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Archive for Thursday, June 27, 2002

Son overcomes sins of father

June 27, 2002

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Finally, it all comes down to the one obvious question: Did your daddy do it? Do you believe he was part of the conspiracy that planted the bomb in that Birmingham church 39 years ago? The bomb that killed four little black girls.

"I don't want to get off into that," Tom Cherry tells me. His voice is a thin, good ol' boy twang at the other end of a bad long-distance connection.

"It's not to avoid the question," he continues. "It's just a personal thing. I've made it a point not to give my opinion one way or another. I think it would be better to just stay by that."

I don't push the issue because for all practical purposes, it doesn't matter. A jury says Cherry's father did it and ultimately that opinion trumps all others. Last month, 71-year-old Bobby Frank Cherry, a former truck driver and Ku Klux Klansman, was sentenced to spend what remains of his life behind bars for the bombing.

His oldest child is 49, a trucker and a four-time loser in marriage who lives in a small Texas town. And he's one other thing, too. He's the reason part of the reason, at least his daddy is behind bars. For years, Tom was the old man's alibi, always telling authorities that, yes, he and his father were home watching television and caring for his sick mother the night Bobby Frank was supposedly making the bomb. The prosecution finally got its conviction when Tom finally tired of telling that lie.

The FX network aired a movie about it in January. "Sins of the Father," starring Tom Sizemore as Tom Cherry and Ving Rhames as a black man whose friendship nudges him to do the right thing. Cherry says the movie it was released last week on DVD and video is "99 percent" accurate." In which case, it's remarkable that Cherry ever reached the point that he would regard a black man as a friend.

After all, as depicted by the movie, Cherry's father was a racist bully who nurtured in Tom from his youngest days a hatred of black people. "I had that attitude up until I was 22, 23, 24 years old," he tells me. "I really don't know what changed. I was going to the Klan briefly in Mississippi. Just being around a bunch of people that had racial tones, that had no couth about them at all, no respect for anybody ... it just wasn't my bag of tea. I cut loose."

He has no relationship with his father now. Nor with his sisters and brothers.

"They think pretty much the same way dad did. They have this sense that you stand by your family no matter what, right, wrong or indifferent. I just don't have that conviction."

I ask if he misses them. "I do," he says. "But the family's never been real close. Always been on the outs, up and down."

The conviction of Cherry's father closed the books on one of the most heinous crimes of the civil rights era. Three men went to jail for it, a fourth died without ever being tried.

But as Cherry points out, "There was more than four people involved. When you're supported by the government, your neighbors, your friends, the police, it's like your buddy driving you over to rob the bank, he's an accomplice. Nearly everybody in Alabama was an accomplice."

Listening to him, I'm reminded of all the weasel words of recent years, all the blame-shifting, excuse-making and misbehavior-justifying from priests and presidents, business leaders and high school students, who would have you believe that is difficult, a real puzzler, a major conundrum, to know what is moral anymore. And sometimes it is hard, I'll give them that.

But other times I daresay, most times the difficulty isn't in knowing the moral thing. The difficulty is in having the guts to do it.

This is the lesson we are taught here by the Klansman's son.

I ask if, given what it has cost him, he ever regrets what he did.

He says, "Why do you regret if you do something right?"




Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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