Introduction: A Call to Action

by Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth

Long Time Coming by Elizabeth H. Cobbs took a long time indeed to congeal, but I hope it won’t be a long time before this book opens the eyes and enlightens the minds of Birmingham, the South, and the nation.

The dark deeds of the Ku Klux Klan, which for many years were aided and abetted by law enforcement and the highest political officials, are here at long last presented in human terms, in a book worthy of reading by all Americans who truly believe in justice. Together with the recollections of the civil rights struggles by Southern Negroes, this should be, and must be, compelling educational reading for all Americans—but especially our American youth, who must finally outgrow the past and put an end to the effects of segregation and racism in America.

God’s word tells mankind over and over to “fear not,” to love mercy, and to do that which is kind, true, just, and compassionate. Sometimes, because we are human, we feel that in order to appreciate God’s law, we must suffer too much from that which is evil.

Long Time Coming chronicles at long last the fear, violence, intimidation, beatings, bombings, castrations, and murders of the Civil Rights Era. It is a powerful story because it is a painful, personal view of both the causes and effects of these atrocities, which were planned with the KKK by law enforcement officials high and low. These were the tools, the agenda, and the operating tactics of the Klan.

Reared in Robert Chambliss’s turbulent family, Elizabeth Cobbs learned under a mantle of fear of  the many out-of-the-way places where dynamite was stored, the many unmarked graves of Klan victims, and the power of the Klan to ruin the lives of the living. And she learned of the businesses of respected officials who were the buddy-buddy boys of the KKK.

She correctly states that the “atmosphere in Birmingham and the South as I grew up was not one to give honest people faith in law enforcement while crooks and conspirators consorted openly with their neighborhood cop.”

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Bethel Baptist Church, 3233 Twenty-ninth Avenue, North, Birmingham, Jefferson County, AL. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

As pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in North Birmingham and organizer and leader of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, I can say that very few people have suffered more physical Klan brutality than I have. At one point, I honestly felt as if I would not live to reach age 40.

In 1956, a Christmas night bombing destroyed my parsonage home as I lay in bed. No one was ever arrested or prosecuted for that bombing. For a second bombing in 1958, J. B. Stoner was given a 10-year sentence, but 22 years later. That trial’s testimony for the prosecution revealed that Stoner and law enforcement officials were observed in a prominent white Baptist church as they planned the second bombing attack that should have run me out of town, or, failing that, leave me dead.

The list goes on, with mobs and beatings, bombings, jailings, and water hosings, not to mention the countless atrocities suffered by so many others in Birmingham and all over the South. To this day, I truly believe that only the Books of Heaven can fully record the crimes of the KKK and the consenting officials who facilitated them, from governors down to the lowest backwoods constable.

This book rightly takes the FBI to task for its continuing indulgence of and participation in these crimes, and it underscores the dubious mentality of J. Edgar Hoover, who arbitrarily closed the Sixteenth Street Church bombing case because “a conviction could not be obtained at that time in the South.”

And it was still merely politics that caused Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley to reopen the case 14 years later and obtain, with only a portion of Hoover’s evidence, Chambliss’s life sentence for murder. It is also clear that charges against several co-conspirators were dropped by Baxley’s successor, Charles Graddick, in pursuit of his single-minded desire for an election win— not for  full justice in the matter.

Mrs. Cobbs correctly states that “there’s more to life than walking in victimization.”

Her own studies, her preaching, her reorganization of her life were all done in a continuing crucible of morbid fear, as she struggled constantly and valiantly to survive. And indeed she has both survived and escaped, compelled by truth, but not without some basic changes in her personality, as she describes in this book.

While she and many others may have turned to human and clinical remedies to reach peace of soul, mind, and body, it is my firm conviction that no new lifestyle can better the one that made and sent us forth from the Creator’s Hands as men and women. Since Elizabeth Cobbs’ compulsion for truth has caused her at last to step forward, I know she hopes — and I truly hope — the value of this book will be measured by its desire to end violence, and the official condolence of violence, by the Klan and anyone else in America.

I especially pray that this book will make a difference to the youth of America today, over whom a pall of violence has fallen. Our young people desperately need to read this story, to hear this voice, and to know what the legacy of violence begets. Dr. King was so right and true in saying that we must put an end to violence, or violence will put an end to us. Oh, if we had just heard and heeded his voice!

If America is ever to become a brotherhood, we must have people of all races, colors, and creeds contributing and sharing together. Brutes and brutality must not be allowed a place in the governance of our people.

Having lived on the edge of darkest night but also on the cutting edge of change in the Deep South for most of my youth and adult years, I feel Elizabeth Cobbs’ book brings to life the essential tragedy of the ruling whites of the South: They were shackled by the fear and terror they allowed to be created and allowed to remain; they made themselves prisoners as they sought to repress others. Tragic indeed is the way the Klansmen ran their own families, in fear, violence, treachery, and the elimination of anyone designated as a threat to Klan ways.

But more tragic is the fact that blacks and whites in those days couldn’t openly and honestly work together for change in the Deep South. For the most part, freedom then didn’t mean the same for black and white, and although we have evolved somewhat, it does not fully mean the same thing today.

One could easily imagine what a vast and different change might have been obtained without bombings and beatings, violence and mass jailings, if Elizabeth Cobbs, David Vann, Martin Luther King, Edward Gardner, Abraham Woods, Colonel Stone Johnson, James Armstrong, Lola Hendricks, Georgia Price, Julia Rainge, Anne and Carl Braden, James Dombrowski, and so very many others like myself who sincerely desired, worked, and suffered for change might have been allowed to openly meet, discuss, plan, and work for that Birmingham which might have been. That Birmingham would have locked horns with and challenged Atlanta for the richest growth and diversity in the South—a future that fell to Atlanta because of racial strife and lack of vision by those who led Birmingham and the South far too long, and allowed the Klan to share their reign.

To me, finally, this book urgently calls for a coalition of freedom and justice lovers to unrelentingly demand by petition and legal efforts the opening under the Freedom of Information Act of all files in possession of the FBI, Justice Department, and local law enforcement agencies; and for the full revelation of the sordid acts and decisions made by the FBI and local authorities, especially as they relate to involvement—or lack thereof—in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Era.

I will gladly volunteer my name as leader of such a coalition, and I challenge all who read this to join me in this long overdue quest for Truth and Justice. In this way, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church may yet hasten meaningful and true justice, and the deaths of the four young girls there, and so many unnamed others in the Deep South, will not have been in vain.

Cincinnati, Ohio 1994

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Statue of Fred Shuttlesworth, Birmingham, Alabama.Credit: The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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