Tom Cherry and his father Bobby Frank Cherry are separated by 200 ft. and four ghosts. The Cherrys both hail from Birmingham, Ala., but the family pulled up roots in 1971. Too many secrets, too many whispers. "It was time to leave that place," says Tom, 47. "Every time you turned around, some Cherry was getting into trouble--because of the name." Now Tom lives in Mabank, Texas, a tiny town of about 2,000 souls buried deep in the piney woods 50 miles southeast of Dallas. His father lives nearby--Tom can see Bobby's place from his front porch--but the two haven't talked in two years. Not since Tom and his daughter started talking to grand juries and FBI agents, angering kinfolk and reopening old wounds. At one point, when father met son, says Tom, "he jumped on me" and then "started name-calling my kids in the papers." Says Tom: "Right now is not a happy time. I'm the one he seems to be blaming."
The Cherrys, it appears, pulled up dirt with their roots. Last week it was old mud when Bobby Frank Cherry, 69, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr., 61, both former Ku Klux Klansmen, were indicted by an Alabama grand jury on murder charges stemming from the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four black girls at Sunday school. Both men maintain their innocence. The attack was one of the most horrific crimes of the civil rights era, but only one suspect in the case, Robert E. Chambliss--who was convicted of murder in 1977 and died in jail in 1985--had been brought to justice. The involvement of several others had long been suspected.
Tom Cherry has testified to an Alabama grand jury about his father but, having been warned by prosecutors, is careful not to repeat his testimony. All he says is that on the night the dynamite was planted, he was with his father at a shop where Klansmen made rebel signs. "When you're called in on a subpoena and asked what you know...I can only tell them where he was at." He is anguished over his father, but he is also haunted by the bombing. "There never was a family get-together where someone wouldn't mention it," says Tom. Once he asked the FBI to show him the pictures from the church. "Anytime you see a kid that, you know, was decapitated..." His voice trails off.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church has been under investigation by law-enforcement officials, off and on, for almost four decades. Within days of the bombing, four men--Cherry, Blanton, Chambliss and Herman Frank Cash--were considered prime suspects. But according to some officials, witness statements were hard to come by. First there was the fear: If a person were to testify, would there be reprisals? Then there was hopelessness: Would a court in segregationist Alabama really do justice? And then there were the cops. During the '60s, the Klan had ears and eyes and tongues within the local police force. Nonetheless, after two years, FBI agents felt they had a strong case but said J. Edgar Hoover and his senior administrators blocked them from sharing their findings with prosecutors.