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Nashville Scene Truth in Alabama

A tale of old men and little girls

By Margaret Renkl

MAY 29, 2000:  Sometimes, to ward off impatience when I'm standing in line behind a really old person in the grocery store, waiting my turn as he hunts with his gnarled hand for the lone can of tuna in the bottom of his cart, I try to imagine what he was like as a young man. Could he swing an ax with power, bound up the steps of a train already pulling out of the station, make love several times a night? Looking at a stooped old man picking fretfully at the little pills on his sweater, I find it hard to imagine. But I know he probably did.

I have a tendency to romanticize the elderly, to imagine that they are all Willy Lomans whose curtain went down before the final act was quite finished. So I find it almost impossible to imagine that some of these old people actually weren't decent-hearted Everymen who worked hard at their jobs and loved their wives and did their best for their kids. Some of them humiliated their wives and beat their children and cheated their employers and shot stray dogs for fun. And some of them did a whole lot worse than that--things I desperately don't want to imagine, though there are times when I know I must.

Last week was one of those times. When I first looked at pictures of Bobby Frank Cherry--one of the two men indicted last Wednesday for the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where I grew up--what I saw was a weak old man. At 69 and suffering from a heart condition, Bobby Frank Cherry seems much older than he really is. He looks as harmless as a child.

When you see Cherry's picture today, printed on the same newspaper page as the pictures of the four little girls who died in the bomb he's accused of setting, it's hard to say who looks more vulnerable--the weak old man in handcuffs, or those beautiful, vibrant young girls who never got their chance to grow old and frail.

A jury will have to decide whether Bobby Frank Cherry really did help plant 10 sticks of dynamite outside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. But despite his denial of these specific charges, it's a fact that he was anything but harmless in 1963. In more than 5,000 pages of FBI interviews between 1963 and 1965, Cherry and his buddy Thomas E. Blanton Jr.--also indicted last Wednesday--confess to being former Klansmen. They confess to hating blacks, Jews, and Catholics so virulently that they formed their own klavern, the Cahaba Boys, so they could operate with more control than they'd had in the larger klavern where they'd met, and which had already claimed responsibility for most of the race violence in Birmingham in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It sure looks now like the Cahaba Boys were hell-bent on out-Klanning the Klan itself.

Cherry and Blanton are tired old men now, and Birmingham is a different town. But that's about the only difference between the case now and then. An FBI report dating back to 1965 identified Cherry, Blanton, "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss (who alone was eventually convicted of the crime in 1977), and a fourth suspect, now dead, as the church bombers. But J. Edgar Hoover himself blocked any action on the report.

Between Sept. 15, 1963, when four little girls died getting ready for Sunday school, and May 17, 2000, when the last living suspects were indicted, 10,494 days passed. But it didn't take 10,494 days to find out who planted that bomb. Within minutes of its explosion, police and federal agents in Birmingham knew who to look for. Given that a sizable portion of the Birmingham police force in 1963 were active members of the Klan or covert Klan sympathizers, it wouldn't be too great a stretch to say that some of those authorities knew about that bomb before it even went off, while four little girls were standing before a basement bathroom mirror, fixing their hair.

What makes it possible to try Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton now, 36 years after a bomb planted in hate killed four children preparing for a Sunday school program called "The Love That Forgives," isn't new evidence in a very old case. What makes it possible is that Birmingham, Ala., is a different world now than it was 36 years ago. Imperfect as it still is, it's a world that could only have been imagined in 1963.

In 1963, there was no real point in bringing to trial even the most viciously outspoken Klansmen, because in 1963 no all-white jury would have convicted them; in hate crimes tried in the South in the '60s, defendants routinely went free, even defendants who'd boasted out loud of committing the very crimes they were acquitted of. It's hard to explain that now. Perhaps out of the same willful ignorance that kept Germans around Belsen from recognizing the stench of incinerated human flesh, or perhaps out of fear of Klan retaliation, white citizens didn't seem capable in 1963 of convicting racists. Maybe they couldn't do it because they were all racists themselves, propping up a system that provided cheap labor and an easy way to feel superior. It's a fair argument.

But I like to think most folks weren't that cruel, or even that self-interested. I like to think that for them it was really, in the end, a failure of imagination. Somehow they just weren't able to imagine what it felt like to be black, what it felt like to live in fear, to live with the exhaustion and the shame of not being able to take an empty seat at the front of the bus.

When the Cahaba Boys blew up the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed four beautiful little girls, ordinary white people finally had to start hearing what all those black people were saying in their boycotts and their marches and their church sermons. White people might not have been able to imagine that water tastes different when it comes from a fountain marked "COLORED," but they could sure imagine how it felt to lose a child. They could watch on television the weeping mothers at the funeral of their daughters--little girls in white dresses who would never grow up to know the taste of a lunch-counter hamburger, or the feel of a jury bench, or the sound of respect when someone says "Yes, Ma'am"--and they could begin to understand, just a little, what a monstrous, malignant horror they had in their silence allowed to grow. And because they could imagine, they could begin, slowly, to understand.

And that's why, 36 years later, all the white people watching these trials are going to have to work hard to keep from saying things like, "Gosh, aren't we past all that? Can't we just leave those sick old guys alone, leave the past safely in the past?" They're going to have to work hard to see past the bleary eyes and the gnarled hands and the quavering voices of the old men Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton are now, to the glittering-eyed hate that animated their ugly and twisted youth, to the unfounded anger that blasted the lives of four innocent black families forever.

Because, when all is said and done, those little girls did not give their lives so white people could understand the magnitude of black people's suffering. They were little kids murdered in an inexplicable act of brute violence. Until all the murderers from Birmingham are tried and convicted, there will be no justice for the families of those children. And until there's justice for the grieving, we will never be past all that. When you look at the pictures of those four little girls, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand why.

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