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

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,

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week