Conviction in bombing of church brings only a measure of justice

May 26, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

BOBBY FRANK Cherry was convicted of murder Wednesday, so why am I not a happy man?

Cherry is the man who, with Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton Jr. and a fourth despicable worm who died before a good district attorney could get hold of him, bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963. Four girls - Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, all 14, and 11-year-old Denise McNair - were killed in the blast.

The girls were African-Americans, members of a church that had become the hub of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. Cherry, Chambliss and Blanton were members of the Ku Klux Klan, at one time America's most deeply cherished terrorist group.

KKK members were the shock troops used in the campaign of state terrorism throughout the South designed to keep blacks subjugated and submissive. In September 1963, Blanton, Chambliss and Cherry figured that bombing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church would strike a blow for state's rights, segregation and white supremacy in one fell swoop. All they did was bring about the demise of all three of those things much more rapidly.

I was a seventh-grader at Harlem Park Junior High School here in Baltimore when I read newspaper accounts of the bombing on Monday, Sept. 16, 1963. I may not have recovered from the depression, the shock, the devastating psychological impact the deaths of Collins, Wesley, Robertson and McNair had on me.

The most galling part about the bombing was that I knew, as most African-Americans of the time knew, that the men who committed this crime would never be brought to justice. Southern juries at the time had a habit of acquitting whites who had committed even the vilest acts against blacks.

Some would say justice was served when Chambliss was convicted in 1977. He died in prison. Blanton was convicted in May last year at the age of 62. Cherry is 71, probably with one foot in the grave and the other on a sheet of ice. For 38 years, Blanton and Cherry walked around free, able to enjoy their lives while the families of Collins, Wesley, Robertson and McNair had to relive the horror of that day in 1963.

For my money, that's not justice. That's a joke. A measure of justice might be possible if Blanton and Cherry were to be executed - like, tomorrow. But that won't happen. Both have been sentenced to life in prison.

What will happen is that Cherry is likely to live a few more years, tormenting those of us who still haven't gotten over Sept. 15, 1963, with his protestations of innocence.

"I told the truth," Cherry told reporters Wednesday after being convicted. "I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing."

Well, for being a jerk who can't keep his mouth shut, for one thing. In the trials of Blanton and Cherry, the prosecution played FBI tapes of both men bragging to an informant about their role in the bombing.

And, for being such a despicable jerk that even his granddaughter dimed him out.

Teresa Stacy, the daughter of Cherry's son Tom Cherry, testified during the trial that when she was between 9 and 11 years old, her grandfather boasted of how "he helped blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham." Stacy said her granddad "seemed rather jovial, braggish."

In a 1999 interview, Cherry called Stacy a "dope head." Stacy acknowledged that she had been in drug rehab for using cocaine. If I had a grandfather like hers, I'd be using the stuff myself. And in large quantities.

How revolting do you have to be for your granddaughter to turn on you? Cherry's attorneys referred to him as a "racist cockroach," according to a New York Daily News story, but urged the jury "not to convict him for his views."

It's not Cherry's views that brought him low. It was his hubris. His lawyers contend witnesses lied about his comments to family members and FBI informants. But Cherry made them. In the Alabama of 1963, with a governor who, through his "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" rhetoric gave a sly wink to KKK terror and violence, Cherry, Blanton and Chambliss had every reason to believe their comments wouldn't hurt them. They believed they'd get away with their crime.

For most of their lives, they did. So only a measure of justice was achieved Wednesday.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.