Suspect convicted in Birmingham church bombing, closing case that galvanized civil rights movement

Wednesday, May 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ A racially mixed jury has closed the book on a deadly 1963 church bombing that galvanized the civil rights movement, offering a measure of vindication for this Southern city long tarred by racial violence.

Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, was found guilty Wednesday of helping set the bomb, which killed four black girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The crime shocked the nation and came just months after police in Birmingham used dogs and firehoses to drive back black marchers.

``I didn't think I would ever see this day,'' said Kelly Fikes, 79, who went to the scarred church on the day of the bombing and returned with his grandchildren after the verdict Wednesday night.

The echoes of the blast rippled through four decades of race relations and haunted those who despaired of ever bringing the girls' killers to justice. Cherry will be the last suspect tried in the case: Two other ex-Klansmen were convicted earlier and sent to prison, and a fourth suspect died without being charged.

Eunice Davis, sister of victim Cynthia Wesley, rocked in her seat and wept as Cherry was led out of the crowded courtroom in handcuffs. ``It's time. It's time,'' she said.

The jury deliberated for less than seven hours before finding Cherry guilty of first-degree murder.

Cherry was automatically sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. Asked by the judge if he had any comment, he stood and pointed directly at prosecutors.

``This whole bunch lied all the way through this thing,'' he said, his Southern drawl steady and clear in the courtroom. ``I told the truth. I don't know why I'm going to jail for nothing.''

The case is the latest from the turbulent civil rights era to be revived by prosecutors. Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963, and former Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers was convicted four years ago of the 1966 firebomb-killing of an NAACP leader.

But the church bombing was a galvanizing moment of the civil rights movement. Moderates could no longer remain silent, and the fight to topple segregation laws gained new momentum.

The explosion on Sept. 15, 1963, demolished an outside wall of the church and killed Wesley, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Addie Mae Collins, also 14.

In the years following the bombing, many in Birmingham thought the crime would go unpunished.

``I am moved that this trial ever happened at all,'' said Diane McWhorter, a Birmingham native and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the civil rights movement ``Carry Me Home.'' ``I thought it would never happen. For years that thought was absorbed in the bloodstream.''

Relatives of the girls cried and expressed relief after hearing the verdict.

``We feel like we can go on with our lives now,'' said Junie Collins Peavy, sister of Addie Mae.

Cherry's relatives huddled in the courtroom after the verdict, several with tears in their eyes. His lawyers left the courthouse without commenting on any possible appeal.

Cherry always denied involvement in the bombing, but prosecutors reopened the case in 1995 and found five estranged family members and acquaintances who said Cherry boasted of his involvement in the crime.

``He said he lit the fuse,'' testified ex-wife Willadean Brogdon.

Prosecutors also presented witnesses and secretly recorded tapes to show that Cherry was associated with ex-Klansmen Thomas Blanton Jr. and Robert ``Dynamite Bob'' Chambliss, the two men previously convicted in the bombing.

Four decades of pent up emotions spilled out on the sidewalk and street in front of the church Wednesday night as some 200 white and black residents sang civil rights songs and prayed in front of the church, which still has physical scars from the bombing.

``To me it's so wonderful that God is not going to let us down,'' the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights leader in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s, told the crowd.

The verdict came at the end of a weeklong trial that was filled with images from the nation's segregationist past, witnesses with admittedly faded memories but only circumstantial evidence against Cherry.

For years, it looked like none of the bombing suspects would be brought to court. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover concluded in 1965 that Birmingham's racial climate meant a guilty verdict was highly unlikely, and the government closed the case in 1968 without any charges.

A state investigation was reopened in the 1970s, and Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to life. He died behind bars.

Federal authorities reopened the case in 1995 at the urging of black ministers. Cherry and Blanton were indicted in 2000, and Blanton was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment last year.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery of Atlanta, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., recalled how he arrived in Birmingham a year after the bombing and began ministry around the corner from the devastated church.

``It substitutes an exclamation point for a question mark that was at the end of a long sentence,'' Lowery said of the Cherry verdict. ``I hope it gives some comfort to the parents and loved ones of those four beautiful little girls.''