November 15, 1977
I waited at home Tuesday morning November 15, 1977, for the call to come from Bob Eddy, an investigator with the State of Alabama attorney general’s office.
Home, in November 1977, was the parsonage of Denman Memorial United Methodist Church located on Fourth Avenue West in Birmingham, Alabama. I was pastor of this small church, which sat on the corner half a block away. Assistant Attorney General Jon Yung had called the night before to tell me that this would be the day. At our last meeting he had asked me if I planned to wear my clerical collar to the courtroom when I came to testify. I had told him that I would not.
“What about the cross?” he had asked. He was concerned, it seemed, that I make a good appearance.
“I always wear the cross,” I had told him. “But I don’t think it’s appropriate to wear the collar when I’m not performing ministerial duties.”
I had, however, dressed carefully: a black crewneck sleeveless blouse, tan blazer, dark-brown slacks, and the low-heeled, sensible black shoes that I always wore, except to school. I thought little about it as I put the cross around my neck. Wearing it was almost as routine as combing my hair. After I dressed, I sat at my kitchen table for another cup of coffee and another cigarette and waited for the telephone to ring with instructions.
I was theirs now. As if “Property of the State of Alabama” had been stamped across my forehead, my choices had been made. I had seen every event in my life seemingly flow into a funnel and compress into this day. And when this day was over, nothing in my life would be the same.
When the phone rang, I answered it immediately. Bob Eddy said that I should drive my car downtown. He would meet me on the street beside the 2121 Building, which housed the Birmingham offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I left the parsonage within minutes and drove north past Legion Field, where local football games were played, to Eighth Avenue North; there I took a right and drove east about two miles.
Bob was waiting when I parked at the curb on Twenty-Second Street. He fed coins into the parking meter, and we got into a state owned car, he in the front passenger seat and I in the back. He sat sideways watching behind and around the car as the driver took us to the Jefferson County Courthouse.
We entered the courthouse through a doorway hidden from the street under the massive front steps. In moments I found myself alone again, waiting.
Bob had left me in an out-of-the-way room with instructions to stay until he came for me. I wandered into an empty adjacent courtroom. It was small; its gallery would seat perhaps fifty people. The wood was polished and new looking. I touched the railings and tables set up for the defense and prosecution. I looked at the judge’s high bench and the witness stand. I was trying to acclimate myself to the formality, the unfamiliar feel of a courtroom. I had never been arrested or charged with any crime. I had been in a courtroom with a friend once, and I had appeared in traffic court against another driver who had hit my car, but that time the officer testified and I just listened. My lack of familiarity made the scene awesome and intimidating.
For weeks fear had been a constant, just as it had been a part of my everyday life for many years earlier; and the morning of Tuesday, November 15, 1977, I was grave, grim, and determined. I had almost functioned on autopilot since I had made the decision to testify against Robert Chambliss, “Dynamite Bob,” the accused Birmingham Church bomber. I was the surprise prosecution witness, the one person on whose testimony Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, Assistant Attorney Jon Yung, and Investigator Bob Eddy were pinning their hopes for justice.
Chambliss was my uncle, married to my mother’s sister. Like the rest of my family, I had lived all my life in the shadow of this man and his personal code, a law of life that he and his fellow Klansmen spoke of as “the kiss of death.” It meant that those who did not interfere and kept silent were allowed to live unmolested. Those who opened their mouths, who dared to question or speak of Klan atrocities … well, things happened. Sometimes we never knew exactly what. Or how.
My stomach twisted and churned. My body shivered as waves of anxiety swept over me. With the whole world watching, I was about to shatter the Klan-imposed silence into a thousand irretrievable pieces. Baxley, Yung, and Eddy had done their best to reassure me, but there was no telling what the outcome of this trial would be. Still, I had made my decision. There was no going back now.
In a few minutes Bob Eddy returned and escorted me to the third floor courtroom, where Robert Chambliss was being tried for first-degree murder in the death of Denise McNair, caused by an explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Four girls had died in that explosion. And now, 14 years later, one man was being tried for causing the death of one of them.
Bob Eddy’s firm grip on my arm was reassuring as we approached Courtroom 306. Uniformed officers from the sheriff’s department lined the hallway, and a walk-through metal detector guarded the courtroom door. Reporters and television crews crowded around, craning to get a glimpse, and asking each other who I was and what was going on.
We were abruptly stopped at the courtroom door. The room had been sealed in anticipation of the next witness, and the deputy guarding the door would not let us enter until, after an embarrassing moment, he verified with someone inside who was expected. “Is that Elizabeth Cobbs?” he asked Bob Eddy.
Bob told him that it was. Although the crowd wasn’t physically close enough to touch me, I felt crushed. I felt exposed. Vulnerable. My cooperation with law enforcement officers and agencies was no longer a secret. There had only been potential danger before; now there was certain danger.
Once inside the courtroom, it seemed to take forever for me to walk down that aisle, one step behind Bob Eddy. He escorted me to the witness stand and then stood aside while the bailiff swore me in. Every eye in the courtroom had watched as I entered, and I shrank inside, under the stares of all those people.
I had seen Robert Chambliss and one of his attorneys, Art Hanes, Jr., who were seated at the defense table, turn toward the door as we came in. Robert had started shaking his head from side to side, the way he would at a child who was both naughty and simple-minded. His lips were pulled back in scorn. Once seated, I tried to avoid looking at him, but my eyes were drawn unwillingly. He was glaring at me as if his disapproval would halt my actions, silence me. His pale blue eyes were hard and cold.
I was afraid of this man. I had always been afraid of him. Through the years I had occasionally seen his eyes show sorrow and I had even more rarely seen his eyes show laughter, but mostly I had seen his eyes show anger and hate, as they did now.
Finally I was able to shift in the big chair so that the corner of the judge’s bench was between me and Robert, blocking my view of his eyes. I knew from that point on, it was a life or death struggle. Either he got life imprisonment, or I got death.