Bobby Frank Cherry
(June 20, 1930 in Mineral Springs, Alabama - November
18, 2004 at Kilby Correctional Facility, Montgomery) was
convicted in 2002 for the 16th Street Baptist Church
bombing, which killed four African-American girls.
Cherry was a former truck driver and resident of Texas.
Cherry was a member of United Klans
of America, a Ku Klux Klan group. Though Cherry publicly
denied his involvement in the 1963 crime, relatives and
friends testified that he "bragged" about being part of
the bombing and his ex-wife testified, "He said he lit
During the trial prosecutors "showed
the jury a videotape of a white mob beating local civil
rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth." At one point "Prosecutors
froze the film as a slender white man with a bulbous
nose, wavy hair and a cigarette dangling from his mouth
-- unmistakably a young Bobby Frank Cherry -- was seen
slamming his fist into the minister's head after pulling
what appeared to be a set of brass knuckles from his
Birmingham Bomber Bobby Frank
Cherry Dies in Prison at 74
By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb - The
Friday, November 19, 2004
Bobby Frank Cherry, 74, the last suspect to be
convicted in the killing of four black girls in the 1963 bombing of a
Birmingham church, died Nov. 18 in an Alabama prison, authorities said.
He had cancer.
The Sunday morning bombing of the Sixteenth Street
Baptist Church, which was called the deadliest crime of the civil rights
era, shocked the nation. But years would pass before anyone would be
brought to justice.
Mr. Cherry was convicted in May 2002 of four counts
of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Two other former Ku Klux Klan
members also were convicted in separate trials in the Sept. 15, 1963,
explosion, which killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia
Wesley, all 14, and 11-year-old Denise McNair.
Thomas Blanton, convicted in 2001, is serving a life
sentence. Robert Chambliss was the first to be convicted, in 1977. He
died in prison. A fourth man died before being charged.
After nearly 40 years, the case was brought to an end
with Mr. Cherry's conviction. The girls had been in the basement of the
church preparing for the service when an explosion collapsed the
building's lower floor and blew out all the windows in the sanctuary
except for a stained-glass window.
Mr. Cherry, a former truck driver,
moved to Texas in the early 1970s. He found work as a clerk, a welder
and a cabdriver. He reportedly had been married five times and had 15
children. He was brought back to Alabama to stand trial.
During his week-long trial in a Birmingham courtroom,
Mr. Cherry was portrayed as a violent racist who thought he could turn
back the civil rights movement by bombing the downtown church, an
organizing base for civil rights demonstrators determined to integrate
the racially divided city. Public schools in the city had been
integrated days earlier after a federal court order was issued.
A jury of nine whites and three blacks convicted Mr.
Cherry after listening to testimony from his estranged relatives and
newly discovered FBI files. After the verdict was read, Mr. Cherry
continued to maintain his innocence.
"This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing,"
he said when Circuit Judge James Garrett asked him whether he had
anything to say. "Now, I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing. I
didn't do anything."
Mr. Cherry and the three other Klansmen were
suspected within days of the bombing. They were known for their violent
behavior. But the case faltered after 1965, when FBI Director J. Edgar
Hoover refused to pursue it.
Twelve more years would pass before Alabama Attorney
General Bill Baxley completed a seven-year investigation, which resulted
in the conviction of Chambliss, who was considered the gang leader.
The case received renewed attention in 1993, when an
FBI agent in the Birmingham office recovered more than 9,000 FBI
documents and surveillance tapes that had not been shared with
Several of Mr. Cherry's relatives, including an ex-wife
and a granddaughter, testified against him, saying he boasted about the
During the trial, the ex-wife testified, "He said he
lit the fuse."
At one point in Mr. Cherry's trial, prosecutors
showed the jury a videotape of a white mob beating local civil rights
leader Fred Shuttlesworth.
A story in The Washington Post described the scene: "Prosecutors
froze the film as a slender white man with a bulbous nose, wavy hair and
a cigarette dangling from his mouth -- unmistakably a young Bobby Frank
Cherry -- was seen slamming his fist into the minister's head after
pulling what appeared to be a set of brass knuckles from his back pocket."
In 2002, a television drama was made based on Mr.
Cherry's involvement in the bombing. It was called "Sins of the Father."
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing
From Jessica McElrath
The Murder of Four Girls
On the early Sunday morning of September 15, 1963, Ku
Klux Klan member, Robert Edward Chambliss stood a few blocks away from
the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. On this
morning, five girls were changing into their choir robes in the church
At 10:19 a.m., a bomb exploded, killing four of the
girls and injuring twenty people. The four girls who died were eleven-year
old Denise McNair, and fourteen year olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole
Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.
The Significance of the 16th Street Baptist Church
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had served as an
important part of the African-American community and was used as a
meeting place during the civil rights movement.
The church was used for mass rallies and Martin
Luther King Jr. was among the many leaders who spoke at these events. It
had also been the headquarters for several desegregation protests. When
the church was bombed, it was a sign of the hostility that
segregationists had against the civil rights struggle.
The Aftermath of the Bombing
While the bomb came as a surprise, bomb threats had
been made in the past. In those instances, the church had been able to
take special precautions. This time, no threat had been made. The
explosion blew a hole in the east side of the church. It shattered
windows, walls, doors, and the air was filled with a thick cloud of dust
and soot. As community members dug through the debris in search of
survivors, they discovered the bodies of the four victims.
Grief was not only felt in the African American
community, but white strangers expressed their sympathy to the families
of the four girls. At the funeral of three of the girls, Martin Luther
King gave the eulogy, which was witnessed by 8,000 mourners, both white
The Investigation into the Bombing
The FBI led the initial investigation into the
bombing. According to a 1965 FBI memorandum to director J. Edgar Hoover,
it was determined that Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman
Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton Jr. had planted the bomb.
Based on the investigation, the Birmingham FBI office
recommended prosecuting the suspects. Hoover, however, blocked their
prosecution by rejecting the recommendation that the federal prosecutor
receive the testimony that identified the suspects. By 1968, charges had
not been filed and the FBI closed the case.
In 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley,
reopened the case. On November 18, 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted
of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The case was again reopened
in 1988 and in July 1997, after the FBI received a tip. Herman Frank
Cash was still one of the prime suspects, but before a case could be
established against him, he died in 1994.
On May 17, 2000, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank
Cherry were charged with the murder of the four girls. Blanton was tried,
convicted, and sentenced to life in prison on May 1, 2001. For the
jurors who convicted him, the 1964 taped conversations that the FBI
secretly recorded, weighed heavily on their decision.
The tapes had
remained secret until 1997, when the case was reopened. In one recorded
conversation that took place between Blanton and his wife, Blanton told
her that he was at the Klan meeting where both the bombing was planned
and the bomb was made.
In another recorded conversation, Blanton spoke
about the bombing to an FBI informant while driving in a car. For the
jurors, the taped conversations provided enough evidence to convict
Blanton of murder.
Bobby Frank Cherry's trial was postponed after the judge ruled that he
was mentally incompetent to assist his attorney. After Cherry was found
competent to stand trail, on May 22, 2002 he was found guilty of four
counts of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. For the family and
friends of the four murdered girls, the conviction of Blanton and Cherry
was a long awaited victory.
The 16th Street Baptist Church
bombing was a racially motivated terrorist incident
at 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, in
the United States. It was a turning-point in the U.S.
civil-rights movement of the mid 20th century.
The attack was intended to instill
fear in those supporting equal civil rights without
regard to race. Instead, it caused public outrage and
spurred the civil-rights movement to further success.
The three-story 16th Street Baptist
Church was a rallying point for civil-rights activities.
In the early morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, the
church's Youth Day, United Klans of America, a Ku Klux
Klan group, members Bobby Frank Cherry, Thomas Blanton
and Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss planted 19 sticks of
dynamite in the basement of the church. Chambliss was
also convicted of having 122 sticks of dynamite without
At about 10:25 a.m., when 26 children
were walking into the basement assembly room for closing
prayers after a sermon entitled "The Love That Forgives,"
the bombs exploded. Four girls—Addie Mae Collins (aged
14), Denise McNair (11), Carole Robertson (14), and
Cynthia Wesley (14)—were killed in the blast, and 22
more were injured.
The explosion blew a hole in the
church's rear wall, destroyed the back steps, and left
intact only the frames of all but one stained-glass
window. The lone window that survived the concussion was
one in which Jesus Christ was depicted leading young
children, although Christ's face was destroyed. In
addition, five cars behind the church were damaged, two
of them completely destroyed, while windows in the
laundry across the street were blown out.
Born November 17, 1951, Denise
McNair was the first child of photo shop owner
Chris and schoolteacher Maxine McNair. Her playmates
called her Niecie. A pupil at Center Street
Elementary School, she had many friends. She held
tea parties, was a member of the Brownies, and
played baseball. She helped raise money to support
muscular dystrophy by creating plays, dance routines,
and poetry readings. These events became an annual
event. People gathered in the yard to watch the show
in Denise’s carport, the main stage. Children
donated their pennies, dimes, and nickels. Denise
was a schoolmate and friend of Secretary of State
Born April 30, 1949, Cynthia
Wesley was the first adopted daughter of Claude
and Gertrude Wesley, who were both teachers. Her
mother made her clothes because of her petite size.
Cynthia went to school at Ullman High School, which
no longer exists. She excelled in math, reading, and
band. Cynthia held parties in her backyard for all
her friends. Upon Cynthia’s death she was so
mutilated the only way to identify her was by the
ring she wore, which was recognized by her father.
Carole Robertson was born
April 24, 1949. She was the third child of Alpha and
Alvin Robertson. Her sister was Dianne and her
brother was Alvin. Her father was a band master at
the local elementary school. Her mother was a
librarian, avid reader, dancer, and clarinet player.
Carole, like her mother, enjoyed reading. She
excelled at school and was a straight-A student, a
member of Parker High School marching band and
science club. She was also a Girl Scout and belonged
to Jack and Jill of America. When she was at
Wilkerson Elementary School she sang in the choir.
Her legacy helped create the Carole Robertson Center
for Learning in Chicago, a social service agency
that serves children and their families.
Addie Mae Collins was born
April 18, 1949, the daughter of Oscar and Alice. Her
father was a janitor and her mother a homemaker. She
was one of seven children. Addie was the peacemaker
between the bunch. She was also an avid softball
player. A youth center dedicated to Addie and her
ideals was created in Alabama.
Outrage at the bombing and the grief
that followed resulted in violence across Birmingham,
with two more African-American youths dead by the end of
the day. Sixteen year-old Johnnie Robinson was shot and
killed by police after throwing stones at cars with
white people inside, while 13-year-old Virgil Ware was
killed by two whites riding on a motor scooter.
Three days after the tragedy, former
Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor further
inflamed matters by saying to a crowd of 2,500 people at
a Citizen's Council meeting, "If you're going to blame
anyone for getting those children killed in Birmingham,
it's your Supreme Court." Connor recalled that in 1954,
after the Brown v. Board of Education decision
had been reached, he said, "You're going to have
bloodshed, and it's on them (the Court), not us." He
also proposed that African-Americans may have set the
bomb deliberately to provoke an emotional response,
saying, "I wouldn't say it's above (Dr. Martin Luther)
Investigation and prosecution
Chambliss was initially charged for
the murders, but there was no conviction at first. Years
later it was found that the FBI had accumulated evidence
against the bombers that had not been revealed to the
prosecutors, by order of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
In 1977, Chambliss was prosecuted by Alabama Attorney-General
Bill Baxley and was convicted for the four murders and
sentenced to several terms of life imprisonment. He died
in prison in 1985.
After reopening the case several
times, the FBI in 2000 assisted the state authorities in
bringing charges against Cherry and Thomas Blanton.
Blanton and Cherry were convicted by state court juries
of all four murders and sentenced to life in prison.
Though Cherry publicly denied involvement, relatives and
friends testified that he "bragged" about being part of
the bombing, and his ex-wife testified, "He said he lit
"Following the tragic event, white
strangers visited the grieving families to express their
sorrow. At the funeral for three of the girls (one
family preferred a separate, private funeral), Martin
Luther King, Jr., spoke about life being "as hard as
crucible steel." More than 8,000 mourners, including 800
clergymen of both races, attended the service.
The song "Birmingham Sunday",
composed by Richard Farina and recorded by Joan Baez,
chronicled the events and aftermath of the bombing.
The song "Mississippi Goddam" was
composed and sung by Nina Simone in reaction to the
A 1997 documentary about the
bombing, 4 Little Girls, directed by Spike
Lee, was nominated for an Academy Award for "Best
The song "Alabama' on John
Coltrane's Live at Birdland (recorded
November 18, 1963) served as an elegy to the bombing.
The song "Ronnie & Neil" on
Drive-By Truckers' double album, Southern Rock
Opera references the event in the opening line
of the song, "Church blows up in Birmingham/ Four
little black girls killed/ For no goddamned good
The novel The Watsons Go to
Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
mentions very vividly the events of the bombing.
The poem "The Ballad of
Birmingham" by Dudley Randall
The song "American Guernica" by
A 2002 television drama Sins
of the Father, directed by Robert Dornhelm, is
based on the events of the bombing.
Branch, Taylor (1988). Parting the Waters:
America in the King Years, 1954 -1963. New York:
Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-68742-5.
Sikora, Frank (April 1991). Until Justice Rolls
Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case.
Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press. ISBN
Cobbs, Elizabeth H.; Smith, Petric J. (April 1994).
Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the
Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World.
Birmingham, AL: Crane Hill. ISBN 1-881548-10-4.
Hamlin, Christopher M.: 1998, Behind the Stained
Glass: A History of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,
Crane Hill Publishers, Birmingham, AL