Suspects in 1963 Birmingham Chuch Bombing Lead Hardscrabble Lives

New York Times/May 20, 2000
By Kevin Sack

Birmingham, Ala. -- Thomas E. Blanton Jr. should not get claustrophobic in his cell in the Jefferson County jail. At 8 feet by 10 feet, it is roomier than the ramshackle 5-foot-by-10-foot trailer in nearby Fultondale where he lived before surrendering on Wednesday to murder charges related to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Five hundred and fifty miles away, near Payne Springs, Tex., Bobby Frank Cherry's own trailer, substantially larger and neater than Mr. Blanton's, now sits empty as its former occupant has also taken up residence in an isolated cell here. Nearby homeowners cannot fathom that their good-natured neighbor, an avid fisherman always willing to lend a hand with a project, could have been involved in one of the most heinous crimes of the civil rights era.

For 37 years, Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry have lived their lives, perhaps looking over their shoulders but only rarely concerned that they would ever be charged with the murders of the four black girls who died on Sept. 15, 1963. They have been suspects almost since the beginning, and they have been interviewed and trailed and reinterviewed over the years as investigators would dust off their files and make another run.

But until this week, the authorities never seemed to pose much of a threat to the two old Ku Klux Klansmen, and so they carried on. They saw the South change around them, or at least much of it. And they had little choice but to sit by and watch as eager young prosecutors and investigators responded to pressure from black leaders just as their predecessors had responded to white resistance.

Mr. Blanton, a 61-year-old loner, filled his time in a series of jobs as a security guard in the Birmingham area, one of them at an upscale subdivision known as Liberty Park. He lost several jobs, sometimes when word of a new investigation would hit the papers, and he would grumble that the publicity had cost him a paycheck, said Wyman S. Lee, himself a former Klansman and a longtime friend of both men. Mr. Blanton earned a juris doctor degree in 1980 from the unaccredited Birmingham School of Law, but never passed the bar exam, attributing that failure to the influence of civil rights figures in the state bar association, Mr. Lee said.

At the time he was charged, Mr. Blanton had been working for three years as a sales associate for a Wal-Mart store in suburban Hoover, Ala., just south of Birmingham. A Wal-Mart spokesman said he worked in sporting goods, where the shelves are stocked with shotguns and hunting knives and fishing lures. This week, he was suspended without pay.

Mr. Cherry, who is 69 and ailing from heart disease and diabetes, moved to Texas in the 1970's, shortly after Alabama's attorney general at the time, Bill Baxley, reopened the investigation into the church bombing. That inquiry resulted in the murder conviction of Robert Chambliss, the presumed ringleader and the only man previously charged in the case. But the trail ran dry and Mr. Baxley left office before he could pursue indictments against Mr. Blanton, Mr. Cherry and Herman Cash, the three other men named as suspects in early Federal Bureau of Investigation files. Mr. Cash died in 1994, and Mr. Chambliss died in prison in 1985.

Mr. Cherry has worked as a welder, a carpet cleaner and a truck driver. He has reportedly married five times and fathered 15 children, and his estrangement from some of his family is at least partly responsible for his current problems. Several relatives and former relatives, including an ex-wife and a granddaughter, have said they told a grand jury that Mr. Cherry had boasted about playing a role in the bombing.

"I just remember him bragging about it once or twice," said Teresa Stacy, Mr. Cherry's 24-year-old granddaughter, in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Willadean Brogdon, who was married to Mr. Cherry from 1970 to 1972, said that Mr. Cherry pointed out the church to her once. "He said that was the place he had bombed," she said, also in a Thursday telephone interview. As their marriage deteriorated, Ms. Brogdon said, Mr. Cherry would threaten her: "He used to tell me if I ever talked, the same thing would happen to me."

The involvement of Ms. Brogdon and Ms. Stacy echoes that of Mr. Chambliss's wife and niece, both of whom played roles in feeding information to investigators. His niece, Elizabeth Cobbs, testified at Mr. Chambliss's trial in 1977 that he had foreshadowed a racial attack the day before the explosion. She said that he pointed to a newspaper story about school desegregation and said: "You just wait until after Sunday morning and they will beg us to let them segregate."

Mr. Blanton and Mr. Cherry were indicted on Tuesday by a state grand jury after a nearly four-year reinvestigation, conducted primarily by the F.B.I. and the United States attorney's office here. The men turned themselves in to the authorities on Wednesday and remain in jail without bond. Through their lawyers, both have proclaimed their innocence, as they have since first being identified as suspects.

Mr. Blanton has long been suspected of using his two-tone 1957 Chevrolet, with a Confederate flag flying from the antenna, to ferry the three other men to plant the bomb at the church on the night before the explosion. At a news conference here on Wednesday, Doug Jones, the United States attorney, and David Barber, the Jefferson County district attorney, declined to discuss what roles they believe the two men played or what evidence they would present.

In the early 1960's, all four suspects in the bombing were members of Eastview Klavern No. 13 of the United Klans of America.

Neither Mr. Blanton nor Mr. Cherry had ever been prosecuted for any race-related crime. But F.B.I. files from the original investigations, which are now archived at Birmingham's public library, characterize both as rabid racists of the head-knocking variety.

Mr. Blanton is the son of Thomas Blanton Sr., known as Pops, one of Birmingham's most notorious white racists. The F.B.I. files state that the younger Mr. Blanton was born in Washington, D.C., had a 10th-grade education and served as an aircraft mechanic in the Navy from 1956 to 1959. He is divorced and has one daughter, said Mr. Lee, his friend.

The files include an account of an interview with a woman who said she was riding with Mr. Blanton in the early 1960's when he veered toward a black man who was crossing the street. The man dived out of the way and narrowly missed being hit, the woman said.

Bob Eddy, a former state investigator who spent years on the bombing case, said in an interview that Mr. Blanton would wait in grocery store parking lots and put some sort of acid on the seats of black people's cars so it would burn their skin when they sat down.

Mr. Cherry grew up in Mineral Springs, Ala., had an eighth-grade education and served in the Marine Corps from 1957 to 1959, according to the F.B.I. files. While Mr. Blanton is rarely quoted in the files, Mr. Cherry comes off as vociferously unrepentant. One report states that he "admitted to agents firing his rifle at Negroes outside his house within the past two months."

When investigators asked him about the Aug. 20, 1963, bombing of a black civil rights leader's house he "recalled saying to himself, 'I hope it killed him.' "

Mr. Baxley, the former attorney general, said in an interview that Mr. Cherry was "a bully and a total liar." Mr. Blanton, he said, is "a little bit different."

"His dad was so bad," Mr. Baxley said. "The worst racist in this city was Chambliss, but the runner-up was Pops Blanton."

Mr. Baxley said he felt "a twinge of sympathy" for the younger Mr. Blanton because, with the racism he learned from his father, "how else are you going to turn out?"

About five years ago, Mr. Blanton asked Mr. Lee if he could put his tiny trailer on Mr. Lee's one-acre plot behind a cement plant in Fultondale. Mr. Lee, who lives in his own trailer on the land, is a plumber; the lot is strewn with junk cars and broken commodes. Mr. Lee said Mr. Blanton's trailer had no running water or plumbing. Mr. Blanton stores belongings in a decrepit Dodge station wagon parked nearby.

Though they live only yards from each other, Mr. Lee said he did not see Mr. Blanton that often.

"He comes and goes," Mr. Lee said, adding that Mr. Blanton sometimes stays with his daughter. "He stays to hisself, pretty quiet, and never makes any trouble."

Mr. Cherry had been living in Texas with his latest wife, Myrtle, amid winding roads and thickly forested hills in Esquire Estates, a rambling collection of mobile homes just outside Payne Springs, about 40 miles southeast of Dallas. Their large blue trailer, with a wooden porch and a few attached outbuildings, is neatly kept with potted plants hanging from the porch rafters.

Neighbors described Mr. Cherry as helpful and friendly. "When I got sick with cancer, he and his grandson came over and replaced all the carpet in my living room," said William K. Turner, who has lived next door to Mr. Cherry for 12 years. The two men enjoyed drinking coffee together on the porch in the mornings.

"In all that time I never heard him talk about racial stuff or politics," Mr. Turner said. "He said one time that he used to be involved in politics, but that was all he said." He added, "I don't know if I'll ever see him again."

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