As 1962 became 1963, Birmingham was in turmoil, but I was busy with turmoil in my own life and at times missed the import of things going on around me. My son, Robin, had turned six in November 1962, and I always tried to spend as much of my free time with him as I could. We still lived with my grandmother, and she took care of him while I worked, but if I went out at night, Robin usually went with me. We would often visit my friend in Fountain Heights, until she accepted a job out of state and moved. Sometimes Robin and I would go bowling or to a movie or to the zoo. I didn’t have much money to spend, but we found things to do.
One of my family’s close friends was “Dale Tarrant,” whose only child, a daughter a bit younger than I, had graduated college and moved out of state. Dale and Robin and I spent a lot of time together at her home or mine, bowling, eating out, or just riding around town singing in the car. She, too, had grown up in a family that sang, and we enjoyed the harmony, especially on old folk songs and spirituals.
I was driving an old 1953 Chevrolet that was held together by ignorance and hope. It blew so much oil out the exhaust pipe that I carried a five-gallon can of recycled oil, and a coffee pot to pour it from, in the trunk at all times. I also carried an old inner tube and a pair of scissors. I used strips of rubber to hold the gear selector in place. I got so good at repairing it that when it came off, usually at a traffic light, I could hop out, pop the hood, put on a new strip of rubber, and be back in the car before the light changed.
I was still working in downtown Birmingham as 1963 started warming up. There were increased incidents of black agitation for desegregation and voting rights, and there were more bombings and burnings, Klan motorcades, and political posturing. As I said, I didn’t notice as much as I should have: I was worn out from three years in a physically demanding job, I couldn’t always make ends meet taking home less than 40 dollars a week, I’d had several bouts with respiratory problems and a case of lead poisoning from printer’s ink, I was being stalked by the husband of a coworker, and my best friend Shirley, from high school days, had been murdered in September 1962 by her estranged husband.
By March 1963, I was something of a wreck, and with the mounting pressures of home, work, and a confusing social life, I suffered a fall, resulting in a concussion and a hospital stay of several days during which doctors ran tests. I left the hospital promising to return in three weeks if the pain in my head and numbness in my left side were no better. Instead, I started trying to change things in my life. I applied for admission to the University of Alabama in Birmingham, bought a new old car, and started looking for a new job.
In spite of my problems, I had noticed when the March 5 mayoral election resulted in a runoff between Bull Connor and Albert Boutwell, a less rabid segregationist but a segregationist nonetheless. I also took note when on March 8, 1963, local radio station WIXI hosted an event at Municipal Auditorium across Eighth Avenue from city hall. The event drew an enormous crowd, a fact I couldn’t miss because I was in the middle of it. This was one of those times when Robert Chambliss made such a big deal about us being expected to go that I complied, taking with me Mama Katie and Robin.
Operation Midnight Ride was the brainchild and political vehicle of Major General Edwin A. Walker and the Reverend Billy James Hargis. Walker had been in the news since he had commanded the paratroopers sent into Little Rock by Eisenhower to enforce federal desegregation orders. Walker renounced those actions and backed up Mississippi Governor Ross Burnett when Ole Miss stood in violation of the Supreme Court in its own desegregation crisis. The ensuing riots in Mississippi had caused the federal government to bring charges of “insurrection and seditious conspiracy” against Walker. He was also ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
“Brother” Hargis, on the other hand, had his own following through his daily radio program carried on WIXI, and his fundamentalist rhetoric was liberally sprinkled with fanatical racism. Together Hargis and Walker promoted Operation Midnight Ride as a tour for God and country, and they came to Birmingham to help Bull Connor defeat Albert Boutwell in the April runoff election. Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton and large numbers of his United Klans of America were in attendance, including the members of Eastview Klavern 13 and the Cahaba Boys, although the latter was not an acknowledged group. Also there was WIXI disc jockey Ace Carter, the Citizens’ Council of North Alabama, Dr. Edward Fields, and members of the National States Rights Party, as well as leaders and members of United Americans for Conservative Government.
Back in those days, behavior was looser in public buildings, and I remember Robert, in his blue suit, standing around the doorway of the auditorium smoking and passing out literature, acting as a self appointed usher/host. The event itself was a cross between a revival camp meeting and a political pep rally. Robert and several other men stayed around the door, clapping and cheering loudly, helping to stir up the crowd.
On April 2, Albert Boutwell won the mayoral runoff, but Art Hanes and Bull Connor refused to give up their offices, so both camps were in city hall for some weeks while Connor filed a challenge of the election results. While all of this was going on, there had been little progress in the struggle to end segregation. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by then based in Georgia, declared Birmingham the world’s “most segregated city” and named it as a target for the next round of his nonviolent protests for voting rights and desegregation of public facilities.
Birmingham’s centrally located Sixteenth Street Baptist Church became the new base of operations for civil rights activism. The church was large and conveniently situated only four blocks from city hall. Dr. King and his staff stayed at the A.G. Gaston Motel, about a block away, while he was in town. The day after the runoff election, the first group of demonstrators stepped out from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and attempted to get service at city lunch counters.
On April 11, The Birmingham News ran an editorial cartoon by Charles Brooks proclaiming “WANTED, For the Attempted Assassination of Birmingham, Alabama.” The cartoon was centered by a large question mark and the word “bombers.” It showed in bold figures the reward offered at $87,125 and assured that the “Identity of person supplying information will be kept secret.”
On April 12, sixty-three black leaders published a statement explaining why they could wait no longer and had to “lay our case before the general public.” On that same day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested in Birmingham. During his incarceration he wrote his now-famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
On May 2 and 3, the Children’s Marches took place downtown. Children and teenagers stepped out from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and were stopped and arrested by police as Dr. King looked on. They were followed closely by another group, and another. Even though Bull Connor had been voted out of office, he continued to exercise his abusive authority against racial demonstrations, and he called out the police dogs and the fire department hoses to attack the crowd. Criticism was leveled at Dr. King for using children and at Bull Connor for using dogs and hoses against children and for arresting them by the busload. Some 2,000 youngsters were hauled away.
The Birmingham Post-Herald reported, “Saturday night, May 11, more than 2,500 Ku Klux Klansmen, some of them armed, gathered in the flickering light of two 20-foot burning crosses in Bessemer.” It was further reported in Monday’s paper that deputy sheriff R. E. Belcher and three others from the sheriff’s office attended that gathering.
Later that Saturday night, at 11:08 p.m., three people were hurt when two blasts destroyed the Ensley home of the Reverend A. D. W. King, a brother of Martin Luther King, Jr. Forty-five minutes later, another blast ripped into the A.G. Gaston Motel, where King’s headquarters were located. Neither Dr. King nor any of his staff was in the motel at the time, but the room Klansmen believed King was in was destroyed. The streets filled with angry black citizens.
Alabama highway patrol chief Colonel Al Lingo had become almost a fixture in downtown Birmingham, but he had suddenly pulled his troopers out of town a few hours before the blasts. Police Chief Jamie Moore responded to the scene downtown with police dogs and city officers. By 2 a.m. Sunday, Moore had the situation under control, but Lingo and 250 troopers returned a half hour later after being “requested” by Mayor Art Hanes. Lingo took a look around and ordered his troops into the streets, with clubs swinging, to beat and arrest those few blacks still out.
It was reported that four white men with their faces smeared in camouflage had been seen near the motel, but they could not be identified. Mayor Hanes denounced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for having “masterminded the recent demonstrations.” He added that King had been “encouraged by the White House and the attorney general.” In Alabama by the spring of 1963, support of the Kennedy brothers was considered by white segregationists to be as great an insult as a charge of Communism.
The following Tuesday, May 14, was the day of the Black Wall, when an estimated 2,000 black demonstrators went through downtown en masse, taking to the streets and the sidewalks and making token efforts to enter stores as they passed. All of the stores were locked. There had been public warnings that the demonstration would take place, and the owners of New Ideal department store, where I worked at the time, along with other merchants, ordered their doors locked.
I was at the New Ideal during the demonstration, and I remember that the male employees, armed with weapons ranging from pistols to a claw hammer held by the display department director, took positions at the doors and display window entrances. The rest of us were herded upstairs and out of harm’s way. I stood with a dozen or more employees and watched from the mezzanine as the long line of protesters passed the front of the store. There was genuine fear among whites downtown that day and not a little anger. Caught between two warring factions, we could not change the situation and had no avenue of response.
The family who owned the New Ideal had warned their black employees that participation in demonstrations would cost them their jobs. William, a young black man about my age, worked as a porter and helped me in the display department when our boss was out sick (which happened often). William was a very talented young man, and I taught him as much as I could about setting up display windows and running the sign-making machine. Since the passage of the federal minimum wage law, overtime pay was discontinued, yet the owners expected the department to be covered during all business hours; consequently, I sometimes worked 60-and 70-hour weeks with only regular hours reported.
I remember one night I had gone past the allowed number of hours the company would pay for and I left William in charge of the department rather than work off the clock. I knew there would be hell to pay, but I was too tired to care, and I knew that William was perfectly capable of handling whatever work might come up. I did get a dressing down when I came into work the next morning, but fortunately for William I got to the department office before the owners and destroyed the doodles he had made about “black power” and “equality” while he sat alone at the display office desk the evening before.
William did not come to work the day of the Black Wall, and I knew that he had been part of that mass demonstration. He could not have done otherwise. I tried to convince our boss to stick up for him, saying that William had really been sick and should be allowed to return to work. I also talked to one of the owners about the matter, but I couldn’t change the situation. I haven’t seen William since his last day at the store and I don’t remember his last name, but William knows who he is, and if he ever reads this book he will know that I admired his spunk, feared for his safety, and tried to stick up for him.
During late May and early June 1963, attention diverted from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa as the University of Alabama played out its hand of legal cards and prepared to admit black students Vivian Malone and James Hood for the summer term. Governor George Wallace was preparing to stand in the schoolhouse door, and the Kennedy brothers in Washington were preparing to respond with whatever was necessary to desegregate the campus.
Wallace told members of the Klan, the Citizens’ Councils, and the National States Rights Party to stay away and let him handle the situation. There is a report that one carload of Birmingham Klansmen, apparently incited by FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe, was detained at the Tuscaloosa city limits Saturday night, June 8, and an “arsenal” confiscated. Arrested along with Rowe were Birmingham Klansmen Herman Cash, William Ross Keith, Herbert Eugene Reeves, Charles Cagle, and Ellis Denesmore.
Otherwise, there was no interference; the city of Tuscaloosa and the University campus were secured, and all traffic was checked. Although Atlanta attorney J. B. Stoner, founder of the National States Rights Party, spoke at a massive rally south of Tuscaloosa that Saturday night and at another on Sunday, there was no violence that weekend. Robert Shelton got the six Klansmen out of jail early Sunday morning, but they had no opportunity to breach the carefully planned peace. Nor was there violence on Tuesday, June 11, when Wallace made his stand as the two black students were admitted. A third black college student was admitted without incident at the university’s campus in Huntsville.
That same night, however, in Jackson, Mississippi, Medgar Evers, NAACP field secretary, was gunned down in his driveway by a sniper with a rifle. Byron De la Beckwith stood trial for the murder twice in 1964, but all-white juries refused to convict him, despite overwhelming evidence. (In February 1994, he was tried a third time and this time was convicted.)
Beginning in August 1963, Klan night-riding again accelerated with several fires and blasts, including three attacks on Birmingham businessman A. G. Gaston’s home and one on the home of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores.
On Friday, August 16, a Birmingham News headline reported that “City Fathers Pledge Effort To Get Bomber.” The accompanying article stated that “Angry city council and Mayor Albert Boutwell pledged to apprehend the sick rabid animal who tossed a gas bomb into Loveman’s Thursday.” A tear gas bomb had been put in a wastebasket in Loveman’s department store just before lunch time. One of Birmingham’s largest downtown retailers, Loveman’s had recently desegregated its eating facilities. National States Rights Party members demonstrated and picketed the store, and several were arrested.
Even though things were heating up in Birmingham, my life seemed to be improving. I had taken the high school equivalency test and gotten my G.E.D. in 1961, and I had started college courses at the University Extension Center in Birmingham during the summer term 1963. Also I had started a new job right after the Fourth of July holiday.
The money wasn’t any better, but the work wasn’t as physically taxing as my job in the display department at New Ideal. And the hours were better, making it easier for me to attend night classes. My efforts to change life for the better seemed to be working.
My son was due to start first grade at North Birmingham Elementary School in the fall, and the first black students were scheduled to desegregate Birmingham high schools. During the lull in activity between Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door and the start of school for the fall term in elementary and high schools, many of the city’s ministers were pressing for peaceful solutions. The pastor of Thirty-fifth Avenue Baptist Church, up the street from where we lived, was one of those who urged peace.
Robert Chambliss was not an avid churchgoer, but he was a member of the Thirty-fifth Avenue Baptist Church, as were several others in the family; I was not a member but went occasionally. Robert was convinced that his segregationist actions and attitudes were biblically justified, and he became enraged during an evening worship service and rose from his seat shouting at the preacher and waving his fist. He did not simply go to the aisle to head for the pulpit in confrontation. Instead, he started climbing over the pews from seat to seat, shouting all the while. He was blocked by ushers and suddenly seemed to realize what he was doing. He turned and abruptly left, still hurling insults. His wife, my Aunt Tee, hurried out behind him.
I was trying to see Tee regularly during this period. Her health was not good, and repeated bouts of hypertension were taking a toll on her. Often on Saturday, Robin and I would go by for a visit. Sometimes Robert would already be gone when we arrived, but other times he would be at home. Most of our visits took place around the kitchen table with coffee and conversation. If Robert was gone, Tee would smoke a cigarette with her coffee, nervously glancing out as though she feared he would come back unexpectedly. Robin and I still lived with my grandmother a few blocks away, and sometimes Tee would call and tell me Robert was gone and ask me to come over.
They had a parakeet whose cage sat under the windows in the kitchen on a table with an enameled top. Robert would play with the bird, letting it sit on his shoulder while he ate, drank coffee, read, or talked. He would angle his jaw toward the bird and tell it, “Give me sugar,” and it would peck his cheek. If he had not shaved, the bird would catch a whisker in its beak and pull. Robert would yell, the bird would fly around his head fussing, and then settle back on his shoulder. Robert had also taught it to say a few words and to whistle the way he did when he called Tee. And he had taught the parakeet to call the cat, a great amusement for Robert. When he told the bird to call the cat, the bird would whistle and say, “Here kitty, kitty.” The cat would come running and put on a show of frustration trying to get the bird who would still be calling. Robert would laugh at the cat’s frustration and put it out the back door. One day when he and Tee had been out of the house, they returned to find the cage upturned and the bird reduced to a few feathers. Apparently, the bird had baited the cat when there was no one to intervene.
The Klan in Birmingham was also finally approaching a time when there would be no one to intervene and protect it.