William Blanton, who maintains his innocence. The third suspect, Herman Cash, is dead.

Contacted Wednesday night, U.S. Attorney Doug Jones said, “I think it’s a little bit early for us to make any comments on how the investigation is proceeding. There is a lot of evidence we have to weigh from a lot of different sources. We’re just taking it one step at a time and plodding along.”

In 1993, the FBI began looking again at the bombing when Robert Langford took charge of the Birmingham FBI office. At that time, he said many in the black community said they believed the agency never seriously pursued the bombing.

Langford assigned an agent to look into the case. What that agent found — documents listing potential witnesses who were now willing to talk — led to the case in 1996 being formally reopened.

Those documents also identified a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Birmingham, Klavern 13, as responsible for the bombing and other attacks. One FBI report listed three eyewitnesses who saw Klansman Robert Chambliss and three other men at the church around 2 a.m., about eight hours before the explosion.

Although the FBI suspected a number of Klansmen in plotting and carrying out the bombing, only Chambliss was prosecuted and convicted of the crime in 1977. He later died in prison.

When the FBI’s probe became public in 1997, media attention focused on Cherry, who took part in a news conference with his son – Stacy’s father – and insisted on his innocence.

The sight of this event on television prompted Stacy to contact local FBI agents, who put her in touch with Birmingham agents who interviewed her. Last Wednesday, she got a subpoena to testify.

The Birmingham church bombing was a subject family members openly discussed, Stacy said. “It was not a big family secret. They’d talk about it and boast about it.”

On occasions, she said her uncles would brag about her grandfather’s role in the dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church. “My uncles ... would say stuff like how grandpa helped to blow up a bunch of n-----s in Birmingham,” Stacy recalled.

On Wednesday morning, she shared her story for the first time with a federal grand jury.

“When you’re young, you don’t know it’s wrong. You look back on it now, and it’s pretty sick.”

 

1963 Alabama church bombing

TV schedule contradicts alibi

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

MABANK, Texas — For 35 years, Bobby Frank Cherry has been an FBI suspect in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls.

For 35 years, he has gone uncharged, and his alibi has gone unchallenged. The 69-year-old retired truck driver maintains he was home the night the bomb was planted because he was watching wrestling on TV — and shares a sworn affidavit to prove it.

There’s at least one problem with that alibi. There was no televised wrestling for Cherry to watch.

Instead, the programs that took place at 10 that night were Route 66 on WAPI-Channel 13 and Films of the Fifties on WBRC-Channel 6, according to schedules in the Sept. 14, 1963, Birmingham News.

Asked about television schedules that poke holes in his alibi, Cherry responded, “There was no damn Films of the Fifties on. Son of a b----, something’s wrong. Wrestling was on.”

Revelation of this possible contradiction — as well as others — comes at the same time state and federal authorities in Alabama are intensifying their investigation into that Sept. 15, 1963, bombing that ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.

The bombing horrified the nation, but the case went unprosecuted for 14 years until then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley won a murder conviction against Bob Chambliss, who got life and died in prison.

Baxley left office before he could pursue the cases against other suspects. The only two living are Cherry and Tommy Blanton Jr. of Birmingham, who could not be reached for comment.

In a six-hour interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Cherry talked about the night of Sept. 14, when the bomb was planted, saying he spent the early evening at Modern Sign Co. in Birmingham, several blocks from the church. “I know I left up there about a quarter ’til 10 because I was heading home to watch wrestling,” he said. “Flora Thomas (a friend) was there taking care of my wife. She had cancer. She died in ’68.”

Cherry has a March 15, 1980, sworn affidavit from Thomas regarding his whereabouts that night: “He (Cherry) was at home at 10 o’clock Saturday night because he never missed wrestling on TV. I stayed up most of the night due to sickness in the family. Bobby never left the house.”

Cherry recalled the program he watched as a live local studio wrestling show on WBRC, but WBRC official Mary Davis, a 40-year veteran, said the station has never carried live studio wrestling, but that the other two stations did.

WAPI aired live studio wrestling at 10:30 p.m. each Saturday beginning in the late 1950s, but replaced it in fall 1962 with the popular Route 66. The other station, WBMG-Channel 42, aired live studio wrestling at 10 p.m. each Saturday but didn’t go on the air until 1965 — two years after the bombing.

In the days following the bombing, the FBI questioned Cherry about his whereabouts the night the bomb was planted.

An Oct. 9, 1963, report reads that Cherry, on the mend from a back injury, “stated on Saturday night (Sept. 14) he must have been at home because he was still in the (back) brace. He stated on Friday night the 13th he also must have been at home because he was still in a brace.”

A day earlier, reports show that Cherry’s wife told the FBI she believed her husband was home the night of Sept. 14.

None of the reports mentions Cherry watching wrestling or his wife’s illness as part of his alibi.

But Cherry’s memory — as well as that of others — appears to have improved with age.

In February 1980, New York Times reporter Howell Raines revealed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents in Birmingham to halt their investigation in 1965 after they told him they had enough evidence to pursue the case.

A month after Raines’ report, Cherry’s friend, Thomas, supplied a sworn affidavit, saying Cherry was watching wrestling that night. Thomas is now dead.

Cherry said he got the affidavit then because the FBI “kept hammering at me and hammering at me. They ain’t never charged me with nothing. All they keep doing is calling me a suspect.”

U.S. Attorney Doug Jones of Birmingham, whose office is investigating the case, would not comment on Cherry’s alibi.

However, he said, “in the course of this investigation, we have repeatedly advised witnesses and others that we are examining not only the bombing itself, but also potential charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and other false statements.”

Told about Jones’ remarks, Cherry said, “I hadn’t made the first false statement. I hadn’t lied. What are they keeping after me for?”

Cherry said what he’s saying now is the same thing he told investigator Bob Eddy in 1997 and is the same thing he’s said since 1963. “I told the truth then,” he said. “I’ve told the truth ever since. I don’t lie.”

One old FBI report says Cherry was seen in an alley with the bomb the night before the bombing.

That’s a lie, Cherry responded. “S---, I was home before wrestling. I always made sure I was home for wrestling.”

During last month’s grand jury session, Cherry’s granddaughter, Teresa Stacy, 23, of Fort Worth, testified that her grandfather had talked of blowing up a church and killing blacks — a claim Cherry and several family members deny.

“She’s a bald-faced liar,” said Cherry’s daughter, Karen Sunderland, 37, of Mabank. “She has a problem with habitual lying.”

Cherry said of his granddaughter: “She ought to be prosecuted for lying to the grand jury.”

Stacy’s father, Thomas Frank Cherry Sr., 46, of Mabank, said he’s never heard his father make such a remark — and finds it strange she supposedly did.

Bobby Cherry is upset by the continued probing that’s included FBI agents interviewing neighbors and hauling family members in front of a grand jury. “I’d like to clear my name,” he said. “It’s been going on a long time.”

He insisted it was politics, not violence, that attracted him to the Ku Klux Klan when he joined the Confederate Klan in 1957. “I didn’t like the communistic way things were going.”

A year later, the Confederate Klan and the U.S. Klan combined forces with the United Klan, run by Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton, he said. “We figured if we all got together, we’d have a stronger voters’ league,” Cherry said.

Cherry worked as a security guard in the Klan, which guarded Shelton and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whose aides regularly met with Klan leaders, he said. “Wallace called all the shots,” he said.

About a year before the bombing, Cherry said he quit the Klan, but he made clear he also kept contact with some of his Klan friends.

The night the bomb was planted, Cherry said, “I couldn’t work because my back was broke. I couldn’t bend over.”

But he still helped at the Modern Sign Shop. “We were making rebel flags and signs to keep the kids out of integrated schools,” he said.

He said he arrived at the shop when “it wasn’t quite dark, maybe dark.”

While at the shop, a group of about six men came inside, including Chambliss, Blanton and several others, he said. “They had some new Klansmen there, but I didn’t know who they were.”

Cherry said he was operating a silk screen at the time. “They hollered at me and told me they were going to eat. They asked me to go with ’em.”

Cherry declined their offer, looking over his shoulder, he said. “I never did turn around from the table. I couldn’t do much. I was getting tired.”

But Frank Sikora, author of the 1991 book, Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case, said the sign shop owner, Merle Snow, told the FBI prior to his death that the gathering took place a night earlier.

Cherry said he knew nothing about that claim. “Hell, he (Snow) was bound to have seen ’em.”

His statement he saw Blanton on Saturday also contradicts an Oct. 9, 1963, FBI report that quotes Cherry as saying he “did not see Tommy Blanton that week.”

Cherry said the documents aren’t to be trusted because the FBI was trying to frame him.

The Sunday morning of the explosion, Cherry said he woke up about 9 or so and returned to the Modern Sign Co. “I went up there to get them signs,” he said. “That’s when I found out about the bombing. I left about 15 to 10 to go up there.”

Cherry said the bomb exploded before he ever got to the sign shop and that when he arrived he could hear “the sirens all settling down.”

Snow was gone, but he returned shortly, telling him that people outside the church were saying “some of these white folks done blowed the church up down yonder and the Ku Klux done it,” Cherry said.

But the recollections of Cherry’s son, Thomas, differ from his father’s. Then 11, the younger Cherry said he and his father were in the sign shop when the church blew up. “We’d been there for a while fixing signs,” he said. “That’s an event you remember like JFK.”

As for his father’s wrestling alibi, he said, “I can remember we used to watch wrestling, but I can’t remember that night.”

Bobby Cherry responded that his son shouldn’t be trusted because all his son wants is big bucks for a book deal and leniency for his son, Thomas Jr., now serving seven years in a Texas prison for robbery and burglary of a habitation.

In the days that followed the bombing, FBI agents began to tail him, Bobby Cherry recalled. “We’d go to church, and the FBI would be there. When we got back, everywhere we went, the FBI was standing there waiting, wanting to talk. It got as aggravating as hell.”

Cherry agreed to a lie detector test. “I said, ‘Hell, yes. I haven’t done anything,’ ” he said. “I thought they (FBI agents) were honest, but they weren’t.”

Cherry said he passed two lie detector tests for the FBI, but that the technician on the third test began bumping the needle so it would show he was deceptive. .

He shared a copy of that test, which said he showed “evidence of deception” on the question: “Have you ever been present when a bombing was planned?”

The test also noted a “strong reaction” to the question: “On Friday night, was Tommy Blanton with you making a bomb?”

The test marked Cherry as reacting to the question, “Did you bomb the 16th Street Baptist Church?”

Cherry said he believes the test was a setup because when he looked outside, FBI agents outside were talking with a Klan grand dragon.

A Klan leader once remarked, he said, “if something ever comes up that anybody quits the Klan, that’s the one to put the blame on because you don’t never want to get a Klansman in good standing in trouble. I believe that’s what happened.”

He suggested the church blew up for reasons other than dynamite. “It might have been a gas leak,” Cherry said. “They had a n----- janitor. He died right after that.”

Testimony and FBI reports concluded dynamite was indeed used, ruling out a natural gas explosion.

Despite questions regarding his alibi, Cherry insists he’s innocent: “Me and you and everybody else is against blowing up a church.”

He continues to be a suspect, he said, because he believes FBI agents think he knows something he doesn’t know.

“You could call it job security,” Cherry joked. “They wouldn’t have a job if they weren’t chasing me.”

Previously, Cherry has suggested the FBI, Birmingham police and Wallace’s officials had a role in the bombing. In the interview, Cherry added a fourth suspect: Martin Luther King Jr. “That room blow plumb out in the hall. There wasn’t no klavern that done that,” Cherry said. “Either some of his people or somebody he trusted done it.”

Throughout the interview, Cherry used racial slurs, defending them. “That’s what we used to call ’em years ago,” he said. “We didn’t mean no harm by that. Hell, when we were kids, we called ’em n----- John, n----- Joe, n----- Mary.”

Cherry insisted he hasn’t committed violence against anyone who is black.

“Hell, I ain’t done nothing in the world. I knocked one of ’em in the head one night, but the n----- called me a son of a b----. I knocked him in the head, got in the car, drove off and left him. That’s the only thing I’ve ever done.”

Cherry cackled. “He’s still living. He’s walking around.”

Staff librarian Susan Garcia contributed research to this report.

Cherry’s former wife to testify

Suspect allegedly admitted bombing Birmingham church

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — The ex-wife of Bobby Cherry is expected to testify today that he admitted bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church here, killing four girls.

“He threatened me if I ever said anything,” Cherry’s second wife, Willadean Brogdon, now 59, said Wednesday, refusing to reveal where she currently lives out of fear for her safety.

Brogdon is the second new witness to be publicly identified in connection with a renewed federal-state investigation into the Sept. 15, 1963, church bombing that killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.

Last month, Cherry’s granddaughter, Teresa Stacy, 23, of Fort Worth, testified her grandfather talked about blowing up a black church and killing people.

Cherry said in a recent interview claims that he has talked of the bombing are lies. “If I thought anybody would blow up a church, I’d have gotten a club and gone after them,” said the former Klansman, who says he quit the Klan in 1962.

The bombing horrified the nation, but the case went unprosecuted for 14 years until then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley won a murder conviction against Bob Chambliss, who got life and later died in prison.

Baxley left office before he could pursue cases against other suspects. The only two living are Cherry and Tommy Blanton Jr. of Birmingham, who maintain their innocence.

On Wednesday, Blanton’s ex-wife, Jeannie Casey Barnes, sat reading the Psalms, waiting to testify. She said she was surprised by her subpoena but would not discuss her testimony.

In a 1963 interview with the FBI, she gave Blanton an alibi from 8 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. the night the bomb was planted inside the church.

Also testifying Wednesday was Cherry’s 47-year-old son, Thomas, of Mabank, Texas. He said the grand jury questioned him about his whereabouts the morning the church exploded. The younger Cherry said he was at a sign shop with his father, not far from the church, when he felt the bomb rock the building.

Bobby Cherry said he remembers arriving at the sign shop after the bomb exploded. As for the night before, he said he was home by 10 p.m., watching wrestling — a claim television schedules contradict.

Bobby Cherry’s daughter, Karen Sunderland, 37, of Mabank, Texas, said neither Stacy nor her brother can be believed.

“He told me he was going to destroy Dad,” she said.

Thomas Cherry said that’s not true.

He recalled a conversation where his father gathered relatives together in 1997 or so, telling them authorities were “going to try and tear this family apart.”

Thomas Cherry shook his head. “That’s exactly what has happened.”

Family members have made claims and counterclaims — including allegations of abuse —questioning one another’s credibility.

Another witness scheduled to testify today is Gloria Brogdon, Brogdon’s 39-year-old daughter, who said she would not give her last name out of fear of retribution from the Klan.

Willadean Brogdon said the FBI told her the fire that killed her 9-year-old daughter, Rebecca, in 1972 was “Klan-related.” The arson occurred a few months after she left Bobby Cherry, Brogdon said. No one was charged in the case.

2 held in ’63 bombing

Suspects in deaths of 4 in Alabama church say they’re innocent

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

Two former Ku Klux Klansmen suspected of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls and shocked the nation surrendered Wednesday on murder charges.

A special Alabama grand jury indicted Thomas Blanton Jr., 61, of Birmingham, and Bobby Cherry, 69, of Mabank, Texas, on four counts of murder each in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

“No crime like this should go unpunished,” Attorney General Janet Reno said at a news conference Wednesday. “And we remain committed to bringing those responsible to justice.”

Blanton and Cherry also each face four additional counts of murder under the legal principle of “universal malice” because the bombing could have killed any number of people. They remained in jail Wednesday without bond.

Blanton insists he’s innocent. “I had nothing whatsoever to do with that crime, but the fact that the government and media have told the same lies over and over again, it tends to cause people to believe those lies,” he wrote U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga.

Cherry also maintains his innocence, blaming the FBI, Birmingham police and then-Gov. George Wallace’s staff for the killings. “Hell, all of his officials belonged to the Klan,” said Cherry, who says he left the Klan a year before the bombing.

The indictments, handed down Tuesday and unsealed Wednesday, are the first in more than two decades in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing that killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.

The killings of the four girls are among the 18 slayings of the South’s civil rights era reinvestigated since 1989, when the district attorney’s office in Jackson reopened the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.

So far, there have been 11 arrests, six convictions, one acquittal and one mistrial.

And there may be more arrests. A federal grand jury in Jackson examining the 1966 killing of Ben Chester White meets again in June.

For historian David Halberstam, pursuing these killings harkens to the Nazi war crime trials in Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II.

These prosecutions across the South represent “a lot of little Nurembergs,” he said. “This handful of cases were sort of legalized murders because no jury was ever going to convict anybody. The facts are known, but there was an inability to get a conviction.”

The Birmingham church bombing made headlines around the globe and inspired many to join the civil rights movement.

“It galvanized the nation because it showed the extent to which the white resistance would go to stop the movement — even to murdering children,” said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond.

Despite widespread outrage, the case went unprosecuted for 14 years. That’s when then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley won a murder conviction against Bob Chambliss, who got life and died in prison.

Baxley left office before he could pursue the cases against other suspects, Blanton, Cherry and Herman Cash, who died in 1994.

In 1996, the FBI officially reopened the investigation, inspired in part by success in the Evers case.

U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who cut law school classes to watch Chambliss’ 1977 trial, headed up the new federal grand jury investigation into the bombing.

“Very early on, we indicated we were going to aggressively pursue this and leave no stone unturned,” Jones said Wednesday. “I think we’ve done that.”

The renewed FBI investigation led to new witnesses, including Cherry’s granddaughter and ex-wife, who each claim Cherry admitted to the bombing. (Cherry insists both are lying.)

When authorities felt the case couldn’t be pursued federally, Jones teamed up with Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber of Birmingham to seek possible state charges.

For Cherry, it’s the second set of charges he’s faced as a result of the renewed investigation into the bombing.

The first came last month when a Shelby County grand jury in Columbiana, Ala., indicted Cherry on charges he sexually abused his stepdaughter when she was 9.

Cherry maintains he is innocent of abuse charges and the bombing. “Hell, I ain’t never wanted to bomb nothing,” he recently told The Clarion-Ledger.

On Sept. 14, 1963 — the night Klansmen planted the bomb inside the church — Cherry said he spent time at Modern Sign Co. in Birmingham, several blocks from the church. “I know I left up there about a quarter ’til 10 because I was heading home to watch wrestling,” he said.

In July, The Clarion-Ledger reported records from the Birmingham News show no wrestling appeared on television Sept. 14, 1963. The only programs that aired at 10 p.m. were Route 66 and Films of the Fifties .

Asked at the time about television schedules that poke holes in his alibi, Cherry responded, “There was no damn Films of the Fifties on. Son of a b----, something’s wrong. Wrestling was on.”

In the days after the 1963 bombing, the FBI questioned Cherry about his whereabouts. Documents don’t mention his wrestling claim.

In 1980, with renewed interest in the killings, Cherry obtained a sworn affidavit from a friend, Flora Thomas, who backed his story, saying Cherry “was at home at 10 o’clock Saturday night because he never missed wrestling on TV. … Bobby never left the house.”

Thomas is now dead.

A lie detector test given by the FBI concluded Cherry showed “evidence of deception” when asked if he was present when the bombing was planned and showed reaction to the question, “Did you bomb the 16th Street Baptist Church?”

Cherry told The Clarion-Ledger the FBI technician bumped the needle so it would appear he was lying.

He suggested the church blew up for reasons other than dynamite. “It might have been a gas leak. They had a n----- janitor. He died right after that.”

Bombing suspect proclaims innocence

But Bobby Cherry told FBI of his role in assault on pastor

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — A suspect in the infamous 1963 church bombing here that killed four girls says he’s innocent of that crime and has never harmed anyone black.

But according to his son and FBI documents, Bobby Cherry admitted taking part in the 1957 violent assault on a civil rights leader trying to enroll his children in a Birmingham school. In addition, Cherry’s son Thomas Cherry viewed footage of the attack and identified his father as one of the assailants.

Those revelations could become evidence against the 70-year-old Bobby Cherry in his scheduled Dec. 4 murder trial — the result of a renewed investigation by federal authorities into the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing that killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Both Cherry and fellow suspect Thomas Blanton have maintained their innocence.

“Before I die, I want my name cleared. I didn’t have nothing to do with (the church bombing),” Cherry told The Clarion-Ledger.

“Hell, I ain’t done nothing in the world. I knocked one of ’em in the head one night, but the n----- called me a son of a b----. I knocked him in the head, got in the car, drove off and left him. That’s the only thing I’ve ever done.”

The killings of the four girls are among the 18 slayings of the South’s civil rights era reinvestigated since 1989, when the district attorney’s office in Jackson reopened the 1963 assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. So far, there have been 12 arrests, six convictions, one acquittal and one mistrial.

In an interview last year with The Clarion-Ledger, Bobby Cherry was asked if he had ever had an encounter with Shuttlesworth. “Yeah, how’d you hear about that?” he laughed. “That son of a b----.”

Cherry said he was outside Phillips High School on Sept. 9, 1957, when Shuttlesworth brought his children there in an attempt to integrate the all-white high school in Birmingham.

“The police told him to ‘Get back in the car, you’re not going to be able to go to school here.’ There were a lot of people there,” he recalled. “Ol’ Shuttlesworth reached up and tried to pull his coat up over his head.

“When he did, somebody reached up and got them brass knucks, and they whopped ol’ Shuttlesworth across the head four or five times,” Cherry laughed. “I was standing close. I wasn’t scared like some of them guys who talked about how mean they are.”

As for who hit the civil rights leader that day, Cherry said he had no idea: “I couldn’t see who did it.”

What Cherry told The Clarion-Ledger contradicts his July 9, 1997, FBI interview in which Cherry admits he was one of the assailants in the violent mob.

Cherry told FBI investigator Bob Eddy he used a pair of brass knuckles to hit Shuttlesworth between the eyes.

In an interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Eddy said he’ll never forget Cherry’s words: “I knocked ol’ Shuttlesworth on his a--.”

Footage of the beating appears in Spike Lee’s Oscar-nominated documentary, Four Little Girls, and in the 1961 CBS News documentary, Who Speaks for Birmingham?

Using the computer programs Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere, that black-and-white footage was enhanced and shown frame by frame to Cherry’s son, who identified his father in the crowd.

“That’s him,” he said, pointing to a tall, thin, sandy-haired man in a white shirt, who has a cigarette hanging from his mouth.

That man was among the first in the mob to charge toward Shuttlesworth.

A policeman placed himself in front of the the civil rights leader, but mob members began punching Shuttlesworth anyway.

The surging crowd pushed back the man identified as Bobby Cherry, who then reached into his right-front pants pocket.

“He’s reaching for them brass knucks,” Cherry’s son said, observing the footage. “He used to carry a pair of brass knucks and a gun all the time.”

During the melee, several men slugged the civil rights leader, whose jacket was pulled over his head.

The man identified as Bobby Cherry uncorked an uppercut at the civil rights leader, who appears to reel from the blow.

“Knocked him down, didn’t he?” Cherry’s son said, observing the footage.

When he first heard his father talk about the beating of Shuttlesworth, he said there was plenty of laughter among the men gathered. One name he recalled being mentioned was Jack Cash, one of three men arrested but never indicted in Shuttlesworth’s beating.

Asked about his arrest for the beating and what happened that day, Cash, now 93, replied, “I don’t know nothing about it.”

Along with Cash, Birmingham police arrested I.F. Gauldin and J.E. Breckenridge. All were charged with intent to murder, but none was ever indicted.

The Rev. John Cross, who felt his 16th Street church explode that fateful Sunday, said he believes jurors in Cherry’s murder trial should see the television footage that shows Cherry’s role in Shuttlesworth’s beating.

“To me, I would want the privilege of that information. It would tell you something about the attitude of that person. You follow him in one place, and it will lead you to another.”

Birmingham pastor refused to be intimidated by violence

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth never knew who attacked him outside an all-white high school here 44 years ago, but he believes they included those who dynamited his house on Christmas Eve 1956.

His home exploded under the force of 16 sticks of dynamite and knocked down the Bethel Baptist Church, where he preached. He walked away miraculously unharmed.

The event emboldened Shuttlesworth, who continued to fight against state-sponsored segregation despite repeated violence against him.

Minutes after his house blew up in 1956, a policeman talked with the preacher.

“Reverend, I’m so sorry,” Shuttlesworth recalled the officer saying. “I know these people. I really didn’t think they’d go this far. Reverend, I tell you what I’d do if I were you. I’d get out of town just as quick as I could.”

Shuttlesworth said he replied, “Officer, you’re not me, and you go back and tell your Klan brethren that if God could deliver me through all of this, I’m here for the duration, and the war is just beginning.”

Bobby Cherry, a suspect in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls, blamed the bombing of Shuttlesworth’s house on white supremacist J.B. Stoner.

“That’s the one ol’ Stoner blowed up and liked to blowed the church down,” Cherry said. “You know, Stoner’s daddy was a good man. Stoner was a well-educated man and a good lawyer, but a damn fool.”

Stoner, convicted of a 1958 church bombing, could not be reached for comment.

In the months that followed the bombing of Shuttlesworth’s house, night riders terrorized this town. On Sept. 2, 1957, six Klansmen attacked a black man, Edward Judge Aaron, as part of a Klan ritual, castrating him and pouring turpentine in his wound.

Aaron miraculously survived, but before Klansmen finished their terrorizing, they “sent a message that similar treatment awaited any who tried to integrate the schools,” said Andrew Manis, author of the Shuttlesworth’s biography, A Fire You Can’t Put Out.

The warning failed to deter the civil rights leader.

Seven days later, he arrived at Phillips High School with his wife, two daughters, two other students and the Rev. J.S. Phifer, who drove the car.

As soon as Shuttlesworth and his wife stepped out of the 1957 Plymouth, a white mob converged on them. He said he overheard them say, “Let’s get this son of a b---- and get it over with. We missed him last time.”

The mob attacked Shuttlesworth, who attempted to block some of the blows raining on him.

“Some of them had brass knuckles and bicycle chains. I was struck a number of times. I realized if I didn’t get away, I would die right there,” he said.

When he finally made it to the car, Phifer helped him inside and sped away, he said. “My leg was still hanging out of the car.”

His wife, Ruby, received a stab wound to her upper buttocks. His daughter, Ricky, suffered an injury to her right ankle when the door was shut on her ankle.

When the physician saw Shuttlesworth’s facial injuries, he was surprised the civil rights leader suffered no concussion. “I told the doctor, ‘The Lord knew I lived in a hard town so he gave me a hard skull,’ ” Shuttlesworth said. “It’s amazing what God can do.”

Former Klansman committed to mental institution, records show

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — A former Klansman charged in this city’s deadly 1963 church bombing spent time in a mental institution after his then-wife claimed he threatened to blow up city hall, documents show.

In an interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Bobby Cherry confirmed he spent a few weeks at Bryce Hospital, a state mental institution in Tuscaloosa, but said it was not because he was having mental problems. “It was totally a mess,” he said. “The doctor didn’t talk to me but once or twice.”

Cherry is one of two suspects in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing that killed four girls and horrified the nation. His murder trial is expected to take place early next year.

Bibb County Courthouse documents in Centreville, Ala., include a May 21, 1971, application by Cherry’s then-wife, Willadean, to send Cherry to Bryce, claiming he “threatened to blow up city hall in Birmingham.”

Contacted for comment, his then-wife who later divorced him — Willadean Brogdon — remembered the bombing threat, saying Cherry was angry that authorities continued to investigate him for the church bombing.

She recalled he was particularly upset with the FBI. “He said that he would blow that (FBI) building up when the time was right if the FBI didn’t quit bothering him,” she said. “He said if he ever got cancer, he would do it definitely.”

She said she asked for Cherry to be committed for observation after he beat her severely one night. “It was because of his temper and because he had some kind of mental problem,” she said.

Cherry denied beating Brogdon or making violent threats. “I never hit her,” he said. “We were taught not to hit women, not to degrade women.”

He accused her of locking him up to have an affair — a claim Brogdon denies.

Cherry’s commitment came months after U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson issued his famous March 12, 1971, order, putting into place safeguards to prevent citizens from being locked up without cause.

Cherry’s son from a previous marriage, Thomas Cherry, said he never heard his father make any kind of bombing threat, but added he wasn’t living with his father at the time.

The only reason Brogdon had his father locked up was because she was angry with him, he said. “She p----- him off is what she done.”

Eunice Davis, 53, whose sister Cynthia Wesley died in the church bombing, said she’s anxious for the truth regarding Cherry to come out. “If they bring him to trial and they bring out everything, it will do my heart good. But the real thing I want to know is ‘Why? Why did my sister have to lose her life at such an early age? Why did the other girls lose their lives?’ ”

Alabama jury convicts former Klansman

Blanton gets four life sentences in ’63 church bombing

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — A majority-white jury took 2› hours Tuesday to convict former Klansman Thomas Blanton of murder in a 1963 church bombing that killed four girls.

“They say that justice delayed is justice denied,” said U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who prosecuted the state case. “I don’t believe it. Justice delayed is still justice, and we’ve got it here in Birmingham, Ala.”

Defense attorney John Robbins said afterward the quick verdict signifies jurors based their verdict on emotion, not evidence, and he plans to appeal. “It was an injustice,” he said. “This case is 37, 38 years old. There have been books, magazines and newspapers that have all said my client is guilty long before I came on the scene.”

It’s the second conviction in one of the nation’s most notorious civil rights-era crimes: a Sept. 15, 1963, bomb that ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing 11-year-old Denise McNair and her three 14-year-old friends, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley.

The first conviction didn’t come until 1977 when former Klansman Robert Chambliss was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

After the jury announced its verdict after 5:30 p.m., Circuit Judge James Garrett asked Blanton if he had anything to say before four life sentences were imposed. Blanton, 62, replied, “The good Lord will settle this on Judgment Day.”

With tears in their eyes, Denise’s parents hugged Jones and thanked him.

Estelle Boyd, 73, a church member, also praised Jones. “I’m just happy he had the courage to try the man.”

Blanton’s conviction may be the last prosecution in the case. The only other living suspect, Bobby Cherry, has been diagnosed with dementia. But Jones said authorities are seeking a second opinion.

Tuesday’s verdict marks the seventh conviction since authorities across the South began reexamining cases from the civil rights era starting in 1989 with the reinvestigation of the 1963 assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Jackson. That case ended in 1994 with white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith’s conviction.

Jones alluded to those cases when he thanked a long list of those who worked on the bombing case. “Thanks to Bobby DeLaughter (who prosecuted Beckwith) and those in Mississippi who led the way to see that justice is done,” he said.

Robbins said he’ll appeal on such issues as the trial was held in Birmingham, that an incriminating statement by Blanton was admitted and that only one juror was male.

During closing arguments Tuesday morning, Robbins pointed toward the balcony, full of reporters, lawyers, students and observers. “In the courtroom there are many people thinking this is some moment in history they have to watch,” he told jurors. “Don’t get caught up in it.”

Prosecutors were relying on emotion instead of evidence, he said. “They want you to decide this case on the pain and horror of that moment. They want you to make a decision on empathy. With the bells and whistles and the pain, they want one thing. They want a conviction. They want it without subjecting this case to scrutiny.”

The world is watching, he said, but “this case is not a case for us all to feel good about ourselves to convict Tom Blanton. ... We are not going to sacrifice a person for some closure.”

The girls died to make the legal system work, he said. “The city has taken steps forward and if we take one giant step back by not holding the prosecution to its burden of proof and not anything of what was heard on the witness stand, then those girls truly died in vain.”

Twenty-four years ago, Jones watched closing statements in Chambliss’ trial. On Tuesday, he delivered his own. “Justice is not cheap,” Jones told jurors. “It’s real. We come here because there are four children who died. We come here because a mother’s heart never stops crying.”

More than anything, Jones said, “it’s never too late for the truth to be told. It’s never too late for wounds to heal. It’s never too late for this man to be held accountable for his crime. It’s never too late for justice.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey showed jurors pictures of the four girls, including Denise holding up her Chatty Cathy doll.

“This defendant killed this beautiful girl because of the color of her skin,” he said. “He killed those four worshippers in God’s house on Sunday morning because he was a man of hate. The hatred and the cruelty and the injustice committed by this defendant cannot stand unchallenged. These children must not have died in vain. Don’t let that happen. Don’t let the deafening blast from his bomb drown out the voices of these children.”

Woman recalls ‘horrible noise’

Church members testify about 1963 church bombing

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — The Sunday school lesson on “A Love That Forgives” had just ended at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and Barbara Ann Cross was steaming.

Her teacher made her stay behind even though her friends Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins and Sarah Collins were heading to the ladies’ lounge to get ready for the morning’s youth service on Sept. 15, 1963.

While her friends touched up their hair, Cross put the last touches on graduation forms for eight or so fellow students.

“After I had written the seventh name, there was the most horrible noise I had ever heard,” she told jurors Tuesday in the trial of Bobby Cherry, a suspect in a bombing that rocked Birmingham and stunned the world.

Her voice broke with emotion.

“A piece from the light fixture hit me in the head,” she said. “I heard screams. It got dark. In my mind, I thought Russia had bombed Alabama.”

Several jurors wept.

When the darkness broke, Cross dashed. “I remember running out the front door and screaming, looking for my sisters and brother,” she said.

She found her siblings, but not her friends. The bomb blast killed four of them and partially blinded a fifth, Sarah Collins.

Cherry’s trial resumes today in the Criminal Justice Center here. If convicted, Cherry would be sentenced to life in prison.

Many of the witnesses Tuesday were members of the 16th Street church, including parents of the slain girls.

Robertson’s mother, Alpha Robertson, identified her daughter in a picture and then recalled hearing the bomb blast as she got ready for church. “It was an awful sound, like something shaking the world all over,” she said.

In opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey told jurors, “Bobby Cherry has worn this crime on his chest like a badge of honor. He once said his only regret was that more people hadn’t died.”

Defense attorney Mickey Johnson sought to show the prosecution scenario of Cherry’s involvement was based on a lie.

“This was never an investigation,” he said. “This was a target. ‘Let’s build a case around Bobby Cherry.’ ”

Much of the case against Cherry will rest on what he said — and what others say he said.

One of those witnesses, Bobby Jerome Birdwell, testified Tuesday that, when he was 11, he played sports with Cherry’s son.

He recalled Cherry saying numerous times, “My kids will never go to school with n-----s.”

In the days prior to the bombing, Birdwell said, he remembered seeing Cherry’s Klan outfit as well as hearing Cherry and three other men mention the words “bomb” and “16th Street.”

Less than a week later, the church blew up, he said.

But he never went to authorities, nor did he ever share the conversation with his parents. “I was scared,” he said.

In 1997, he contacted the FBI after reading an article in which he recalled that Cherry denied belonging to the Klan at the time. “I knew different,” he said.

The defense sought to discredit Birdwell by saying two official documents show he’s actually 53, not 51 as he claims.

Also Tuesday, jurors saw the videotape of the 1957 beating of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, when he attempted to enroll his children at the all-white Phillips High School. Birdwell picked out Cherry among the men attacking the civil rights leader.

“Bobby Frank Cherry was in that mob of Klansmen, bragging that he hit Fred Shuttlesworth with a set of brass knuckles,” Posey told jurors in his opening statement.

Prosecutors sought to show Cherry had the same motive in beating Shuttlesworth as he did in bombing the church — reacting violently to an integration attempt.

Under cross-examination, defense attorney Johnson asked cameraman Jimmy Parker about the footage of Shuttlesworth’s beating that he took — footage shown on both local and national television.

“It looks like a lot of people committing a crime ...,” Johnson said.

 "... with several policemen watching,” Parker finished.

 

Several jurors laughed.

Witness: Cherry admitted he lied

Suspect deceptive on polygraph, former Klansman testifies

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — Bobby Cherry admitted lying on a polygraph test about the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls, Klansman-turned-FBI informant Mitchell Burns told jurors Wednesday.

“He said he lied all the way through,” said the 75-year-old Burns.

In a 1999 interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Cherry said he passed two lie detector tests for the FBI, but that the technician on the third test bumped the needle so it would show he was deceptive.

The test showed “evidence of deception” on the question: “Have you ever been present when a bombing was planned?”

Testimony resumes today at the Criminal Justice Center here in the case against Cherry — the last remaining suspect in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.

If convicted, Cherry would be sentenced to life in prison.

Burns told jurors Wednesday afternoon that he joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s, only to be approached by an FBI agent when a church burned down in the area.

That agent later gave Burns a ride back to work and pulled the car over to the side of the road, showing him pictures of the four slain girls.

“They were very mangled and sick to look at,” Burns said. “I almost vomited. Later, they asked me to help with this case, and I said, ‘I’ll do what I can.’ ”

For four years, Burns was an informant within the Klan. FBI agents rigged a recorder in his car to tape conversations, many of them with Thomas Blanton, sentenced to life last year for his role in the bombing.

Prosecutors played tapes containing conversations Burns had with Cherry and Blanton in which Cherry repeatedly uses racial epithets and there is talk of bombs.

In one conversation, Cherry can be heard saying, “George Wallace said on TV to use whatever force is necessary.”

In a conversation not on tape, Burns said Cherry remarked, “They think we made the bomb somewhere else.”

Afterward, defense lawyer Mickey Johnson said the tapes inflamed the jury but failed to implicate anyone in the bombing.

While the 16th Street church is never mentioned by name, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey said, there’s plenty of talk of bombs and violence.

The tapes also show Cherry’s association with Blanton, he said.

Outside the courthouse, a reporter asked Burns if he wished he’d never joined the Klan. “No,” Burns said, “because I didn’t do anything I regret.”

Back in the courtroom, earlier Wednesday, McNair’s father, Chris, became teary-eyed as he watched a pathologist flash through photographs of the bombing scene and discuss the injuries that killed his daughter.

Two bombing experts then told jurors the blast could have been caused only by a powerful explosive such as dynamite, not a natural gas leak.

FBI agents found no remnants from the bomb, but retired FBI agent Charles L. Killion said that wasn’t unusual because the fuse or timer can be consumed by the blast. Under cross-examination, however, Killion said a timing device was less likely because agents found no fragments.

Ex-wife: Cherry admitted role in bombing

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — Bobby Cherry once pointed at the 16th Street Baptist Church as handiwork from his past, his ex-wife told jurors here Thursday.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry I killed those four girls but at least they can’t grow up to have more n-----s,’ ” said Willadean Brogdon, who was married to Cherry in the early 1970s and now lives in the Northwest.

Cherry, now 71 and on trial here charged with murder in the explosion, denied in a 1999 interview that he told Brogdon or anyone else he had a role in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the church that became a center for civil rights protests and activities.

That blast killed Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, all 14.

Prosecutors could rest their case as early as today against Cherry, the last remaining suspect in the explosion that rocked this steel mill town and stunned the world.

Last year, a jury convicted his alleged accomplice, Thomas Blanton, now serving a life sentence.

Brogdon was one of four witnesses who testified Thursday that Cherry admitted a role in the bombing.

Brogdon’s brother, Wayne, said after spending a year in prison on a charge of interstate transportation of a stolen car, Cherry “told me he made the bomb but that it wasn’t supposed to kill anybody.”

Cherry admitted being in the Klan, he said, and even had an off-white Klan robe.

Confronted by defense attorney Mickey Johnson that he told the federal grand jury in 1999 the robe was light brown, he finally remarked, “It’s been a long time.”

Brogdon’s nephew, George Ferris, said Cherry tried to get him to join the Klan and once remarked to him, “That damn church was supposed to be full of n-----s.”

Under cross-examination, Ferris became confused about when and where Cherry supposedly made these remarks.

Another witness who implicated Cherry was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair.

Inhaling oxygen for his emphysema, Michael Wayne Goings told jurors he met Cherry in 1982 in Dallas, where they both worked at the Munger Apartments.

One day, he said, Cherry sat down and talked with his mother, also an Alabama native.

“He said he had to get out of Birmingham because the n-----s were taking over,” he said.

When the subject of the Klan arose, he said, Cherry talked of being in the Klan and then remarked, “You know, I bombed the church.”

At that point, Goings said, “it got real quiet in there.”

He said he never reported the matter to authorities because he thought the bombing had already been prosecuted.

When he read in 1997 that the FBI was still investigating the case, Goings said he contacted agents.

In an attempt to show contradictions, the defense pointed out Goings told a federal grand jury in 1999 that Cherry said he left Birmingham because of the bombing.

Goings said Cherry mentioned both reasons.

Johnson remarked afterwards, “I don’t think Mr. Cherry was bragging to total strangers. Please!”

As for Brogdon, in 1969 she worked as one of the nation’s handful of female truck drivers, hauling explosives for a trucking company when she said she first met Cherry. The star-crossed lovers met again that year at a truck stop in Indiana, each sipping a cup of coffee.

By 1970, the two began dating and rented a house together.

Despite the fact Cherry had seven children and she had five, the two dreamed of a blended family, with her staying home, she said.

She first saw his Klan robe in storage and later “he took the robe out of the foot locker, put on the robe and danced around to show everyone what a Klansman looked like,” she said.

On several occasions, Cherry admitted lighting the bomb’s fuse, she said.

Another time, he pointed at the 16th Street church, she said. “He said he got out of the car and put the bomb under the stairs the night before.”

She said she left Cherry and took her children to her sister’s house in Illinois, only to have Cherry show up one day on the doorstep.

Cherry then moved back in with Brogdon, but Cherry wanted to return and get his children, she said.

The two returned to Birmingham. “When Bobby got out of the car, I laid my foot on the gas,” she said.

“Did you ever look back?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey.

“No,” she replied.

Under lengthy cross-examination, Johnson questioned how Cherry could have pointed at the side steps, where the bomb was planted, since they’re no longer there.

He also questioned her about the fact she was jailed for kidnapping her own children in a custody battle with her sister.

When Brogdon mentioned that Cherry was upset about the bombing, Johnson said, “That’s your brother’s testimony.”

Brogdon denied it was.

Asked about her statement she at one time had an audio tape of Cherry admitting to the crime, she said it was true because she once taped him talking in his sleep.

After Johnson asked repeatedly about the dates of certain events, she volunteered, “Maybe you need to write all this down.”

Prosecutors rest after portraying Cherry as racist liar

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — Prosecutors convicted Bobby Cherry of hate Friday. The question remains: Can they convict him of the 1963 church bombing here that killed four girls?

Prosecutors rested Friday afternoon after presenting testimony portraying Cherry as an explosives-making, woman-chasing, African-American-hating Klansman who lied to the FBI about his alibi in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing that killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.

They presented medical records and television logs to contradict his alibi he was watching wrestling and tending to a sick wife when the bomb was apparently planted at 16th Street Baptist Church.

The defense will begin to rebut the state’s case against Cherry today with a witness that lawyers say will show the FBI has believed a lie for 38 years.

Defense attorney Mickey Johnson exuded confidence. “I can’t say I’m distressed by anything in the case,” he said.

On Friday, prosecutors sought to use Cherry’s own words to show motive and an ever-changing alibi.

In a 1964 interview, retired FBI agent John Downey said Cherry told him, “The only reason I didn’t do the church bombing was maybe because somebody beat me to it.”

In an interview later that year, Downey said Cherry described how to make a time-delayed bomb by using chemicals, warning the skin could be easily burned.

Under cross-examination, the defense asked whether Cherry’s remark could have been tongue in cheek.

Downey replied no.

“If somebody asked me whether I robbed a bank, I would just say no, I wouldn’t say somebody beat me to it,” Downey said. “The impression I got was this possibly could be the guilty man.”

FBI agent Bob Herren said Cherry in a 1997 interview told authorities he joined the Klan for politics. “Another reason he said he got in the Klan was to chase women.”

The agent said Cherry described the Klan as a Christian organization and said he sang in the Klan choir at weddings and funerals.

(Informed about the reference to a Klan choir, Cherry’s son, Thomas, replied, “Who the hell ever said that? Daddy can’t carry a tune in a bucket. That’s the first time I ever heard anything like that.”)

Also in the interview, Herren said Cherry made clear his racial views. “I don’t just hate n-----s, I would hate white folks, too, if they were gonna jump on me,” Herren said Cherry told authorities.

He said Cherry admitted beating civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth in 1957: “I bopped ol’ Shuttlesworth between the eyes with brass knuckles,” adding “the statute of limitations has run out on that.”

He also admitted beating a man at the Crystal Kitchen in 1961, Herren said, saying Cherry said, “I hit a n----- in the head with a pistol and split his head open. He called me an SOB.”

As for the bomb, Herren said Cherry told him, “If it was made, I wouldn’t care when it blew up as long as I got out of the way.”

As agents were walking away, Herren said Cherry told them, “Birmingham is a little Africa, more n-----s than whites.”

In other testimony, Cherry’s granddaughter, Teresa Stacy, testified he told her when she was 9 or so that he “helped blow up a bunch of n-----s in Birmingham.”

She said she came forward after seeing a 1997 news conference in which he professed his innocence.

Under cross-examination, she confirmed she was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and initially refused to cooperate unless authorities helped get her brother, Thomas Cherry Jr., out of a Texas prison where he’s serving seven years for robbery and burglary.

“Is your brother out of prison?” Johnson asked.

“No, sir, he’s not,” she replied.

Johnson also confronted her with her grand jury statement, in which she said Cherry told her he “was the one who put the bomb in the basement.”

She said she didn’t remember making that statement.

Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost her right eye in the 1963 bombing, described the last morning she spent with her sister, Addie Mae.

“Denise asked my sister to tie her sash. I was at the sink washing my hands,” she said. “I was listening to their conversation. I heard this loud noise — boom! I didn’t know what had happened. Glass went in my eyes and cut me in my chest. I was blind in both eyes.”

Unable to see, she said she called out, “Addie, Addie, Addie.”

“Did your sister ever answer?” former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones asked.

“No,” she replied.

“Did you ever see your sister alive again?” Jones said.

“No,” she replied, “I never did.”

Defense: Cherry is victim of old lie

Witness says she never gave purported statement to FBI

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — A lie sown nearly four decades ago has bloomed into the assumption that Bobby Cherry planted the bomb that killed four girls, his defense lawyer said Saturday.

Nothing could be further from the truth, said Cherry’s lawyer, Mickey Johnson of Birmingham. “The problem is, you’re investigating a case that has ancient documents; and from that, you draw the conclusions to bring someone to trial.”

Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who is serving as lead prosecutor in the case, said Cherry was a prime suspect long before this supposed lie.

If Johnson keeps going down such rabbit holes, “we won’t be here for days; we’ll be here for years,” Jones said.

“That’s the problem with cross-examination of an investigation mind set. It’s truly a Pandora’s box.”

Defense lawyers hope to complete their case when the trial resumes Monday in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14. If Cherry is convicted of murder, a judge would sentence him to life.

Authorities say Cherry represents the last remaining suspect in the case. Last year, a jury convicted Cherry’s alleged accomplice, Thomas Blanton, of murder. In 1977, a jury convicted Robert Chambliss of murder.

In testimony Saturday, defense lawyers set out to show the case against Cherry started with a lie told in a Dec. 7, 1964, FBI document in which Chambliss’ sister-in-law, Mary Frances Cunningham, was quoted as telling agents that the night of Sept. 15, 1963, she saw Chambliss, Blanton, Herman Cash and Cherry, whom she said placed a bomb under the church’s staircase.

Cunningham testified Saturday that while she met with agents that day, “I did not make that statement to them or anyone.”

But what lawyers didn’t ask Cunningham about was what other documents detail — that she supposedly warned a Jefferson County deputy of the bomb at the 16th Street church hours before the bomb went off.

When Alabama authorities reopened the case in the mid-1970s, Bob Eddy, an investigator for the attorney general’s office, interviewed Cunningham and Chambliss’ niece, Elizabeth Cobbs, who said they hadn’t witnessed the four men at the church.

To determine what was true, the attorney general’s office flew the women to Savannah, Ga., for lie detector tests, which they passed.

Cobbs went on to become a witness against Chambliss in his trial, testifying that he bragged of enough dynamite to “flatten half of Birmingham” and told her days before the bombing, “You just wait till after Sunday morning. They will beg us to let them segregate.”

In Saturday’s testimony, Eddy read from notes he took in 1977, saying Cunningham told him she “overheard things from the FBI and made them up.”

As for the influence of the Dec. 7 document, Eddy said he didn’t read it until after he had already interviewed Cunningham.

FBI agent Bill Fleming, who has spearheaded the new investigation since the mid-1990s, said agents never considered the Dec. 7 document to be significant.

In response, the defense cited a remark Fleming made before the state grand jury that indicted Cherry. The defense quoted Fleming as saying an informant (Cunningham) witnessed Cherry placing a bomb at the church, but that that informant was unavailable.

In arguments before the judge, Jones said Fleming was merely recounting the FBI investigation: “Mr. Fleming has never vouched for the accuracy of the statement.”

If the defense wished to continue into this area, it would open the door to all sorts of hearsay testimony gathered in the investigation, including Cherry’s failure of a lie detector test, Jones said.

Johnson responded, “Everybody failed the polygraph with one exception, Herman Cash, and he’s still a prime suspect in the case.” Cash is now dead, but authorities have said they believe he was involved in the bombing.

Afterward, Johnson told reporters the lie made in 1964 about Cherry persists in the minds of the FBI, the media and the public: “The story told has taken on a life of its own, despite the fact that the person said the story is false.”

He insisted Cherry was not a prime suspect until the Dec. 7, 1964, statement surfaced.

Asked why Cherry was interviewed more than a dozen times by FBI agents before that Dec. 7 date, Johnson replied: “He was the only one who would talk.”

Cherry defense strategy: Blame FBI

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — Defense attorneys for Bobby Cherry hope to tap into anti-government sentiment to convince jurors he’s been framed in the 1963 bombing that killed four girls.

It’s a strategy that could work with jurors who could decide as early as Tuesday whether the 71-year-old former Klansman played a role in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, were killed in the bombing.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989, polls show government mistrust in the United States has tripled — more than twice as high as distrust during the Vietnam War.

Need proof? Nearly a fifth of all Americans now believe that when astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind” in 1969, he was landing on a Hollywood set, not the lunar surface.

“Distrust is deep in the American grain,” said historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam. “Defense attorneys have always tried to tap into it.”

Such suspicions go back to the roots of this nation, he said.

“Distrust of government has always been part of the American DNA,” he said. “It’s who we are. The more rural you are, the greater it is. The bigger the government is, the greater it is.”

That distrust has blossomed through mass media, particularly television, he said. “Everybody’s trying to convince everybody else they’re telling the truth and the other people are lying.”

Anti-government groups feed off such distrust, he said. “We’ve got all this freedom, but they think that if they have to buy a license plate, our government is totalitarian.”

While trust in government rebounded after the terrorist attacks last year, the latest polls show those numbers have been declining.

Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, anti-government groups used the Internet to spread their claims that the government knew in advance of the acts.

Militia of Montana leader John Trochmann of Noxon, Mont., suggested the government tampered with steel girders so the World Trade Center towers would collapse.

Joe Roy, director of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Klanwatch, which tracks anti-government groups, said such claims about Sept. 11 are ridiculous.

“There are hundreds of conspiracy theories, each with a different twist’” he said. “There’s not a group out there that trusts the government.”

Cherry’s defense, which plans to wrap up its case today, could learn soon whether its strategy to blame the FBI will work.

Cherry’s attorney, Mickey Johnson, told jurors the FBI fingered his client and three other men with a witness statement that wasn’t given until 14 months after the bombing.

“The FBI decided, ‘Let’s build a case around Bobby Cherry,’ ” Johnson said.

Despite the fact the Dec. 7, 1964, statement later proved to be false, the FBI never retreated from blaming Cherry, he said. “Once you’ve painted lies in, you’re unwilling to let go.”

Lead prosecutor Doug Jones responded that Cherry became a prime suspect weeks after the bombing, with FBI agents interviewing him more than a dozen times before that 1964 statement was made.

Asked whether some jurors might buy into anti-government sentiment, Jones said, “I want the jury to look at the evidence. That’s what they’ve sworn to do.”

Author Diane McWhorter, who has been attending the Cherry trial, doesn’t believe the anti-government strategy will resonate with those considering Cherry’s fate.

“I don’t think it helps the case that much,” said McWhorter, whose book, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, recently won the Pulitzer Prize.

“Even if Mickey Johnson is totally right about the FBI (lying), that doesn’t have any effect” on witnesses who say Cherry bragged about the bombing, she said.

Between World War II and 1963, more than 40 bombings shelled this steel town, leading to the nickname, “Bombingham.”

The agency that investigated those crimes proved immensely popular here in the 1960s in the network TV show where Efrem Zimbalist Jr. battled the bad guys, McWhorter said. “This is a very law and order town, and the FBI was a symbol of that.”

Defense rests in ’63 bombing trial

Alabama jury to start determining Cherry’s fate today

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — Two grandsons of Bobby Frank Cherry testified Monday he had never shown any hatred toward blacks.

Asked if Cherry had ever used derogatory remarks toward African Americans, Bobby Wayne Cherry Jr. shook his head no.

“Only the use of the word n-----,” he explained.

The defense of the 71-year-old former Klansman rested Monday, and a jury will start deciding his fate today in connection with the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.

One person who’ll be listening to this morning’s closing statements is the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, whose house and church were bombed here during the civil rights days. A white mob, including Bobby Frank Cherry, also beat him.

This case tells the world that “you can do wrong a long time but you can’t get away with it,” he said. “Justice is also supposed to be speedy. Let’s hope it will be done now.”

Jury deliberations are expected to begin this afternoon. If convicted of murder, Cherry would be sentenced to life in prison.

In a 1997 FBI interview, Cherry admitted beating Shuttlesworth in 1957 and another black man in 1961 at a local restaurant called the Crystal Kitchen.

In a 1999 interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Cherry admitted to the 1961 beating (“the n----- called me a son of a b----”) but denied harming anyone else black, including Shuttlesworth.

He also denied a role in the bombing, insisting that on the night the bomb was supposedly planted, he was watching televised wrestling — which wasn’t on TV that night, according to logs.

On Monday morning, Cherry’s grandsons, both of whom had lived with him for years, testified they never heard him use any racial slurs or brag about the bombing.

In fact, both said they didn’t know of the bombing until 1997.

Also testifying for the defense, Robert High Sr., a preacher for a “half-black, half-white” country church in Texas, described himself in the 1980s as a 20-something man “full of hate.”

Expressing interest in the Klan, High said Cherry dissuaded him: “He told me the worst thing I could do was get tied up with that.”

Under cross-examination, lead prosecutor Doug Jones asked High whether Cherry had mentioned the violence he took part in.

“Did he ever tell you that in 1957 he was among a group of white men that beat up a black preacher?” Jones asked.

“No, sir,” High replied.

“Did he ever tell you he split a black man’s head open with a pistol?”

“No, sir.”

Asked if he’d ever heard Cherry say “n-----,” High replied Cherry had said it often, then added, “I’ve used it.”

Jones questioned High about Cherry starting to attend High’s church in 1997 — the same year the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the bombing became public.

“Since 1997, he has more than demonstrated his friendliness to black people at the church?” Jones asked.

“I know what you’re getting at,” High replied, pointing out that Cherry began going to his church a few months before FBI agents showed up in his driveway.

Defense attorneys sought to discredit the state’s theory about a timing device on the bomb.

Carolyn McKinstry, chairwoman of the 16th Street Baptist Church, had testified that, then 15, she happened to be upstairs at the church the day of the bombing when the telephone rang, and she answered it.

“The voice said, ‘Three minutes,1, 2,’ ” she said. “I had taken about 15 steps into the sanctuary when the bomb exploded.”

Defense attorney Mickey Johnson of Birmingham said a crude timing device on a bomb would have made such a warning impossible.

But if a sophisticated timing device, such as an alarm clock, had been used, remnants would have been found by FBI agents, he said.

Logically, he said, that means those who planted the bomb lit it moments before it exploded.

Johnson told reporters that defense attorneys debated whether to let Cherry take the stand, but in the end decided against it, partly because of his mental state.

“We determined that putting Mr. Bobby Cherry on the (witness) stand was like dueling an unarmed man,” he said.

Church bombing trial goes to jury

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — Is former Klansman Bobby Cherry merely a man of hate? Or did he pack that hate into a bomb in 1963, blowing up a church and killing four girls?

A six-man, six-woman jury will continue wrestling with those questions at 9 a.m. today in connection with the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed Denise McNair, 11, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14.

Cherry’s murder trial represents the latest in a wave of prosecutions in the South and lately the North. Since 1989, authorities have reexamined 21 killings from the civil rights era, resulting in 24 arrests, seven convictions, one mistrial and one acquittal.

If convicted, Cherry would be sentenced to life in prison.

After deliberating for nearly 2› hours Tuesday, jurors broke at 6 p.m. for the evening.

Those deliberations followed emotional closing statements. As relatives of the slain girls wiped away tears, prosecutors talked again of Sept. 15, 1963.

“On a hazy Sunday morning in 1963, four little girls were getting ready for youth Sunday,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Cochran. “It was the absolute picture of innocence.”

That innocence shattered with a bomb blast that killed four girls and blinded another, he said.

“For almost 39 years, this defendant has avoided justice. In fact, he mocked justice,” Cochran said.

Cochran connected two pieces of evidence to show Cherry was involved in planning and making the bomb.

On a June 28, 1964, tape of a conversation with his then-wife, Klansman Thomas Blanton says, “We were making the bomb” the Friday night before the bombing and were at the Modern Sign Shop, three blocks from the church.

In an Oct. 9, 1963, statement to the FBI signed by Cherry, the one-time Klansman talked of being at the shop that night where he saw Blanton and Robert Chambliss, who were convicted of taking part in the bombing.

As for Cherry’s alibi, Cochran noted that, in his 1997 interview, Cherry insisted he was watching televised wrestling and taking care of his sick wife.

TV logs show there was no wrestling, and medical records show she wasn’t diagnosed with cancer until August 1965, Cochran said.

As he finished his closing statement, Cochran talked of the slain girls, his voice breaking with emotion.

“The time for justice is here,” he said. “In fact, it’s way overdue, and that’s what I ask for — justice for Addie, justice for Carole, justice for Cynthia and justice for Denise.”

Defense attorney Mickey Johnson of Birmingham said the various statements prosecutors attributed to Cherry may show racism but don’t show he had a role in the crime, Johnson said. “He’s the human equivalent of a cockroach. Even the animal rights people don’t get upset with killing a cockroach.”

The truth, he said, is Cherry has changed, even joining an interracial church.

Johnson also took jurors back to days of separate waiting rooms, separate restaurants and separate restrooms.

“This was a time when segregationists were active,” he said. “The Modern Sign Shop was the place where segregationist material was generated. Everybody was doing it.”

As for racism, “I think most people of all races have that in them,” Johnson said.

“More time has been spent here throwing the ‘N’ word around instead of talking about the proof of what happened in 1963.”

Lead prosecutor Doug Jones called Cherry’s supposed change in recent years “a sham and a mockery” since he didn’t start attending an interracial church until 1997 — the year the FBI investigation became public.

The prosecutor described Cherry and his Klan cohorts as “cowards that cower underneath their hoods” and “the forefathers of terrorism.”

Return a guilty verdict, he told jurors, and “justice will roll down like a mighty river.”

‘Guilty’ verdict for each victim

Ex-Klansman gets life in ’63 bombing 

By Jerry Mitchell, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — A dozen jurors — six men and six women, nine white and three black — closed the chapter Wednesday on the nation’s most infamous killings of the civil rights era.

The jurors deliberated about 6 1/2 hours before finding that Bobby Cherry played a part in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beautiful children of God” — Denise McNair, 11, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14.

Wearing an American flag pin on his lapel, Cherry stood still as the jury forewoman — a short, middle-aged white woman — read the word “guilty” four times, once for each of the girls.

“Praise God, praise God,” one black woman in the audience whispered. “Thank you, Jesus.”

One row back, Cherry’s wife comforted her 20-year-old grandson, Glenn Belcher, who shook and sobbed.

After jurors left, Cherry spoke in his defense. “This whole bunch,” he said, pointing toward prosecutors, “have lied all the way through this thing. ...

“I don’t know why I’m going to jail for nothing. I haven’t done anything.”

As a deputy handcuffed the former Klansman and led him away, Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost an eye and her sister in the blast, watched with tears.

“His time has come,” she said. “He lived his life, and it was a good life. Now it’s time for him to pay.”

Cherry will live the rest of his life in prison. His conviction is the eighth resulting from a wave of prosecutions in the South and lately the North since 1989 of killings from the civil rights era.

For Collins’ other sister, June Collins Johnson, it was the first time she heard the word “guilty.”

She didn’t attend the 1977 trial in which former Klansman Robert Chambliss was convicted of the crime. She did attend last year’s murder trial of former Klansman Thomas Blanton, who was convicted of the crime, but stayed away when jurors returned, fearing they might vote “not guilty.”

In putting away the last living suspect in the case, she believes this verdict helps lift the burden this city has borne for nearly four decades.

“We just had to wait on God’s timing,” she said. “If it had been too soon, we might not have seen this day.”

Asked by a reporter if she and her family were willing to forgive Cherry, she replied, “We’ve already forgiven him. We just wanted to see justice come forth.”

Wednesday’s verdict resurrected Eunice Davis’ memories of playing with her sister, Cynthia. Too poor to afford a doll, they took an old RC Cola bottle and put string in it for hair.

Yet the words of sympathy she expressed Wednesday were for Cherry. “I feel sorry for him,” she said. “He just don’t know no better.”

The 1963 church bombing didn’t just take the lives of four girls getting ready for a youth worship service at church — their deaths inspired many to join the civil rights movement.

“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil,” King had told the crowd of 8,000 mourners gathered for the funerals of three of the victims. “The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. ...

“Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was the most horrific of the more than 40 bombings that took place in this steel town between World War II and 1963.

Cherry repeatedly insisted he had no role in the explosion, but once remarked to the FBI, “The only reason I didn’t blow up that church was maybe somebody beat me to it.”

One role Cherry did admit to the FBI was the 1957 beating of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, whose house and church were bombed by nightriders.

Jurors saw television footage of Cherry hitting Shuttlesworth, never bothering to remove his cigarette when he smashed the preacher with a pair of brass knuckles.

Shuttlesworth listened to closing statements Tuesday and waited for the verdict Wednesday.

“Thanks be to God,” he said. “Never give up. Never give up.”

He compared the nearly four-decade journey of Birmingham to the one made by Israelites before they entered the promised land.

“God left the children of Israel 40 years in the desert, not because he couldn’t get them out sooner, but because he wanted to drain slavery from their souls,” he said.

It has been a quarter century journey for Doug Jones, who skipped law school classes to watch the 1977 Chambliss trial and served as lead prosecutor in the Blanton and Cherry trials.

Jones called Wednesday’s verdict “as complete and as satisfying as a human being could ever hope. I never dreamed a skinny kid from Fairfield, Ala., would have ever had this incredible opportunity, the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Birmingham bomber dies in prison at 74

 

Former Klansman was convicted in deaths of four children inside church

By Jerry Mitchell 

Former Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry - the last suspect to be convicted in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls - died Thursday in Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery.

"I hope he got himself right with God before he left," said Lisa McNair of Birmingham, the sister of one of the victims.

Cherry's son, Tom, said his 74-year-old father had been diagnosed in recent weeks with cancer after doctors found lumps in his lungs and on his spine.

A federal jury in Birmingham convicted the elderly Cherry in May 2002, and the judge sentenced him to life in prison. The younger Cherry cooperated with authorities in that investigation, leaving him estranged with his family.

"The bad part of it is he finally agreed to see me," the younger Cherry said. "The warden gave special permission for me to come and see him on Monday. Forty-five minutes later, I got a phone call saying he was dead.

"It breaks my heart," he said. "I had the chance to tell him I loved him no matter what, then the old buzzard jumps up and escapes out of prison."

In 2001, a federal jury convicted Thomas Blanton Jr., 64, the other suspect in the bombing. Blanton is serving a life sentence at St. Clair Correctional Facility about 30 miles northeast of Birmingham.

Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones of Birmingham, who led the prosecution, learned of Cherry's death Thursday attending a meeting inside the 16th Street Baptist Church. "Maybe Cherry's passing is really the passing of the old Birmingham and the old Alabama," he said. "With him gone, so much of what he stood for is gone."

On Oct. 13, Cherry collapsed in prison, and prison officials took him first to Atmore Community Hospital, then to the medical facilities at prison.

Last month, an Alabama Appeals Court unanimously upheld Cherry's murder convictions, rejecting the argument the 37-year delay between the crime and his indictment in 2000 had prejudiced his case.

The 1963 bombing horrified the nation. Just after a Sunday school class at 16th Street Baptist Church wrapped up its lesson on "A Love That Forgives" on the morning of Sept. 15, a bomb ripped through the building, killing Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14.

In May 2002, as a deputy handcuffed Cherry after his sentencing to four consecutive life sentences in the girls' deaths, Sarah Collins Rudolph - who lost an eye and lost her sister in the blast - watched with tears. "He lived his life, and it was a good life," she remarked. "Now it's time for him to pay."

The case went unprosecuted for 14 years until then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley won a murder conviction against Bob Chambliss, who died in prison. Baxley left office before he could pursue cases against Cherry and Blanton.

In a 1999 interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Cherry said he was home watching wrestling on TV the night of Sept. 14, 1963, the night the bomb was planted. Since there was no televised wrestling for him to watch, Cherry's alibi crumbled, and a grand jury indicted him the next year.

Although he maintained his innocence, his views on race were evident. He repeatedly referred to black Americans as "n-----s" and admitted joining the Klan in 1957.

Cherry said he was outside Phillips High School on Sept. 9, 1957, when the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth brought his children there to integrate the all-white high school in Birmingham.

"Somebody reached up and got them brass knucks, and they whopped ol' Shuttlesworth across the head four or five times," Cherry laughed. He said he had no idea who hit the civil rights leader. But Cherry admitted to investigator Bob Eddy he used a pair of brass knuckles to hit Shuttlesworth between the eyes.

Cherry insisted to The Clarion-Ledger he never harmed anyone black: "I knocked one of 'em in the head one night, but the n----- called me a son of a b----. I knocked him in the head, got in the car, drove off and left him. That's the only thing I've ever done."

 

Topic Details

Add Facts

Looking for more information about Four Little Girls: The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing?

Search through millions of records to find out more.

About this Memorial Page

This page is locked. Want to contribute to this page? Contact historybeat

Contributors:
historybeat
Created:
Modified:
Page Views:
62,594 total (262 this week)

×