Witnesses Recall 1963 Church Bombing

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Witnesses recalled the horror and destruction of a Sunday morning in 1963 as a former Klansman went on trial for his alleged role in a deadly church bombing that marked the worst act of violence in the civil rights era.

``It was just an awful sound, like something shaking the world all over,'' said Alpha Robertson, the mother of victim Carole Robertson.

Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, is on trial for murder in connection with the blast at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four black girls. Cherry could get life in prison if convicted.

Defense attorney Mickey Johnson said most of the state's case against Cherry is based on the testimony of ``inherently unreliable'' witnesses and on information the FBI received in 1964 from a witness who he said later changed her story.

Prosecutors called several witnesses on the first day of testimony Tuesday as they tried to recreate the suffering that occurred on Sept. 15, 1963.

``It was the most horrible noise I ever heard. Things got dark and black and something hit me in the head. I thought the Russians had bombed Alabama,'' said Barbara Ann Cross, who was 16 at the time and had earlier sat through the same Sunday School lesson with three of the victims.

Another witness, Bobby Birdwell, told jurors that he saw what looked like a white Klan robe, with eye holes in the mask, on a sofa at the home of Cherry several days before the bombing. Birdwell, 11 at the time, said he saw four men sitting at a kitchen table and ``heard them mention `bomb' and 'Sixteenth Street.'''

Asked why he didn't report hearing the conversation until 1997, Birdwell testified that he was afraid to say anything at the time.

``I was scared. There was a lot going on back then — a lot of hatred,'' Birdwell said.

Wearing an olive green suit, Cherry sat quietly and showed no emotion as prosecutors described him as part of a small group of violent Klansmen angry over the integration of Birmingham schools.

The bombing came five days after the first black students entered city schools and at the end of a long summer of nonviolent demonstrations by blacks seeking the right to use public facilities like water fountains and lunch counters.

During opening statements earlier Tuesday, prosecutor Robert Posey said Cherry often boasted of killing the four girls in the blast, which went off as the girls were in a downstairs lounge preparing to participate in a Sunday worship service.

``He has worn this crime on his chest like a badge of honor,'' Posey told the mostly white jury. ``He said his only regret was that more people hadn't died in this bombing.''

Johnson disputed that his client made such remarks.

``He did not say this,'' he said.

The bombing was the worst act of violence against the Civil Rights Movement and the most horrific of a series of bombings that rocked Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s.

Killed in the 1963 blast were Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, and Denise McNair, 11.

Cherry's trial is expected to be the final one in a case that has haunted Birmingham for 39 years.

Cherry, a trucker who later moved to Mabank, Texas, and another ex-Klansman, Thomas Blanton Jr., were indicted on murder charges two years ago. Blanton was convicted last year and is serving life.

Another Klansman, Robert ``Dynamite Bob'' Chambliss, was convicted in the bombing in 1977 and died in prison. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died without being charged.

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