Klansman gets life in church bombing

1963 Birmingham blast killed four girls, became turning point in civil rights era

NBC News and News Services/May 22, 2002

Birmingham, Ala. -- In the final trial stemming from one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era, a former Ku Klux Klansman was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison Wednesday in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls, closing a pivotal chapter of the struggle after 29 years.

Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, was the final suspect to face trial in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a gathering spot for blacks protesting segregation in the early 1960s.

Two other former Klansmen were tried in the bombing - Thomas Blanton Jr. was convicted last year and is serving life for the bombing, while Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder in 1977 and died in prison.

A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being charged.

The jury of nine whites and three blacks needed only about eight hours of deliberations before returning the guilty verdict after closing arguments ended Tuesday afternoon.

Asked by the judge whether he had any comment, Cherry stood, pointed at prosecutors and said: "This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing."

"I told the truth," he said. "I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing."

'Go On With Our Lives Now'

The bomb killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Their relatives sat on the front row of the courtroom throughout the trial, and several testified. After the verdict, many hugged the prosecutors.

Eunice Davis, the sister of Cynthia Wesley, walked out of the courtroom in tears, saying, "It's time, it's time."

"We feel like we can go on with our lives now," said another victim's sister, Junie Collins Peavy.

Cherry's family and his lawyers left the courthouse without comment.

Tensions Had Been High

The bomb shook the downtown area shortly after 10 a.m. as church members were preparing for a youth-led Sunday worship service on Sept. 15, 1963. The city's public schools had been integrated a few days earlier after a six-year court fight, and tensions had been running high for much of the year.

The blast exposed the chilling depth of racial hatred that black protesters faced in the Deep South and helped bring racial moderates off the sidelines of the civil rights struggle. Within two years, as protests spread in the wake of the bombing, federal civil rights and voting rights laws were passed by Congress.

Evidence showed Cherry was a suspect within days of the bombing, and he moved his family to Texas in the early 1970s as authorities in Alabama continued questioning him about the bombing. A retired trucker, he most recently lived in the town of Mabank, southeast of Dallas.

Cherry Denied Involvement

Cherry always denied involvement in the bombing, both publicly and in a series of interviews with investigators.

But prosecutors reopened the case in 1995 and found five estranged family members and acquaintances who said Cherry boasted of his involvement in the infamous crime, the deadliest single attack in the civil rights era.

"He said he lit the fuse," testified Willadean Brogdon, Cherry's ex-wife.

Added Teresa Stacy, a granddaughter: "He said he helped blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham."

Prosecutors also presented witnesses and secretly recorded tapes to show that Cherry was associated with Blanton and Chambliss. Defense attorneys argued that the links meant nothing. Everyone in the Klan could have been a suspect, they said.

Defense attorney Mickey Johnson said those who claimed to have heard Cherry confess were all liars out to get a mentally addled old man.

"Can any of these witnesses have any credibility with the jury?" Johnson asked.

Cherry did not testify.

For years, it looked as though none of the bombing suspects would be brought to court. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover concluded in 1965 that Birmingham's racial climate meant a guilty verdict was highly unlikely, and the government closed the case in 1968 without any charges.

A state investigation was reopened in the 1970s under former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, and Chambliss was convicted in 1977. Federal authorities reopened the case in 1995 at the urging of black ministers troubled by the lack of further prosecution.

Cherry and Blanton were indicted in 2000. Prosecutors said Cherry was the last person who would be tried.

Jubilant Reaction

After Cherry was convicted, some of those who have sought justice in the case for 39 years were jubilant.

"Justice will shine for black and white people now," said the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a Cincinnati minister who was attacked by Cherry in 1957 during an attempt to integrate a Birmingham public school.

The Rev. Abraham Woods, a longtime civil-rights leader, added: "God has spoken in Birmingham."

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