In 1963, four African-American girls were murdered in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Now the granddaughter of one of the bombers—and the sisters of a victim—confront Alabama’s racist legacy.
Originally published in Glamour.
TERESA STACY WAS STANDING IN HER KITCHEN on a hot Texas afternoon in 1997 when the local television news came on. It was one of those July days when the temperature starts inching up at sunrise and eventually reaches 100 degrees, and Stacy had just put her 18-month-old son, Matthew, down for a nap. She was washing dishes in her air-conditioned home in Keller, a suburb of Fort Worth, when the TV caught her attention.
A newscaster announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had reopened its probe into the deadliest incident of the civil rights era—the September 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that took the lives of four young black girls preparing to usher the Sunday service. Then a white man in his sixties wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a cowboy hat appeared on the screen and denied responsibility for the bombing. “Lord have mercy,” he was saying. “I feel sorry for them, but I didn’t have nothing to do with that.” Stacy recognized the voice: Growing up, she had heard it many times on the front porch of a trailer deep in the east Texas woods. She looked up. Yes, it was him—the same thin lips, the same bulbous nose. The same man who used to go pontooning and flea marketing with her when she was a child. Without hesitation, Stacy picked up the phone and dialed the television station. “I just saw your piece on Bobby Frank Cherry, and I’m his granddaughter,” she said. “I just want to tell you all that he’s lying through his teeth.”
Stacy, now 24, hadn’t even been born when white supremacists blew up the church, the central gathering point for civil rights activists in what Martin Luther King Jr. called the world’s “most segregated city.” But after growing up with relatives who hated minorities—and, as a girl, sometimes sharing those feelings—Stacy has spent her adult life trying to cleanse herself of her family’s racist legacy. Meanwhile, 700 miles away, two other young women have also been shadowed by the tragedy: Lisa and Kim McNair, the sisters of the youngest bombing victim. The McNairs’ lives were forever shaped by the death of the older sister they never met, and whom they have come to know only in recent years as a grand jury indictment has brought the bombing back into America’s national consciousness.
UNTIL A DYNAMITE BLAST SHATTERED the tranquility of that fall morning in 1963, few Americans had paid attention to the violence and discrimination black Southerners faced. But after four young girls were crushed under the rubble of that Sunday explosion, it was impossible to keep looking away. “The bombing changed the course of the civil rights movement,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks hate-group violence. “When they saw the young girls’ bodies, even disinterested Northerners had to feel something.”
Yet while the bombing stirred the emotions of millions of Americans, it couldn’t stir the criminal justice system to apprehend the killers. It took until 1977 for then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley to prosecute the man first accused of blowing up the church. On what would have been the day after victim Denise McNair’s 26th birthday, a jury convicted Robert Chambliss, a 73-year-old former member of the Ku Klux Klan, of first-degree murder. Elizabeth Cobbs, Chambliss’ niece, testified at his trial that he had planned the bombing in response to the growing outspokenness of black activists. “You just wait till after Sunday morning,” he had told her. “They’ll beg us to let them segregate.”
But officials were convinced that Chambliss didn’t act alone, and in 1998 a grand jury started hearing evidence against Teresa Stacy’s grandfather, Bobby Frank Cherry, and Thomas Blanton Jr. Then, last May, federal and state officials announced a breakthrough in the case: They had won murder indictments against Cherry and Blanton. Both men turned themselves in to Birmingham’s Jefferson County Jail, but maintained their innocence. For Cherry, this was only his latest trouble; in April police had arrested him on sexual assault charges (still pending as Glamour went to press) involving his former stepdaughter.
The Birmingham bombing is just one of many race-crime cases being dusted off after decades. Prosecutors are feeling a greater urgency to bring guilty parties to justice—because a decade from now many of the criminals will have died—and witnesses have become less fearful of testifying against perpetrators. “The climate in the 1960s in the South made it very difficult to get successful prosecutions,” says Doug Jones, the attorney who helped reopen the Birmingham case. “With the passage of time and the change in attitudes, there’s a whole generation who grew up with a lot of open wounds and are trying to heal those wounds.” Racism has given way to a desire to see justice done. “I’m hopeful that they’ll push it to its just conclusion—which would be putting more people in jail,” says Baxley.
IT’S A WARM APRIL AFTERNOON, and Stacy is surrounded by reminders of the comfortable life she shares with her husband, Matt, a 26-year-old salesman for his family’s successful carpet business. Her one-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, is sprawled on the sofa, and her son Matthew, now four, peeks out of his bedroom. “Matthew, what are you doing, honey?” Stacy asks him. “You’re supposed to be taking a nap.” Willowy and energetic, Stacy is in constant nervous motion. She talks through a clenched jaw, especially when remembering Bobby Frank Cherry.
“I thought he was a wonderful grandfather when I was younger,” she says, recalling his gentle ways. “We had this trick: Every time I tried to give him a kiss on the lips, he’d put his nose down and I’d have to kiss his nose.” Shortly after Alabama prosecutors reopened the bombing case in the early 1970s, Cherry moved to Texas; in the ’80s he and his fifth wife moved to the remote bottomlands of the eastern part of the state. As a girl, Stacy spent summers with her grandfather, chasing fireflies and frogs down by the lake in front of his trailer. When she was about 10, Stacy says, she heard her grandfather telling some other relatives about his days as an Alabama Klansman. “I remember them talking about ‘blowing up a bunch of niggers.’ They said something about a church and Martin Luther King Jr. They didn’t specify Birmingham, but they said Alabama. I don’t think they were ignorant enough to give all the details. But I think they were dumb enough to brag about it.”
Stacy wouldn’t piece together that conversation and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing until she saw her grandfather on TV more than a decade later; but it had stuck in her head because it was the most outrageous of the racial comments she had heard throughout her childhood. Ethnic slurs abounded in her family, and the children knew they were not to have black friends. But none of this pervasive hatred compared to the casual bragging about a terrorist act Stacy says she heard that day. At the time the impressionable young girl was awed by her grandfather’s bravado. “I thought, Wow, that’s pretty neat,” she recalls. “Of course you think it’s neat when you’re a kid.”
“That was pretty much the only time I heard him talking of it,” she continues. But she says her father, Tom, also made reference to the bombing: “I remember once coming home from school—I don’t remember what made him say this, but he said, ‘Did you know your grandpa helped blow up a bunch of niggers?'” Stacy’s father and grandfather deny that these conversations took place. “She’s got her deal mixed up,” Tom Cherry told Glamour. “I never told her or anyone else that her grandfather bombed the church.” He says he sometimes told his kids tall tales and Stacy might have misinterpreted one of his stories.
It wasn’t until she was 12 that Stacy turned against her grandfather. By this time she and her father, who was divorced from her mother, were living next door to him. (Tom Cherry had moved to Texas a year or two after his father.) “I went over there one day,” she says. “My grandfather was sitting on the swing on his front porch, and I sat next to him. That’s when he started putting his hand around my shirt, and then he tried getting his hand in my pants. I was totally shocked. I remember sitting there just feeling numb and tight. My body was just so clenched. I was too scared to move.” Bobby Frank Cherry denies fondling his granddaughter, although Stacy’s father remembers hearing about the assault at the time and believing his daughter, which he still does.
That afternoon was the breaking point for Stacy, who had already been molested by a relative and who says she lived in daily fear of her father’s temper. She started using cocaine. She ran away from home 11 times, once landing in a psychiatric hospital. Sometimes, to rebel against her father, she dated Hispanic men; other times she fell in with racist skinheads. At 17 she dropped out of school and started working as a topless dancer. “It was just a big drugged-out, drunken party for me for two years,” she recalls. For his part, Tom Cherry says he doesn’t understand why his daughter left his home. “I don’t feel like I had a strong temper,” he says. “She never acted as if she was scared.”
STACY MET MATT, THEN A TRAVEL AGENT, at a neighbor’s party in 1995. That’s when she started to pull her life together. Initially attracted to his good looks—he reminded her of Sean Penn—she soon learned that he shared her long-term goal of a stable family life. When Stacy became pregnant shortly after they met, she quit drinking and taking drugs. She was treated for depression after her son was born. A year and a day after meeting, she and Matt got married and moved to a house outside Fort Worth. But Stacy never told her husband much about her family’s racist past. “I kept it to myself because I was embarrassed,” she says.
In fact, she thought her family’s history of hate was behind her—until that day in 1997 when she saw her grandfather on TV, denying his role in the bombing. “That lying son of a bitch,” she said aloud to no one in particular as she grabbed the phone. The receptionist at the TV station put her on hold, so Stacy called the FBI. Within a week, two agents were at her door. For almost two hours, Stacy told them what she knew. They listened, left, and didn’t contact her again for almost two years. Meanwhile, Matt Stacy was coming to terms with his wife’s family history. “You should write a book,” he joked with her once, trying to lighten the tense mood in their home.
Then last summer one of the agents pulled up to Stacy’s house and handed her a subpoena to appear in federal court in Birmingham. The next week she was on a flight to Alabama. What am I getting myself into? she thought. Fortunately, the grand jury room was not as intimidating as she had feared. There were African Americans on the panel, and she felt awkward using the “N” word during her testimony. But she did. At the airport that afternoon, she spoke to a local TV reporter and went public with her accusation against Bobby Frank Cherry.
LESS THAN TEN MINUTES FROM THE COURTHOUSE where Stacy testified, Lisa and Kim McNair manage the chaos of their father’s photography studio—a white-walled room filled with cameras, spotlights and computers. Their father, barrel-chested and handsome at 74, walks into the room. “I called these two ‘hothouse children,'” says Chris McNair, looking at his strong, confident daughters. From the time they were in the crib, Lisa, now 35, and Kim, 31, never lacked for anything. As children and teens they went with their father, who was elected a state legislator after the bombing, to country club parties and other places their less privileged black friends could never go.
Even so, Lisa and Kim couldn’t escape their family’s brush with Birmingham’s ugly history—or the death of their older sister. “The tragedy is something I’ve known about almost always,” says Lisa, who was born a year after Denise’s death. “It’s almost as if I remember somebody leaning over my crib and telling me I was the sister of one of the girls who was killed.” Kim, who was born when the memory of the bombing had cooled, was told about it when she was about eight. “I remember being at my grandmother’s house and her pulling out a box,” she says. “And it had the rock that hit Denise’s head—a flat stone with pink mortar—and her black patent leather shoe and purse. I could put my hands on those things and understand.” More than 20 years later, that moment remains an emotional blur for Kim. Maybe she cried. Maybe she held the stone. To this day, Kim hates to touch old objects. In her father’s studio she handles old photographs all the time—but afterward, she says, “I wash my hands immediately.”
As famous as Denise McNair had become—she is the subject of the Joan Baez song “Birmingham Sunday” and the John Henry Waddell statue “That Which Might Have Been, Birmingham 1963,” in Phoenix—Lisa and Kim knew little about their sister. “When somebody dies, everybody talks about them like they’re larger than life,” Kim says. “But I wanted to know: Was she a standout kid? Was she really different from everybody else?” Their parents, steeped in grief, had few answers. “Now and then they’d tell a little story about her,” Lisa says, “but they wouldn’t talk long.”
It took more than 30 years for Chris McNair and his wife, Maxine, to open up. By then their daughters had gone off to college and had returned to Birmingham. Both were, and still are, single. Just as the government was reopening the bombing case in 1996, the McNairs received a phone call from film director Spike Lee, who wanted to interview the victims’ families for an HBO documentary.
When Lee showed up in Birmingham to film 4 Little Girls, three decades of silence burst. Lisa and Kim learned that even at 11, Denise wanted to march in Birmingham’s children’s civil rights demonstrations, in which youngsters faced down fire hoses and police dogs. (Her parents wouldn’t let her.) With Lee’s camera rolling, Chris talked about passing a whites-only lunch counter with Denise, then six. “You could smell the onions, the hamburgers, and Denise wanted a sandwich,” he said, as Lisa listened. “I had to tell her that she couldn’t have that sandwich because she was black.” Watching his daughter’s disappointment was as painful as “seeing her laying up there with a rock smashed in her head.”
Lisa, who lives with her parents, suppressed her tears through the filming. But the artifacts of Denise’s life—and death—got to her. “When Spike asked us to pull out letters and pictures, there was stuff of hers in every room of the house,” she recalls. “In everybody’s closet there was a box. There were notebooks—big, thick, four-inch notebooks—full of telegrams from people all over the world.” One night she sat in the den with a bag of old photographs. One showed Denise celebrating her third or fourth birthday at a party. In another she was dancing at a children’s recital. Then Lisa pulled out a black-and-white contact sheet with tiny images of her mother at the funeral home, standing next to the casket that held Denise. How can anyone survive such a thing and go on? Lisa thought as she finally broke down sobbing.
“I just think about how Denise’s life was taken away for no reason,” Lisa explains as her eyes well up again. “How these are two parents whose only child was killed and what enormous grief that must have been for them. And there wasn’t anything you could have done about it. There wasn’t anybody who was really going to prosecute, and you just had to swallow it and keep on going with your day. The strength that my parents had to keep on doing that and then to raise us in a house full of love is magnificent.”
ON THE JUNE 1999 DAY WHEN SHE TESTIFIED against her grandfather, Teresa Stacy cut herself loose from the racism she had absorbed as a child. She made public her family’s deepest secret, knowing she would be cast out by them. Now, Stacy’s grandparents and most of her father’s side of the family take every opportunity to impeach her credibility. “She’s on drugs,” Cherry’s fifth wife, Myrtle, told Glamour. “Well, she was on drugs.”
Tom Cherry believes his daughter was pressured into testifying and is enjoying her stardom as a key witness. “I suppose they went in there and talked with her and did a little arm-twisting or symphony playing,” he says. He also says he wants her back in the family. “I love my daughter very much and wish she would get her life together.” But Stacy wants to begin anew—and to shield her children from hate. “I don’t want my kids around that kind of anger,” she says. “You don’t have to be hateful. You know how much energy it takes up? It’s like you’ve got all this extra energy to spare that you wasted on hate.”
Lisa and Kim McNair are also talking about race in fresh new ways. “I feel more each day that white people are a lot like black people,” Lisa says. “We all grieve. We lose people.” Still, Lisa wants to see her sister’s murderers punished. The U.S. Attorney’s Office emphasizes that Cherry and Blanton are presumed innocent until a jury finds them guilty. As Glamour went to press, no trial date had been set. If convicted, both men face life imprisonment. “I am pleased that the indictments have finally taken place,” Lisa says. “But that’s not the end. If there’s a conviction that comes from it, only then will justice really be served.”