Robert seemed to have a strong desire to involve family members in his Klan activities. He would talk about the Klan and extend invitations to rallies, and he would brag about his nighttime adventures. Although only rarely were we women — and even some of the men— told specifics, I think Robert wanted all of us to be impressed, and, to a certain degree, we were held hostage by the information and events he shared with us.
Only men were allowed to join the Klan; their wives joined the women’s auxiliary. To my knowledge the only person in our family whom Robert was able to cajole or coerce into actually joining the Klan was Jim Hillhouse, who had married my Aunt Viola in 1947. However, Viola did not join the Klan along with Jim, and even his membership was short-lived. Jim went to meetings with Robert, but he was not extremely active. After a while as a rank-and-file member, he was taken along on some of the group’s more clandestine activities. On one of the first night rides, Jim became so appalled at the mistreatment of a Negro man the group had kidnapped that he refused to participate further, and he left the group of Klansmen and their victim near an abandoned coal mine.
Neither Jim nor Robert would discuss the details when they were asked about that night, but because of that incident Jim decided to leave the Klan. The next day Jim had Viola take his Klan robe to Robert’s house and turn it in, to emphasize his disassociation from both Robert and the Klan. Robert, enraged, retaliated by taking a Klan robe with blood on it to the police, accusing Jim of the murder the group had committed the night before. Jim was questioned by the authorities, but no charges were brought against him or anyone else. Apparently it could not be demonstrated that a killing had actually taken place. In the early Fifties there was little incentive for law enforcement officers to search the many abandoned mines around Birmingham hoping to find a missing black man.
Robert ensured Jim’s silence about the incident. I don’t know exactly how, but I do know for sure that there was a long-term threat with Robert holding something over Jim’s head. Perhaps it was the gun that was used in the incident, because the Klansmen had used a gun that night, a gun that Jim had handled. That circumstantial evidence, coupled with the bloodied robe, might have been enough to convict Jim, especially if he had gone into court without Klan backing. As I’ve mentioned, no charges were ever filed in the case, but Robert’s hold on Jim’s silence was secure.
The two men called a tacit truce in September 1959 during the wake and funeral service for my step-grandfather, Roger Whitaker, who was father-in-law to them both. They agreed to keep peace at least that once so that their wives and mother-in-law would not be further burdened. But the atmosphere between them was still volatile, especially when Robert walked over to Jim and, smiling, started a seemingly casual conversation. Jim met Robert’s overtures with quiet, clenched-teeth responses, but Robert kept at him, goading and prodding, until one of the other men at the funeral intervened and peacefully broke up the encounter.
A few months later, Jim went to Robert’s house and “called him out.” For years Robert had harassed Jim, and he had recently made public remarks again, bragging that Jim was afraid of him. Jim stood on the sidewalk in front of the Chambliss home and demanded that Robert come out and settle things once and for all. Robert went out to the front porch, and he, at least, had a gun. According to Aunt Viola, Jim had probably also taken his gun from home when he left to confront his brother-in-law. Intervention by the women prevented one of them from being killed then and there. Their wives being sisters was the only thing that kept Jim from being taken out and “taught a lesson” the same way the black man had been taught a lesson that night years earlier in a coal mine.
It was much to Jim’s chagrin when, several years later, Viola borrowed three thousand dollars from Robert to go into business. She established a beauty shop on the main street in North Birmingham, and she was still operating the beauty shop with her daughter, Kathy, in 1972, when a small store known as Hamer’s Sundries was put up for sale. Hamer’s, as we all called the store, had done business on a nearby corner for more than 25 years and had an established clientele in the neighborhood. So Viola borrowed from Robert again and purchased Hamer’s, which had a soda fountain and also sold groceries and patent medicines. To assist in the business, Jim quit his job as an automobile mechanic at a local filling station, where he had worked most of his adult life. With Jim’s help at the store, they appeared to be on their way to a second successful family venture.
Ten days after they opened the store, I scared everyone at my house at seven o’clock one morning when I woke up from a nightmare screaming, “Every time he starts to get ahead, he gets shot out of the saddle.” I couldn’t recall what I had been dreaming about, but we learned a few hours later that I had awakened at the very moment a lone robber, a black man, had entered Hamer’s, taken cash and groceries, and shot Jim and two of his customers in the head, leaving them for dead. Jim survived the shooting, but he didn’t fare well in surgery. He had suffered from heart disease for a decade, and during the operation he went into a coronary arrest of sufficient duration to cause brain damage, which disabled him for the few remaining years of his life.
It wasn’t surprising that Viola’s newly opened business suffered in the wake of the robbery and shooting. Today customers will come into a robbed convenience store as soon as the police okay it, but in the early Seventies, fear was a hallmark of everyday life in Birmingham, and for the folks in the neighborhood, the atmosphere of the place was tainted by the incident. Viola, however, refused to give up, and believing that Hamer’s might still be the more promising of her two businesses, she and Kathy closed the beauty shop and stored the equipment. After a few months of diminishing returns, though, Viola closed the store and worked elsewhere until she went to work with Kathy in a second beauty shop. Despite Viola’s business acumen and spitfire nature, Robert used the loan he had made to her as an excuse to justify an attitude of authority over her for several years, saying such things as, “If she don’t make it, I’ll have to sell her hair dryers and sinks to try to get my money back.”
Jim lived until July 1977, the year the Alabama attorney general’s office presented evidence against Robert to a grand jury and gained an indictment charging him in connection with the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. On the day of Jim’s death, I was at my grandmother’s home helping Aunt Viola and her children make the funeral arrangements when Robert called the house offering to serve as a pallbearer. I had answered the phone, and I winced at the sound of his voice. When I had heard his offer, I put my hand over the mouthpiece and told Viola. Jim’s son and namesake overheard what I said and became livid, shouting that Robert had not been “fit to associate with my daddy while he was alive, and I won’t let him touch my daddy’s coffin.”
As a way of minimizing prolonged contact with Robert at Jim’s funeral, we decided not to have a chapel service, which also eliminated the need for the formality of pallbearers. It was just another instance of my family adjusting plans to avoid confronting Robert and risking his ire, knowing that he would not hesitate to disrupt any occasion if he were angered.
Robert was at the cemetery for the funeral, though, and as the simple service progressed in the humid Alabama July heat, Robert smoked and flicked ashes, moving about restlessly. When the service ended and mourners began milling about in small groups, Robert stood close by the coffin and purposely flicked his cigarette ashes toward the bier, as casually as if he were standing on a street corner. By the time of Jim’s funeral, Robert had had many years to relax with the assurance that he and his fellow Klan members would never be called to account for the night’s work he had held over Jim’s head. Standing by Jim’s coffin, Robert surely felt that he had won. At least he was the survivor of the long years of enmity between the two men.
By then, it had been almost 14 years since he had participated in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and almost a decade since he and his cronies had been assured the FBI had aborted their investigation of the bombing. On the day of Jim’s funeral, Robert thought that he had accomplished a degree of security, even though there had been noises about the state attorney general reactivating the case. Even so, most of the people who might have been “weak” enough to break the Klan code of silence and betray Robert were dead. As he stood at the graveside, he must have felt smug.
As I watched Robert that day, my mind went back over past events, scanning other days when I had seen that same smug look, when his half-grin had caused fear or dread, when his cold, half-closed, pale blue eyes would cut with anger and hatred. By that summer of 1977, my primary interest in Robert was to avoid being around him as much as possible and to avoid conflict. I had moved to a point in my life when I thought I was far beyond the strife and violence of the Fifties and Sixties. I was relieved that period was over, even though I resented that Robert had never been brought to justice for the part I was certain he had played in the racial bombings in Birmingham. I was resigned to the belief that there would be no justice.
I disliked Robert intensely, but I feared the fact that he was a liar and without scruples more than I feared personal physical injury. I had simply distanced myself from association with him, except on family occasions such as funerals and weddings. I would, periodically, run into him when I visited my grandmother, but thankfully those were rare encounters, and there were very few occasions during the mid-Seventies that I visited in the Chambliss home.
I had worked hard to get on with my life. In their own way, all of the members of my family had moved through that horrifying period and into saner days. Or so we thought.