| Four Murdered Girls in Birmingham:
Did Justice Come at Last?
|Women and the Last 1963 16th Street Church Bombing Trial
A user-contributed article by Rev. Rus Cooper-Dowda
Women and the Last 1963 16th Street Church Bombing Trial
On Wednesday, May 22, 2002, Bobby Frank Cherry was found guilty of four counts of first degree murder in the last 1963 16th Street Church bombing trial. He automatically got a sentence of life in prison. Since he is now 71 years old, that is not as much time as it first sounds.
Women have been central to the tragedy itself, the successful prosecutions and the muted celebration after the verdict.
First there are the four murdered girls themselves: Denise McNair was eleven years old in 1963. Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley were all fourteen.
There were mothers, aunts and sisters traumatized and injured by the blast.
Mrs. Sarah J. Collins Rudolph is one such relative. She is the sister of Addie Mae. Mrs. Rudolph lost an eye and had to give up her dream of a career in the military.
Mrs. Alpha Robertson, now in her 80s, was one of the mothers who testified at the subsequent trials. In the last trial this month, she spoke directly in front of the jury from her wheelchair because they did not make the stand accessible to people with disabilities -- even though the plan for a long time was to make her the first prosecution witness.
Several women from Frank Cherry's family testified against him. Of those, one was an ex-wife named Willadean Brogdon who held her own through questioning and cross-examination. At one point, she got so tired of being asked the same thing over and over that she chastised the prosecuting attorney, Doug Jones, with, "Why don't you write some of this down!"
Female relatives were important in all three bombing trials. One was Mary Frances Cunningham, now age 78, who was a sister-in-law of "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss. He was convicted at the first trial finally held in 1977.
She was an FBI informant then and also knew Blanton and Cherry tried for the same crime. During Cherry's recent trial she stated that the FBI claimed she knew more than she actually did. But, her testimony remained central to the three successful prosecutions.
Another relative of Robert Chambliss' was vital to reopening the case in the 1970s. She was the Methodist minister, Elizabeth Cobbs, who was a much younger niece then living with him at the time of the bombing. It took a lot of bravery to turn against her family for the sake of justice. She later became Petric Smith and died of cancer in 1998. He remains an enduring hero to me.
In the celebration this May there were women of all races and all ages. One such celebrant was Carole McKinstry who was 15 years old and in the church at the time of the blast. She said, "...I will be able to move on."
I am Southern and female and very glad that the last 1963 16th Street Church bombing trial is over and all the surviving bombers have been tried. But I am also disabled and was there for the most recent trial. I remain uneasy over the message it sent women with psychiatric illnesses.
Way too many people were publicly making this connection: Frank Cherry was judged to be not mentally ill enough to escape prosecution, therefore, mental illness is not actually a real disability. That leap of "logic" worried me -- a lot. There is no automatic connection there.
Women still struggling to have their mental disabilities recognized as legitimate got a harder row to hoe --especially those in the South.