Journalists and scholars have written much about the times we have come to call the Civil Rights Era. Most of these civil rights chroniclers, however, were not directly involved and have little intimate personal knowledge of the events or principals who catalyzed the movement. Most civil rights books and articles draw upon formal interviews, newspaper reports, police reports, and FBI investigative reports, which is proper but incomplete.
There have been few direct accounts told by those of us who watched and waited and wailed over the events in Birmingham in those dark days. We watched in horror and fear, waited with dread, and wailed because we were powerless to stop the madness.
This account will try to explain how I came to the day in November 1977 when I was led into a packed courtroom, through a cordon of sheriff’s deputies, to testify against my aunt’s husband, Robert Chambliss—the man accused of murder in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
I was the surprise witness the defense did not anticipate and had not prepared for. I came to tell Chambliss’s own words against him; for they were his words and his actions that convicted him. They were words against us all, whether black or white, Southern or Yankee. They were, indeed, words against all humanity.
I cannot tell his story and fail to tell my own story or the stories of others. These are the stories of people who loved and of people who hated. These are the stories of people who struggled as life died in their hearts, breaking them. It was with broken hearts that many of us watched, helpless, as our world exploded.
As I write in 1994, it has been 17 years since one man was convicted for one crime that day in court. On November 18, 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted for the murder of 11-year-old Denise McNair in the bombing that also killed three other young girls.
This is an account of what I know about that man and the way he affected the lives of so many, not only the victims of the most publicized racist bombing of the Civil Rights Era, but also those of us who grew up and lived under the shadow of his hatred and cruelty.
Yet we must not lose sight of the fact that Robert Chambliss was not a singular enigma. He was not a freak of society. He represented a breed of men and women whose lives were driven by prideful defense of what they believed to be right.
Born near the turn of the twentieth century, Chambliss was typical of his generation and social status. Lacking position and power of either education or birth, he clung fiercely and pridefully to the values of white Southern manhood. He saw his role as a protector of those things he held to be holy. He did not see his actions as crimes of conscience, only as crimes of law—a law that had unfairly changed on him.
Chambliss was a vigilante, and for many years he was applauded by those in power who could have, but did not, stop him. Then he went too far—he fought too long. Of the many criminals responsible for the murders that resulted from the September 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, only one, Robert Chambliss, was tried for that crime. And of Chambliss’s many crimes, he was tried for only one felony.
For many years I’ve said that someday I would write this book. People who were close to the situation have pleadingly responded, “Please wait until I’m dead.”
I’ve said that someday I would need to tell the story for my own sake, and public officials have pointedly said, “Use the records, but don’t get personal about people who will never be tried.”
I’ve said that some day the story had to be told even if there were people embarrassed or angered. Now, I’ve come to the point in my life when that day can’t be put off any longer. My hope is that some day truth will be more important than politics, and justice will be more important than pride.
That day has been a long time coming. Although there are many people who do not want this account to be published — now or ever — for me, that day is now.