By 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation of schools, the national Klan association had been reorganized yet again, this time under the leadership of Eldon Edwards, who held the post of Imperial Wizard until his death in 1960. Meanwhile, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a young Klansman named Robert Shelton was gaining a reputation and a following in western Alabama, while a disc jockey named Ace Carter, with patter that was increasingly political and unrestrainedly racist, was gathering an audience in the north-central part of the state, including Birmingham. In Selma, Alabama, a businessman named Sam Englehardt saw the need for open and organized political resistance to integration. His response was to form the first White Citizens’ Council.
Englehardt’s council sounded good to a lot of people. Among other groups to spring up in its mold was the North Alabama Citizens’ Council formed by Ace Carter in Birmingham. Robert Chambliss claimed to be the first member of this group and openly said so in a letter he wrote threatening the president of the University of Alabama during the 1956 struggle to prevent Autherine Lucy from becoming the school’s first black student.
I had heard Robert talk about the Klan “going soft” during the early Fifties. He and a dozen or so others who shared sentiments on what the Klan should be had drawn apart into what he called simply his “buddies,” a group that initially functioned as a violent-action arm of the old Robert E. Lee Klavern. There would be several official Klan klaverns formed in the Birmingham area, moving and changing every few years. Chambliss and his buddies were, whenever possible, attached to a group with a charter and recognition. I haven’t been able to document the exact date when Robert and these fellow Klansmen came to identify themselves separately, but their handiwork began to show up in newspaper reports of violent acts as the decade of the Fifties progressed.
Initially they apparently were loyal to Charles Pearson, a grocer in the Fountain Heights area, who is said to have paid the men with groceries for their night-riding. In the late Fifties, Pearson assumed the leadership for a short time of a Klan group known as the Cahaba Ridge Klavern, when its first leader, Troy Ingram, resigned. Troy was one of Robert Chambliss’s “buddies.” The two of them had organized the Cahaba Ridge Klavern, which met in downtown Birmingham and had eighty-five to ninety members. The group took its name from the nearby Cahaba River and surrounding valley.
Although its time as a chartered group was short, the “Cahaba” did not die. Its members aligned with other klaverns, while the group’s inner circle, which included Robert, continued as a tight-knit, secret society. This small Klan group, known as the “Cahaba Boys,” has been given a great deal of attention in books, articles, and television documentaries. It has also been variously called Klavern 13 and the Cahaba Group. Klavern 13 was actually the chartered group that met in Woodlawn during the late Fifties and early Sixties; it had its own klokan, or secret militant-action group, as did all the klaverns. The Cahaba Boys, however, was a separate entity, although it did share some cross-membership with Klavern 13.
In the early Sixties the Cahaba Boys met at a place on the Cahaba River, near the river bridge on Highway 280; they carefully limited access and information and were not chartered by the Klan. This group was originally composed of the same men who had operated out of the Robert E. Lee Klavern and had given “Dynamite Hill” its name when they bombed and burned numerous homes, churches, and businesses in the Fountain Heights community to oppose integration of the area in the Fifties. Their penchant for violence and overt as well as covert action caused them to operate outside the established klaverns, although, as I have mentioned, the established klaverns also each had militant klokans or “action” squads. As far as the official Klan was concerned, the Cahaba Boys were outsiders and their activities were disclaimed, yet they were fully led and supported by Robert Shelton, whose rise to power coincided with the turmoil over school desegregation.
Shelton’s leadership in Alabama grew during the late Fifties and, when Eldon Edwards died in 1960, the squabble over leadership of the various Klans saw Shelton emerge as Imperial Wizard. By the time his power peaked in the Sixties, his particular Invisible Empire (United Klans of America, Inc.) would stretch across state lines and include groups from Louisiana, southern Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, and parts of Georgia, as well as Alabama.
The reason for isolating the Cahaba Boys from the main body of the Klan was to ensure secrecy and security, and to insulate the Klan from responsibility. Entry into this circle was for those proven loyal—and not squeamish. As more men were drawn to these violent outsiders, the core group repeatedly isolated itself from the larger body.
Although the now well-known FBI informant Gary Thomas (Tommy) Rowe was a member of Klavern 13 and was present at Klan meetings and “actions” from 1960 to 1965, I do not believe, from remarks made by Robert Chambliss and others, that he ever penetrated the core of this particular group of elite troops. The group’s membership shifted over the years, but the core group consisted of Robert, Troy Ingram, Thomas “Pop” Blanton (and later, his son Tommy, Jr.), latecomer Bobby Cherry, Herman and Jack Cash, Charles Cagle, John Wesley “Nigger” Hall, Ross Keith, and a handful of others whose roles varied from starting fires to securing and hauling dynamite; building and placing bombs; providing alibis, surveillance, and diversions; and just generally keeping track of each other.
Meanwhile they moved in and out of other groups.
Through it all, there was the “routine” work of harassing, beating, and occasionally killing blacks who could be caught alone or dragged out of their homes with little resistance. And there was also the “disciplining” of whites whose conduct or morals or loose tongues garnered the Klansmen’s attention.
Gary Thomas Rowe was in the Klan in Birmingham and knew, or knew of, all the men involved in the Cahaba Boys. Rowe stayed busy earning his FBI informant’s pay and creating situations to take part in, as well as participating in violence himself whenever possible. Rowe had his heyday in 1961 with his participation in attacks on the busloads of civil rights activists, known as Freedom Riders, who traveled the South to integrate interstate transportation. His undercover career would end when he testified against fellow Klansmen in the murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo near Selma, Alabama, in 1965, just after the Selma to Montgomery march.
I knew from Robert that among these Klansmen, Rowe was not trusted enough to penetrate beyond Klavern 13 local planning meetings and overt actions of the group. He did, however, apparently follow the other men on a few occasions and then place calls to his FBI contacts to say he was on the scene of a bombing or riot. During his five years on the FBI payroll, Rowe never gave substantive information about any of the bombing cases. After passage of the Freedom of Information Act, I learned that Tommy Rowe also instigated violent acts on his own and at the direction of his FBI handlers.
Robert, of course knew Rowe and called him “that old crazy Tommy.” On the several occasions Robert spoke of Rowe in my presence, he said he thought that Rowe was an informer and couldn’t be trusted or that Rowe had done something “crazy” again that was going to get the whole Klan in trouble.
When a large group was needed and the police were firmly in hand, such as the 1961 Mother’s Day attack on Freedom Riders at Birmingham’s Trailways Bus Terminal, almost anybody could come along. When the planning was serious and security tight, however, there was a core group of no more than a dozen men involved in the planning and execution of acts of violence in Birmingham.
There were also other small groups and klokans from other klaverns at work in the Birmingham area, as well as disruptive and violent demonstrations by members of the National States Rights Party led by Atlanta attorney J. B. Stoner. These men, in turn, helped smaller groups in other locations and on occasion received help from them; a few of them were active in several small groups simultaneously.
The members of the Cahaba Boys group shared a relationship somewhat like that made familiar to the public by Mafia movies. They had a mutual trust based on the very real knowledge that betrayal meant death. I heard Robert say that the “kiss of death” was his reason for never giving out any information about any other Klansman, and he said that the “kiss of death” was on his wife, as well. If any of the Cahaba Boys came to Robert’s house when family or friends were there, Robert would either take them into another room or banish family members into the kitchen. At times, he would take his buddies down to Gafford’s Auto Parts on the corner, an establishment operated by Bob Gafford (who was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1966), or Gafford would come to Robert’s house to meet with whichever visitor had arrived.
Several times Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton came to the Chambliss house, and at least once he and Bob Gafford were there at the same time when I happened to be visiting. J. B. Stoner was also there on several occasions, and I recall the first time I was told who he was. I had heard his name and discussion about him as the attorney who defended Klansmen in court and who was also a popular speaker at Klan rallies. Stoner was a leader in the National States Rights Party, which he helped form in 1958, taking the insignia and philosophy of the defunct neo-Nazi Columbians, a fanatical right-wing group. The NSRP replaced the Anti-Jewish Party, which Stoner had formed in the Forties. I had expected an impressive and powerful person, but I found Stoner to be a creepy little wild-eyed man who appeared both nervous and leering. He would come to Birmingham quite often during the late Fifties and early Sixties, and he was said to have expanded his work with Klansmen by holding classes on bomb building.
These classes were held at various places including Troy Ingram’s house, Jack Cash’s restaurant in West End, and a meeting place north of town. Often when Robert left home he would tell us that he was “going over to Troy’s house,” and it was an understood code for Klan work. Although Robert had been arrested once for beating a black man, his comings and goings still remained relatively low profile until 1954, when the school desegregation directive was handed down by the US Supreme Court. That was the spark that seemed to ignite a new, more active, more public role for Robert and his cronies.
In 1954, at Phillips High School where I was a freshman, the desegregation directive was disturbing news. I remember my science teacher explaining, though, that we didn’t need to worry because the directive would not affect us. “Nothing will happen for at least a decade,” she assured the class. The next year, 1955, Autherine Lucy and Pollie Myers applied for admission to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which was then and is now homebase to the Alabama Klan; Robert Chambliss and other Klansmen avidly followed the progress of the various suits and motions through the courts. When Lucy finally started classes in February 1956, Robert was in Tuscaloosa taking part in demonstrations to stop desegregation of the university and to have her removed from school. Of some three thousand demonstrators, there were four arrests for disorderly conduct, one of whom was Robert Chambliss.
When the NAACP brought suit against the University for conspiracy to violate the court-ordered attendance of Lucy, they named Robert Chambliss and the three others who had been arrested as co-defendants, probably one of the greatest tactical errors the NAACP could have made. That was a very proud day for Robert. Previously he had had scrapes with the law and had already earned the nickname “Dynamite Bob” among his Klan buddies and in police reports. But now this man, whose education had stopped with the third grade, was sharing a spotlight with university administrators and some of the most prominent names in the state. And after Robert and the three others who were named in the suit countersued the NAACP for four million dollars, he joked about being rich when he got his “nigger money.” These legal battles resulted in the NAACP being barred from operating in the area. Chambliss took a great deal of credit for “running the ‘N double-A-C-P’ out of town.” It would be several years before the NAACP voice would be heard again, although the organization’s attorney, Arthur Shores maintained prominence and was a frequent target of Klan attacks.
Chambliss and his cronies operated with the approval of and often at the direction of the political power base. Chambliss’s job, working in vehicle maintenance for the City of Birmingham, was said to be a reward for his efforts to prevent integration of housing in Fountain Heights. When Chambliss was arrested for a house bombing in 1950, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor would not allow Birmingham detectives or state investigators to question him. Chambliss was ordered released within a few hours, and his police record shows “material witness” for the incident.
Although his job with the city ended when Mayor Cooper Green finally refused to continue putting up with his embarrassing shenanigans, Chambliss continued to enjoy protection from prosecution and outright patronage from law enforcement. Even in 1963, after Bull Connor and Mayor Art Hanes, Sr., had been ousted from city hall, Robert Chambliss’s career as a terrorist continued unabated.
Throughout all of this, I and the rest of my family lived on in fear and silence.