Times Are Changing

As the Klan became more visible, its night-riding activities became increasingly more terrorist. Attacks on individuals seemed to be fewer, while members of the small, secret violent-action groups like Robert’s were beginning to use dynamite and bottle bombs against political targets.

Hand painted mural on Center Street on “Dynamite Hill” (known for bombing during the Civil Rights Movement), Birmingham, Alabama, 2010. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. [LC-DIG-highsm-05094]

Fountain Heights, a neighborhood close to where we lived just north and west of downtown Birmingham, and Smithfield to its west, were wracked with violence during the Fifties and early Sixties as black families started to buy houses in these formerly all-white areas. The neighborhood was dubbed “Dynamite Hill” because it was so frequently targeted for fires, bombs, and dynamite blasts.

I read in newspaper accounts in May 1957 that the Negroes had sent a telegram to U.S. Attorney General Brownell asking for federal intervention. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, estimated that there had been “twenty-one racial unsolved bombings, burnings, and explosive events in this area alone” since 1948. On Christmas night 1956, the parsonage of Bethel Baptist Church and home to the Shuttlesworth family had been bombed and literally collapsed into a heap of rubble. Miraculously no one inside the house was killed. The violence was nothing new.

Meanwhile, “Dynamite Hill” became more and more a focal point of news reports as houses sold to Negroes and houses merely on the market were systematically burned and bombed. On May 6, 1958, a Birmingham News headline asked, “Are Reds Behind Bombings?” with a subhead stating that “J. Edgar Hoover Says Communists Are Exploiting Race Issues on National Scale.” The next month the Bethel Baptist Church itself, which was pastored by Shuttlesworth and served as civil rights movement headquarters in those years, was bombed. On June 3, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner asked the Negro pastor to take a lie detector test in an attempt to place suspicion of the bombing on him.

The accusations against blacks from Bull Conner and J. Edgar Hoover would echo through statements from politicians and law enforcement long after Conner had lost his position and Hoover had died. Klansmen like Robert were quick to repeat these accusations and print them in propaganda, claiming that the blacks were bombing themselves, backed by a Jewish-Communist plot. During this time I recall that Robert and other Klansmen often rode with police officers on their patrols. One policeman’s statement to the FBI said that Robert would excitedly ask to be taken along on calls and allowed to “whip niggers”. Even after he was fired from his job at the city garage, Robert hung out with beat officers and showed up at crime scenes. He kept a police band radio turned on most nights and “helped” police in his local area, often arriving before officers. He “caught” one man under the Twenty-sixth Street overpass and pistol-whipped him before the police arrived. Robert told us that the officer who arrived at the scene wasn’t as pleased as his police buddies usually were and told him to stop answering calls. But Robert laughed it off, saying the officer was “mad because I’m doing his job for him”.

A few days later I went by to visit Tee and found Robert telling an account of his adventures the night before, “I shot at that nigger six times. He was just runnin’, pickin up his feet, jumping over things—and I fired at him six times and missed every time. I couldn’t understand that, ‘cos I never missed a nigger in my life, but this ‘un got away from me.”

“What had he done, Robert?” I asked, incredulous at his remarks. “Why were you shooting at him?”

“He was runnin from the police,” Robert answered, still grinning broadly and continuing his story. “But, anyway, I’d shot my gun at him six times and he was still a’running and I was gonna chase him but I thought an’ taken’ an’ sighted down the barrel of my gun and it was bent! I’d bent my gun when I pistol-whipped that nigger the other night. That ‘un really had a hard head.” I had never seen Robert so genuinely amused and animated as he was over this episode. His marksmanship had been vindicated by the fact that he had damaged his weapon on another man’s head.

Robert continued to make these “citizen’s arrests” well into the late Sixties. On another occasion several years later, Robert and Tee were in bed resting when Robert saw a black man’s head as the man ran past the window. The county was working a road crew of prisoners several blocks away on Highway 31 North, and this man had bolted. He made the mistake of cutting between Robert’s house and the house next door to get to the alley. Robert’s physical agility in his Sixties was demonstrated by his actions in the next few minutes. He got up, pulled on his trousers, got his gun, and ran out the front door of his house. He rounded the corner, went past three houses, and caught the escapee as he emerged from the alley. Robert held him by the scruff of his neck and fired at his feet making him “dance” until the corrections officers arrived to rescue the prisoner from Robert.

The times were changing, but Robert never would.

I recall another incident that for me underlines his intransigence.  It was 1968, and Robert was hospitalized in Carraway Methodist Hospital after surgery for stomach ulcers. I went to visit him in the hospital because it was expected and failure to do what was expected might cause suspicion, I found him very quiet and uncommunicative. I asked him how he was doing.

“Awright,” he muttered.

“You’re awfully quiet, Robert. Are you still hurting from the surgery?” I asked him.

“Naw, that’s all-right, but my arm sure does hurt.” He was laying on his back with the covers up to his chest, and both arms were covered. An IV tube ran under the cover to his left arm. He turned his head slightly looking at that left arm, and my first thought was perhaps he was having a heart attack.

I lifted the bedspread and gasped. His IV had gotten out of the vein or the vein had perforated because his forearm was swollen more than twice its normal size. “Have you called a nurse?” I asked him, alarmed by the appearance of his arm.

“No,” was his simple response. I turned on the call button and told the nurse who answered that his IV needed to be checked. In a few minutes a nurse came in, checked his arm and said something like, “Oh, my God! Why didn’t you tell us when that started hurting!” While several nurses started taking care of the situation, I left.

The next evening, I called Tee at home and was told that Robert had come home from the hospital and was in bed there. Carraway Methodist Hospital was racially integrated by 1968, and a black male patient had been brought into the semiprivate room with Robert. He became enraged and demanded that the man be moved. When the hospital staff refused, Robert got out of bed and made a scene in the hall, going into other patients’ rooms, ranting. During this tirade he demanded that his family be called to come get him because he would not stay in the room with a “nigger.” Witnesses reported that he said he had bombed the church and would bomb the hospital.

Two days later Birmingham police officers went to the hospital to investigate the incident and concluded: “It is felt by the investigating officers, Robert Chambliss on other occasions, in a fit of anger, would do a lot of talking, etc. We think that the first report was in error of what was heard. He did not say he had bombed the church and did not say he was going to bomb the hospital.”

But home later Robert said he would “blow up the damn place” before he would “sleep with a nigger.”

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