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.