Survivor of '63 Bomb Recalls Glass Shards and a Sister Lost
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Sarah Collins Rudolph, even with one eye of glass, can still see the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, can see it sharp and clear.
She can still see four pretty girls, including her sister, Addie Mae Collins, primping in the church basement just minutes before they were to ascend the stairs and sing with the grown-ups in the choir at 16th Street Baptist Church.
She can see the water running over her 12-year-old hands as she washed them in the ladies lounge, see a 14-year-old Addie Mae fussing with the sash of Denise McNair, who was just 11 and still played with dolls.
She can see them all there, framed by the basement window — Addie Mae, Denise, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, just before the earth shook and the glass flew at her face and eyes like buckshot.
Then she could not see at all, her eyes pierced by the shrapnel, and she lay in the darkness and called:
"Addie? Addie? Addie?"
With Mrs. Rudolph's account here today of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, prosecutors rested their case in the state murder trial of Bobby Frank Cherry, the 71-year-old white supremacist who is believed to be the last living suspect in a historic act of evil.
When she could finally see again, after the operations and the bandages and the loss of her right eye, Mrs. Rudolph could see that it was the simple act of washing her hands that spared her and that a few seconds later she would have been with her friends in front of that window, just feet from the bomb.
"Glass went in my eyes," Mrs. Rudolph said, as prosecutors showed the jury a picture of her in the hospital then, her eyes covered with white bandages. But the few feet between where she stood and her friends was the bridge between life and death.
As she spoke, a gray-haired woman in the jury box tried not to cry. Her bottom lip trembled.
Mrs. Rudolph did not cry. She walked back to her chair, sat down and folded her arms, and began to wait — as she has waited for 38 years — for a little more justice in a case that began back when a young, wavy-haired man named Bobby Frank Cherry first became one of the F.B.I.'s prime suspects in an investigation that sputtered and stumbled across four decades.
Just a few hours before, another prosecution witness had described a slightly older Mr. Cherry, a man who had left the Klan behind in Alabama in the 1970's and moved to Texas to open a carpet cleaning business — and brag to relatives about the day in Alabama that he struck a historic blow for white supremacy.
Teresa Francesca Stacy, Mr. Cherry's granddaughter, told the jury that she heard her grandfather boast of the bombing on the front porch of his trailer in East Texas.
"He said he helped blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham," said Ms. Stacy, who was about 10 at the time.
"He seemed rather jovial," as he said it, she said.
She said she only heard Mr. Cherry say that once, but had heard other relatives say that he had told them that same thing several times. "I've heard it for years," she said.
In 1997, she saw her grandfather in a television press conference. He denied any role in the bombing.
"I knew he was lying," Ms. Stacy said. "I called the news people. They put me on hold for a long time. I hung up the phone and called the F.B.I."
Mickey Johnson, Mr. Cherry's defense lawyer, then began chipping away at Ms. Stacy's credibility by asking her questions about her motive for her testimony and her past.
He asked Ms. Stacy if the attention from the case, including articles in Glamour magazine and Texas Monthly and an appearance on "Good Morning America," had "changed your life."
He suggested that she had offered her testimony in return for a deal from prosecutors to reduce the sentence of her brother, who is serving a prison term in Texas for robbery and burglary.
"Well, I figured I shouldn't be dragged through the mud for nothing," she said.
Mr. Johnson, over the objections of prosecutors but with the blessing of Judge James Garrett, then asked Ms. Stacy about her addictions to drugs and alcohol.
She told him that she had been addicted to drugs when she was 12, and was in a rehabilitation at age 13.
"My drug of choice was cocaine," she said.
She said she is also a recovering alcoholic who drinks socially.
Ms. Stacy was not the first relative to say in this trial that Mr. Cherry boasted about the killings.
Willadean Brogdon, a still angry former wife who was married to Mr. Cherry from 1970 until their divorce in 1973, testified on Thursday that she had heard him brag about the bombing and that he told her he was the man who actually planted the bomb underneath a church stairwell the night before the explosion.
Officially, Mr. Cherry has repeatedly denied that he had anything to do with that bombing and told investigators in 1997 that he could not have been involved in making or planting the bomb on the night of Saturday, Sept. 14, 1963, the night investigators have long believed the bomb was placed, because he was at home with his wife, who was ill with cancer.
Mr. Cherry told investigators he went home to be with her and to watch wrestling. Later, in an interview with Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., he said he always watched wrestling on Saturday nights.
Mr. Mitchell, in a search of television logs, found that there was no wrestling on television that night.
Because there has been no forensic evidence linking him to the blast, prosecutors have tried to build a case of circumstantial evidence heavy with testimony about Mr. Cherry's hatred of blacks and his desire to keep them from mixing with whites in the Birmingham of the 1960's.
Bob Herren, an F.B.I. agent who interviewed Mr. Cherry in Texas in 1997, said Mr. Cherry told him that, in 1957, he used a pair of brass knuckles to punch the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. "Bopped Shuttlesworth between the eyes," Mr. Cherry told him, Mr. Herren testified.
Fred Shuttlesworth would go on to become a civil rights hero in Birmingham.
Mr. Herren said Mr. Cherry told him the Ku Klux Klan never would have blown up a church, because the Klan was a religious organization itself.
"He told me he sang in the Klan choir at churches and funerals," Mr. Herren said.
Mr. Herren said Mr. Cherry also told him he had joined the Klan because he wanted to work on political campaigns and "wanted to chase women when he went to Klan rallies."
Day after day, prosecution witnesses have described a much different Birmingham from the one that exists today, a city where blacks and whites mix and mingle in restaurants and office buildings. The "whites only" signs are long gone. But it was a different place the day that Chris McNair, Denise's father, remembered from the witness stand here today. "Too vividly," he said.
He had gone to a different church that day, on Birmingham's Southside. He remembers hearing a faraway boom. He turned to his brother and asked: "Is that thunder?"
As he spoke about the death of his daughter, in what some people saw as a war by some whites against blacks, prosecutors showed the jury a picture of Denise holding her favorite doll. It has pink skin and blonde hair.