The Sins of the Father
In the backcountry of East Texas, Tom Cherry sits and wonders about the man next door. Did he commit the infamous bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, back in 1963, killing four little girls? All Tom knows for sure is that the man is his dad
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DEEP IN THE PINE WOODS OF EAST TEXAS, A TWO-LANE blacktop once known as Gun Barrel Lane rambles along the backcountry, through the ramshackle beauty of clapboard churches and abandoned shotgun shacks and rusting tin roofs that sag under the weight of time. A man could hide here, amid the tangle of side roads that stray off into the bottomlands of Henderson County, and never be found again — or so it must have seemed to former Alabama Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry when he came here twelve years ago seeking refuge. The land he settled on is hard to find: Densely wooded and remote, it is accessible by only one road — a crooked path, unmarked and uninviting — that retreats into the slash pine. At its end lie two white houses, one belonging to Cherry, the other to his eldest son, Tom. Father and son live side by side in this lonesome stretch of woods, no more than a dozen yards apart, bound together by the secrets of the past. For both men know that although Bobby Frank Cherry has tried to fade into obscurity among the pines, lawmen suspect him of having carried out one of the most notorious and depraved murders of the civil rights era, a church bombing that left four black girls dead.
Cherry has long maintained his innocence, but he has not escaped his son’s own nagging doubts. Tom often gazes out the kitchen window and wonders at the past, uncertain whether to believe his 69-year-old father or the FBI, whose renewed investigation into the bombing has identified Cherry as its prime suspect. The law has been on his trail ever since dynamite ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, killing eleven-year-old Denise McNair and fourteen-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley only moments before they were to hear a sermon titled “The Love That Forgives.” The “massacre of innocents,” as it was called in headlines around the world, sparked protest and outrage; the FBI, in turn, launched its most intense investigation since the Depression-era manhunt for John Dillinger. Its findings, which fingered Cherry and three other Klansmen, were eventually shelved by J. Edgar Hoover, who feared that a white Southern jury would never vote to convict.
Rumors that his father had a hand in the church bombing have followed Tom since he was a child. Now 47 and a long-haul truck driver, he bears a strong resemblance to his father, though his features lack the old man’s hardness; his own face is round and expressive, and moved by sudden emotions. Ever since Tom was 11 years old, he has lived with the possibility that his father committed murder — and yet, this is the father he grew up adoring. Their story is one of an age-old struggle between fathers and sons, for every son learns in time that his father is all too fallible, and Bobby Frank Cherry turns out to have been very fallible indeed. Tom has long revered the old man and modeled his life after him — even going so far, in his youth, as to join the Klan before finding that he had no taste for it — but the revelations of the renewed investigation have tested even his allegiances. While Cherry’s other children have rallied around him, Tom has remained tight-lipped about his opinion of his father’s guilt or innocence. His silence has strained their relationship: The old man has not spoken to his son in more than a year, only scowling at Tom whenever they pass on the narrow road that leads through the pines.
Tom was at his father’s side, along with several other Klansmen, when the sound of dynamite rattled through downtown Birmingham that September morning. Though the bomb was most likely placed at the church the night before, what Tom might have overheard that day or in the years that followed has been a source of great curiosity on the part of federal investigators. Tom has long viewed the FBI as the enemy; he was a child when, in the wake of the bombing, agents began lurking in the alley behind the Cherry home and following his father in unmarked cars down the streets of Birmingham. But as he has grown older and had children of his own, he has come to grasp the importance of this case; during the course of the renewed investigation, FBI agents showed him crime-scene photographs of the four girls — their bodies were broken and blistered, one burned beyond recognition — and he did not easily forget them. “My sister told me to quit riding the fence,” said Tom. “She said, ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us.’ Well, I’m not with or against nobody. I don’t run in a pack.”
Tom and I spent many winter afternoons talking about Bobby Frank Cherry — a man I would never see in all my visits to the backwoods but whose presence was keenly felt. Tom sat at his kitchen table, smoking cigarette after cigarette and interspersing the conversation with nervous laughter; he would sometimes glance apprehensively at his father’s house after he spoke, as if the old man might have overheard him. “When the investigation started up again, Dad said, ‘They’ll do anything to put a wedge between us,'” he said, shaking his head. “The FBI has played this family against each other, is what they’ve done.” He and his father had never had it easy: After his mother died, when Tom was fifteen, Bobby Frank Cherry abandoned him, leaving him at an orphanage. But Tom renewed contact as an adult, following him first to Dallas and then to the backwoods of Henderson County in a determined bid to win his father’s affection. “I don’t know if we’ll ever settle our differences now,” he said, rising from his seat and jamming his hands stiffly into the pockets of his blue jeans. “There’s too much that’s happened between us, too much to try to forgive and forget.”
Now barrel chested and middle aged, Tom has a ragged smoker’s laugh and his face is creased with hard living. His belongings betray a stubborn sense of family pride: He always wears a leather belt emblazoned with the Cherry name, and his house — a neat, prefabricated home shaded by pines — is decorated with an abundance of framed family photos. One, of his father as a young Marine smiling and leaning jauntily against a wall, suggests a simpler time. Tom dragged on a cigarette and furrowed his broad, ruddy face when I asked him if he doubted his father’s claims of innocence. “I’ve had some questions, not necessarily doubting his story, but I have some questions that have been unanswered,” he said. “Things that the FBI told me.” The strain of the investigation was plain to see: His face was lined with worry, softened only by the occasional comfort of a cigarette, and his answers to my questions were circumspect. Had he told the FBI everything he knew? I asked. He looked up from the family photographs that he had spread out across his kitchen table, and his eyes shone with tears. “I’ve answered their questions,” he said bitterly, “but I’m not going to help them hang him.”
THE DEMONS THAT THE CHERRY FAMILY HAS BEEN running from all these years originated in the Birmingham of the fifties and sixties, where white men who saw themselves as the last defenders of the old South banded together to preserve their privileged place in a society divided by race. Birmingham was an industrial city of steel mills and coal mines, its population an uneasy mix of working-class whites and poor blacks who had come to the city from rural Alabama in search of opportunity. It was a city of tension and violence, with an undertow of racial hatred, where dynamitings of black-owned homes and businesses were so common that the city was nicknamed Bombingham. The Cherrys lived in a modest wood-frame house in the working-class neighborhood of Ensley, a white stronghold hemmed in by poorer neighborhoods that were rapidly integrating. Tom was the first-born of seven children and was named Thomas Frank Cherry after his father.
Tom shared not only his father’s name and his likeness but a similar disposition: Hotheaded and stubborn, he often got into fights with the other neighborhood boys, wrestling them in empty lots on the northwest side of Birmingham. “I was like my dad then,” he said. “I wasn’t scared of nothing. I wanted to grow up to be just like him.” Boisterous and impulsive, Tom was always careful to behave himself around his father, whom he revered. To Tom, Bobby Frank Cherry seemed larger than life: Tall and muscular, with thick, wavy blond hair, he wore a cocksure grin and a tattoo across his upper left arm bearing his name. Cherry kept a Luger tucked into his back hip pocket and a .38-caliber pistol in his boot, and his temper sometimes got the best of him. He struck his wife Virginia for not deferring to him — “My mother was just as ornery and smartass as he was,” remembered Tom — and flew into a rage if his children tested his patience, once knocking all their plates off the kitchen table with a single, crashing sweep of his arm. Despite his meanness, he still commanded his son’s respect. “My father was a hero to me,” Tom said. “He was a protector and a charmer, the toughest guy on the block.”
Bobby Frank Cherry made no secret of his hatred for black people, nor of his association with the Klan: Tom recalled that his robes, made of white satin and emblazoned across the heart with a red drop of blood, hung in the front closet of the Cherry house and a back-lit picture of a robed Klansman on horseback stood just inside the front door. The Klan had not been a presence when Bobby Frank Cherry was growing up in Mineral Springs, Alabama, during the thirties and forties, but by 1957, when the South was facing school desegregation and he was competing with black men for low-paying jobs, barely making ends meet working as a truck driver, it held its own particular appeal. The Klan bestowed a certain authority on him, and no doubt gave him a sense of power in a world that otherwise afforded him none. “It made him feel like a big fish in a small pond,” said Tom. The demands of the Klan also allowed him to duck out of the house on the pretext of protecting the white race. He preferred the company of his fellow Klansmen: Hard-drinking and poorly educated like him, they spent their days working backbreaking jobs — as coal miners, meat packers, welders, and quarrymen — and raised hell at night. Many of them had records for petty crimes and a penchant for guns and whiskey; all shared fanatical views on the supremacy of the white race.
They called themselves the Cahaba Boys, after the slow-moving river south of Birmingham, where every Thursday night they gathered in the woods beneath a low-slung stone bridge. The splinter group of a dozen or so men was founded in the early sixties, according to FBI files, by renegade Klansmen who believed that the mainstream Klan was not radical enough. Membership in this brotherhood was for those proven both loyal and not squeamish. Its ringleader was Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, a man with a long history of brutality toward black people — including a charge of “flogging while masked” — and the prime suspect in dozens of racially motivated bombings around Birmingham. Its ranks included a number of small-time bullies and thugs, as well as prominent Klansmen like Gary Thomas Rowe, who was later indicted but never brought to trial for participating in the high-profile murder of white civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo during the 1965 Selma march. The Cahaba Boys had ties to local politicians, law enforcement, and the most rabid white supremacists of the day: J. B. Stoner, the leader of the neo-Nazi National States Rights Party, was a frequent visitor, as was Imperial Wizard Bobby Shelton, then the most powerful Klansman in the nation.
The Cahaba Boys committed acts of violence with a ferocity that was unmatched even by their fellow Klansmen, according to FBI files. Carrying foot-long chains, battery cables, and baseball bats that had been hollowed out and filled with lead, they spread terror on city buses, where they punished blacks who were sitting too close to whites, and in racially mixed neighborhoods, where they lobbed explosives into the driveways of black families. “Nigger-knocking” was standard practice once the sun went down: Blacks were taken to remote areas, beaten, and sometimes brutally tortured. “The Klan wasn’t violent enough for them,” said Bob Eddy, who is currently assisting the FBI with its investigation of Bobby Frank Cherry. “They were responsible for firebombings, floggings, dynamiting people’s homes. How often Cherry was along on those rides, we don’t know, but Chambliss told me years later, before he died, that Cherry was at the bombing of the Gaston Motel.” That bomb exploded on May 11, 1963, only a block from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and would have changed the course of history had it not missed its mark: It was intended for Martin Luther King, Jr.
None of this was known to the young Tom Cherry, who was raised to believe that the Klan embodied all that was right and good. As a boy he attended Klan rallies with his father on the outskirts of town and watched in awe as huge crosses wrapped in burlap were doused in kerosene and set afire. “The Klan stood for Christianity and purity,” he recalled. “We were told that any other race besides the white race was second class and blacks had no place in society. When you’re young, you think it’s cool, you think it’s right.” So obsessed was Birmingham with race that nothing else seemed to matter. “I remember when everyone was worried about Russia doing this and Cuba doing that and us all getting blown up,” said Tom, “and everyone in Alabama was worried about being integrated. It’s a sad thing, isn’t it? After we went to school together, we found out there wasn’t much difference in none of us. We were all struggling just as hard to buy groceries as they was, they was all wanting bicycles for Christmas just like we was.”
Tom knew nothing of the Klan’s night-riding as a child, but on more than one occasion, his father’s hatred for blacks turned to violence right before his eyes: He recalls being sent to the back of his parents’ house with his brothers and sisters one Halloween, while his father — furious that two black families had dared to knock on his front door as they made their rounds trick-or-treating — began firing his gun indiscriminately from the porch. There were other confrontations over the years; when a black teenager tried to steal a ball of string that Tom used for his newspaper route, Cherry leveled his gun at the nineteen-year-old, who had grabbed a pipe, and then beat him senseless. Tom was frightened by such savagery and wondered sometimes at his father’s coldheartedness — “There seemed to be no pity, no sympathy at all” — but he couldn’t help but notice that no one else seemed to be bothered by it, least of all the authorities. “The police didn’t care,” he said. “You could do just about whatever you wanted to a black person and not get in trouble down there.”
But Tom, then just a boy, was looking for a father, not a political mentor. He can still remember the thrill of hearing his father’s footsteps coming up the front drive; he was never happier, he said, than when he was at his father’s side. Cherry sometimes let Tom tag along with him to Jack Cash’s Barbecue, a Klan haunt where Tom ate hamburgers at the counter while his father conducted his business at a nearby table. But more often than not, Cherry headed out of the house alone. Sometimes, when Cherry reached for his coat, Tom would dart out of the house and hide in the back seat of the family’s 1957 red-and-white Chevrolet, waiting until his father had shifted into gear and driven a few blocks before making his presence known. Cherry let Tom accompany him when there was Klan grunt work to do, such as tacking up George Wallace posters or printing up bumper stickers protesting school integration; when he needed an extra hand silk-screening rebel flags at the Modern Sign Company on the morning of September 15, 1963, Tom came too.
Investigators believe that the eleven sticks of dynamite, bound together with a timing device in olive-colored paper, had been planted at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church the previous evening. Tom cannot recall if his father was home, as Cherry would later claim, or if he was absent that night. What Tom does remember is standing inside the Modern Sign Company on the morning of the bombing, only a few blocks from the church, and hearing a dull rumble that shook the silk-screens from their frames. “There was the sound of an explosion — a whoomph — and I knew something real bad had happened,” said Tom. “It was a day you never forget.”
ADDIE MAE COLLINS, DENISE MCNAIR, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were popular and vivacious girls, all but one the daughters of Birmingham schoolteachers, who had left their Sunday school classes a few minutes early that morning so they could freshen up before the service. While the congregation gathered in the main sanctuary, the four girls hurried to the ladies’ lounge in the church basement — past the eleven sticks of dynamite, which lay on the opposite side of the church wall, obscured by a flight of concrete stairs. A survivor later recounted how the girls had stood quietly in front of the long mirror in the lounge, appraising their reflections as they combed their hair and smoothed out the folds in their crisp white dresses. At 10:22 a.m., as Denise McNair reached to tie Addie Mae Collins’ sash, there was a sudden, thunderous blast. A wave of heat surged through the building as its brick-and-limestone frame buckled, the force of dynamite toppling the base of the church’s eastern wall and raining plaster, wood, and stained glass onto the worshipers below. There was a moment of stunned silence in the sanctuary, and then, as smoke began to billow from the basement, someone screamed, “We’ve been bombed!”
The haunting image that would appear on the cover of Time the following week was that of a stained-glass window: The body of Jesus, surrounded by young children, remained intact — but the explosion had left a gaping hole where His face had once smiled benevolently down upon them. In the moments after the blast, churchgoers felt their way through the haze of smoke and soot in the sanctuary, while an angry crowd gathered outside and waited to count the dead. The four girls had not stood a chance: The force of the blast had blown out windows several blocks away and crushed two nearby cars, crumpling them like tin cans. One of the girls was decapitated by the force of the explosion, another killed by a brick that lodged in her skull; Addie Mae Collins was so disfigured that her older sister could identify her only by her small brown shoes. Churchgoers wailed as first one body, then a second, and then a third and fourth, were pulled from the debris and covered with white sheets. Dazed and weeping, the Reverend John Haywood Cross walked through the rubble, quoting the sermon he would never deliver. “Father, forgive them,” he said, his face streaked with tears, “for they know not what they do.”
The bombing, with its stark images of good and evil — the four girls in white dresses, murdered undoubtedly by the Klan — touched off riots in the streets of Birmingham and sympathy among even the most implacable of whites. Governor Wallace sent three hundred state troopers into the city to keep order, while Martin Luther King, Jr., wired President Kennedy, insisting that only decisive federal intervention could prevent “the worst racial holocaust this nation has ever seen.” The mayor of Birmingham openly wept, and even in Ensley, where white residents had opted to fill up the community swimming pool with concrete rather than integrate it, the mood seemed to have shifted. “Before then, everybody in the neighborhood used to talk about how Bob Cherry was the coolest guy around,” remembered Tom. “He stood up for what he thought, you know, and they all backed him. But then it became socially unacceptable. And I think where it became socially unacceptable was when those kids were killed. That turned people’s stomachs. Because no matter who you are, or what color you are, when a kid is killed, it throws a different light on things. You can’t ignore that. That’s when it all went bad.”
Local law enforcement, which had only halfheartedly investigated Klan violence in the past, suspected that the Cahaba Boys were behind the church bombing, since its members were believed to have dynamited dozens of black-owned homes and businesses around town. But it was not until the FBI sent more than fifty agents to Birmingham, making it the bureau’s top priority, that Bobby Frank Cherry and his friends were tailed around the clock. “Every time we’d crank up our cars, we’d see a car start up down the street after us,” recalled former Klansman Wyman Lee, one of the Cahaba Boys at the time of the bombing. “Everywhere we went, the FBI was already there waiting for us, wanting to talk.” The bureau made no secret of its interest in Cherry and hounded him relentlessly. Agents stood outside the Cherry home at all hours of the night, watching in silence, and even Tom’s behavior became cause for suspicion: When Tom injured his thumb while playing with matches, he had to answer not only the questions of the emergency room doctor but also those of federal investigators, who wanted to know if he had been fooling with dynamite.
His father said little during his twenty interviews with the FBI that helped his case; instead, he boasted about his hatred for blacks and his predilection for violence. “The only reason I didn’t do the church bombing,” Cherry bragged to investigators in the fall of 1964, “was maybe because someone beat me to it.” He failed a polygraph test that the FBI administered three weeks after the bombing, showing “definite patterns of deception” when he denied planning and executing bombings around Birmingham. More significantly, he showed “a strong reaction” when he was asked if he had known that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church would be bombed, and if he had helped construct a bomb two days beforehand. Rather than condemn the bombing outright, he defended himself by saying he would have chosen different victims; Cherry told agents, according to one FBI file, “that if he had something against that particular church, he would have ‘done something to the pastor,’ and not kill innocent children.” His arrogance could be breathtaking; when agents asked what testimony he might give a grand jury, Cherry replied, “That’s when the Fifth Amendment will come in handy.”
During one chilling exchange, Cherry offered investigators an account of how the bombing might have indeed been executed. “Cherry stated that if he had wanted to bomb this church, he would probably use two cars and only two men,” reads one FBI report from early 1965. “One man would be the lookout and park somewhere in the immediate vicinity, while the other man would drive into the area, park his car, and plant the bomb.” Cherry told investigators during another interview precisely how the bomb could have been built, describing in exhaustive detail how to rig a timing device to dynamite. “Cherry cautioned that when dropping the capsule into the acid,” the FBI report concludes, “care should be taken to clean off the outside of the capsule, since any of the material contained in the capsule which touches the acid will ignite and can burn the skin.” But Cherry continued to insist he had no involvement in the bombing.
The lack of physical evidence recovered at the crime scene, compounded by the Klan’s refusal to cooperate with federal investigators, would hamper the FBI’s efforts to solve the case. Nevertheless, after nearly two years of relentless inquiry, the FBI believed that it had cracked the case. “No avenue of investigative activity has been overlooked,” read a May 13, 1965, memorandum from the Birmingham field office to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. “As a result, it is apparent that the bombing was the handiwork of former Klansmen Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., and probably Troy Ingram.” FBI investigators had discovered several eyewitnesses who could place the men outside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church at around two-fifteen that Sunday morning and a witness who would testify that Blanton said he and Bobby Frank Cherry had both had a hand in the bombing. But Hoover, reluctant to try a race-charged case before a Southern white jury with only circumstantial evidence, forbade the agents to meet with federal and state prosecutors. The case, for the time being, was shelved and nearly forgotten.
FOR TOM, LIFE WOULD FOREVER BE MEASURED against that moment in 1963 when he stood at his father’s side, listening to the sound of dynamite reverberating against the limestone walls of downtown Birmingham. He remembers only fleeting images from that Sunday morning, when the city shuddered beneath his feet: a crowd forming down the street, the wail of ambulances, a white man yelling amid the chaos, “Let’s get out of here — the niggers are on the war path.” The rest has been muddled by the passage of time; Tom can not discern, in his faded memories, the expression that his father wore after the explosion or what words the men at the Modern Sign Company spoke in its wake. But that moment, however dimly remembered, marked the point when his relationship with his father changed for the worse and defined the years to come, when Bobby Frank Cherry always seemed to be looking over his shoulder. “I remember Daddy saying that they were following him to work, questioning him on the job, taking pictures of him,” Tom said.
After the bombing, his father often was absent for days at a time, and his parents’ arguments escalated into terrible violence, one fight so brutal he had feared for his mother’s life. Virginia Cherry was diagnosed with cancer in the years that followed, Tom remembered, and died in 1968, when he was fifteen. Bobby Frank Cherry soon abandoned his children, placing them first in the care of an orphanage and later with relatives. “I know that makes my dad sound like a sorry SOB, but he couldn’t hold down a job and raise seven kids,” Tom said. “He did the best he could.” Rather than staying at the Gateway Mercy Home with his brothers and sisters, Tom struck out on his own, pumping gas at a Sinclair station for 50 cents an hour and living by his wits. He had always feared that federal agents would take away his father, but instead his father had forsaken him: Tom would spend much of the rest of his life trying to find the father he had lost at fifteen, ready to welcome Bobby Frank Cherry back into his life at any cost.
Tom drifted between Alabama and Texas for several years, and by the time he was in his early twenties, he had made his way to Pascagoula, Mississippi, where he worked in a shipyard and fell in briefly with the local Klan. “It’s hard to sit here now and explain the exact reason why I joined,” Tom said. “I’d had a lot of racist stuff shoved down my throat growing up, and my mind-set was different then. The Klan was like a family tradition, I guess. It turned out to be a bunch of lowlifes who wanted to go do some stupid stuff. We burnt some crosses on top of a hill, out between Pascagoula and Biloxi, that you could see for miles and miles out on that flat stone land. But bringing harm to people, that ain’t no good. I told them I would have no part in that, and I bailed out after a couple of months.” Tom saw his father from time to time, fishing with him on his occasional visits to Pascagoula. When he decided to leave Mississippi behind, Tom — as all but one of his siblings would do later — headed for Texas, the state where Bobby Frank Cherry now resided, in hopes of re-establishing a relationship with his father. Whatever grudge he held against his father for abandoning him he soon forgave, hoping that the two might once again be together as father and son.
Texas was where Bobby Frank Cherry had come to escape the burdens of the past. In 1971 Alabama attorney general Bill Baxley had reopened the church-bombing investigation; Cherry left Birmingham soon afterward, working as a welder and later opening a carpet-cleaning business in Grand Prairie, outside Dallas. But he could not dodge the law forever: On a hot August day in 1977 Cherry received a call from Bob Eddy, then the attorney general’s lead investigator of the case. A former sheriff from Huntsville, Alabama, Eddy was a masterful interviewer who had cracked some of Alabama’s toughest cases, having shrugged off late-night death threats and faced down more than one Klansman wielding a shotgun. His assignment to solve the church bombing was not an easy one; the FBI initially refused to share most of the evidence it had gathered from confidential sources during its original investigation, leaving him with little more than a cold trail. But after interviewing Klan informants and following old leads, he had found compelling evidence against Robert Chambliss — the first of the Cahaba Boys the Alabama attorney general’s office planned to prosecute for the church bombing — though Eddy was also certain of Cherry’s complicity.
Eddy came to Grand Prairie to persuade Cherry to talk; the case against Chambliss was good, but not airtight, and Eddy hoped that Cherry’s testimony could make the difference. The former Klansman seemed ill at ease when the two men met early one August afternoon in 1977 at the Grand Prairie police station, interrupting the conversation with sardonic laughter and reminding Eddy that he couldn’t stay long. They talked until ten o’clock that evening, however, and Eddy remains convinced that he narrowly missed persuading Cherry to come clean. “I told him, ‘Chambliss said he saw you walking down the alley [by the church] with the bomb,'” Eddy recalled, referring to information he had gotten from another investigator, “and Cherry turned white as a sheet.” Cherry left the police station that night tired and shaken, promising that he would sleep on Eddy’s request to testify for the state. But Cherry placed several calls that night to friends in Birmingham, who said that Chambliss had never spoken to Eddy. Angry that he had been tricked, Cherry phoned Eddy at his hotel and told the investigator he was through talking.
Chambliss was successfully prosecuted later that year and sentenced to life in prison, putting the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing back on the front pages of newspapers around the country. (He died in prison in 1985.) Attorney General Baxley vowed to pursue the four other Klansmen the FBI had originally suspected in the bombing but was forbidden by state law to seek a third term; his successor, Charles Graddick, did not pursue the case. “I’m one hundred percent sure of Cherry’s involvement: There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” said Baxley, who is now in private practice. “He’s mean and vicious and unrepentant, and it was devastating to realize that we were never going to get a chance to bring him to justice.” Eddy felt similarly defeated. He had returned with Baxley to Grand Prairie after Chambliss was indicted, warning Cherry that he could face a longer prison sentence for not cooperating with the investigation and making a final plea for his help. But Cherry had been unimpressed. “Go ahead and put me in jail — I don’t give a damn,” he spat at Eddy. “You ain’t got a thing on me.”
For the next eleven years, Cherry lived a quiet life in the Dallas suburbs, though it seldom included Tom. In Grand Prairie, his father had not so much welcomed Tom back into his life as he had called upon him now and then when he needed a favor. Then in 1988 another Alabama attorney general, Don Siegelman, who is now governor, announced he was reopening the bombing case. That probe was short-lived, but the stress of three investigations had taken its toll: Cherry, then 58, suffered a heart attack later the same year. He radically altered his life once he was on the mend, selling his carpet-cleaning business in Grand Prairie and moving himself and his fifth wife, Myrtle, to the backwoods of Henderson County. Tom — this time accompanied by his wife and children — once again pulled up stakes and followed his father. East Texas, Tom hoped, held more promise.
BOBBY FRANK CHERRY’S HOUSE STANDS in a clearing, beside a dog shed and an American flag that hangs dispiritedly from a pole, his land marked by a No Trespassing sign stuck firmly in the red soil. Tom helped his father clear this property more than a decade ago, uprooting pines with a backhoe and hauling away dead wood; he built his own house a little ways down the road, so close to his father’s place that their yards back up to each other. Despite their proximity, the relationship between father and son has been as difficult as ever: Tom, now divorced, cannot remember the last time he and Bobby Frank Cherry shared a
Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Their peculiar relationship was instead dictated by the whims of the father, who could be warm to his son one moment and derisive the next. Though the two men occasionally fished together on nearby Cedar Creek Lake or passed the afternoon sitting on each other’s porch beneath the pines, Tom never became his father’s confidant, finding himself instead at the mercy of Cherry’s moods. “It was like a bad marriage,” Tom said. “We had our ups and downs, and we’d have it out with each other, but he was still Dad.”
The real test of the ties between father and son has proved to be the renewed FBI investigation: Neither man has ventured along the overgrown footpath that lies between their houses in more than a year, the distance seeming to grow as each day passes in silence. The impasse began not long after the Justice Department declared in 1997 that it was reopening the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing case in light of “new leads.” The announcement came one day after the release of Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls, a stirring film about the bombing victims that questioned why only one man had been prosecuted for their murders when it was widely believed that others were involved. Tom remembered feeling, upon hearing that his father had been named one of the renewed investigation’s prime suspects, the old sense of dread. “It brought back bitter memories,” he said. “It had been a shadow over the family for so long, and I figured then that we weren’t never going to be free from it.” His worry only deepened when his brothers and sisters, many of whom had made their peace with the old man, rallied behind Bobby Frank Cherry and soon demanded to know where Tom stood.
The FBI had meanwhile brought long-lost family members before a federal grand jury in Birmingham to tell damning stories about his father: Cherry’s third wife, Willadean Brogdon, testified that Cherry had boasted about the bombing; her daughter, Gloria LaDow, said that Cherry had bragged about lighting the fuse; Wayne Brogdon, Willadean’s brother, told the grand jury that Cherry had recounted how he made the bomb. Even Tom’s own daughter, Teresa Stacy, testified that she had heard Cherry speak about the bombing. “I heard my grandpa talk about it when I was ten or eleven years old,” Teresa explained this winter, sitting in her living room in the suburbs north of Fort Worth, while her two young children played at her feet. Now 24, she is straightforward about her dislike for Cherry, whom she claimed once molested her as a child. But she has few doubts about what she heard at a family gathering in the late eighties. “He was sitting out on the porch with my uncle Bobby and my uncle Wesley, talking about how he’d blown up a bunch of ‘niggers’ in Alabama. It’s sickening to think about. Four little baby girls dying, and your flesh and blood had something to do with it? Imagine how much those girls’ parents have suffered. They’ve got it ten times worse than that old bastard ever will.” Teresa holds no grudge against her father for his stubborn allegiance to Bobby Frank Cherry, only pity. “My father was deprived of love his whole life,” she observed. “He’s wanted to have a father so bad and so long that he’s willing to overlook anything. But in his heart, I think he knows the truth.”
Tom insists that he has never heard Bobby Frank speak of the bombing and cautions that his estranged relatives who have testified before the federal grand jury all have their own axes to grind. He will concede only that there are many “unanswered questions” that have troubled him over the course of the investigation. How much Tom knows, and how much he may not be saying, no one else can tell: For though he stood by his father’s side when Bobby Frank Cherry professed his innocence at a 1997 press conference — telling reporters that his father had become the victim of a “witch hunt” — Tom had known that his father’s story was flawed. Even then, he told me, his father’s alibi gave him pause: Bobby Frank Cherry claimed that he had stayed home the night before the bombing, when investigators believe dynamite was placed at the church, to care for his wife, who was suffering with cancer. But as far as Tom can remember, Virginia Cherry was not yet ill in 1963 and had not been diagnosed with cancer. Tom, however, could not muster up the conviction to say that perhaps his father might be guilty; instead, in conversations that spanned many winter afternoons, he vacillated between fiercely defending Bobby Frank Cherry one moment and doubting him the next. “If he’s guilty of hurting them kids,” Tom said at one point, “then he deserves what he gets. But if he’s not? I want to see credible evidence, not the hearsay of an ex-wife.”
Tom’s ambivalence recently led him back to Birmingham, where he read through the thousands of pages of FBI files on his father that have now been made public record. He spent several days in the windowless archives room that lies in the basement of the Birmingham Public Library, looking for clues in the unwieldy files that bore his father’s name. Though Tom reads laboriously, he pored over each page on which FBI agents had once tracked his father’s every move, smoothing out the old sheets of typing paper that had yellowed with age and searching for clues, hoping to uncover the secrets to his family’s past: Here lay his dead mother’s words, his father’s racist rants, the suspicions of the FBI’s lead investigators. The files left Tom with more questions than answers. “I used to say, ‘Leave it alone,’ but I can’t say that no more,” Tom said. “I was real confident that Dad had nothing to do with it and that the FBI was the bad guy. There were just some things in those files up there that disturbed me. I think this needs to be cleared up, once and for all.”
Bobby Frank Cherry stopped speaking to his son more than a year ago, angered over his belief that Tom was cooperating with the FBI. The last time they exchanged words, Tom remembered, his father had marched down the road to the end of his driveway, where he accused Tom of betrayal. “He thinks I’ve turned against him,” Tom said, his face filled with anguish. Tom insisted that he has only done what any good citizen would do: He has answered the FBI’s questions. “I don’t know enough to send my father to the penitentiary,” he said, “and I don’t want to send my father to the penitentiary.” The ensuing silence has devastated this loyal son, whose feelings for his father have long bordered on worship. Once boisterous and high-spirited, Tom is subdued now; when he talks about his father, the conversation is one of resignation and regret, his voice often breaking with emotion. “Dad’s the type, if you don’t agree with him on everything, you’re a son of a bitch,” he told me. “There’s nobody right but him. He’s right and he’s always right — never wrong — and you can’t convince him no different.”
The last time i saw Tom Cherry, it was a brisk winter day in Henderson County, where a sharp wind was blowing off Cedar Creek Lake and rustling through the trees. That afternoon, we sat at Tom’s kitchen table, as we had many times before, and spoke about his father. We could hear Bobby Frank Cherry chopping firewood in the distance, whistling to himself as he walked between the pines.
Tom tries not to think about the possibility of his father standing trial for murder, though everywhere he turns, there are reminders of the suspicions that have overshadowed this family for nearly forty years: As we sat talking at his kitchen table that winter afternoon, a tan Suburban with tinted windows drove slowly down the road beside Tom’s house, braking at the end of his front drive. Tom pulled back the curtain that covered one of his living room windows and studied the vehicle outside. No one ever emerged from the Suburban, and after ten minutes or so, it abruptly drove away. “This happens a couple times a month,” he said as he watched the Suburban disappear, his face ashen. “It’s an intimidation tactic. My phones were tapped for a while. I still get strange calls, hang-ups in the middle of the night.” Tom had no doubts that the onlookers had been the FBI. How forthcoming had Tom been with federal investigators? I wondered, curious about their evident interest in him. The answer is one only he knows for sure, though it was clear at that moment — when Tom looked fearfully out his window — that his father’s burden has now become his own.
There was one question that had been nagging me ever since we had begun talking about Bobby Frank Cherry. The catalog of his cruelties was staggering: He had beaten his wife, he had abandoned his children, and he had allegedly abused his granddaughter. He was suspected of having had a hand in one of the most heinous hate crimes in memory, one that had left four girls dead. Yet Tom remained by his side, hoping that his father might again walk along the once well-worn footpath between their houses and welcome Tom back into his life. Why, I asked him, did he remain so loyal?
Tom blinked back sudden tears. “He’s my father,” he replied.