The years 1958 to 1962 marked the movement of Robert’s political posture from opinionated and verbal to violently militant. His rabble-rousing and subsequent arrest during the desegregation of the University of Alabama in the mid-Fifties had marked the beginning of his more activist approach to politics.
Demonstrations like those that took place at the University brought growth to local Klan klaverns and increased the powerbase of the up-and-coming Klan leader Robert Shelton in Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, attorney J. B. Stoner and chiropractor Edward Fields had put together the ultra-conservative National States Rights Party. They moved the NSRP headquarters to Birmingham in 1960 and claimed about two hundred members as they started to stage protests.
Naturally Robert counted himself among them. He would insist that anyone who came into his house during those years should stuff envelopes, and he pressed us all to pass out literature and bumper stickers and lapel buttons. Usually I would put the literature in the trunk of my car, where it would stay until the next time I cleaned it out.
Robert was also a member of the United Americans for Conservative Government (UACG), a third party formed out of southern disenchantment with both Democrats and Republicans, and that presented a more legitimate political face than the hate-mongering NSRP.
Despite this upsurge in “independent” politics and Klan visibility, by the Sixties it was becoming less acceptable to have the open support of the Ku Klux Klan in an election. Sooner or later, people lose tolerance for sustained destruction, if for no other reason than it’s bad for business.
Between 1948 and 1960 the faces of both the Democratic and Republican parties had changed almost completely, largely because of civil rights issues. Americans who were economically conservative and socially traditional began to recognize themselves among Republicans, while those who supported the principles of equality on the voting booth and the marketplace saw themselves in the new version of the Democrats.
As the increasing violence of Klan-affiliated former Democrats like Robert — people who now labeled themselves NSRP, UACG, or even Republican — began to stain the political arena, powerful Democrats of long-standing began to draw back from the negative publicity. Anticipating his own re-election in Birmingham, Police Commissioner Bull Connor even found it necessary to be publically distanced from the Klan violence and bombings. It is a matter of record, however, that Connor not only attended Klan rallies but also spoke at them, sometimes standing on the hood of a car to be seen. This is confirmed by police reports and newspaper accounts.
While on the surface the politicians in power began to separate themselves from Klan activity, their covert intertwining remained intact. In my mind it was understood, from years of listening to Robert, that Klan activities were financed, at least in part, by money that flowed from Washington, D.C., through both J. B. Stoner in Atlanta and the Alabama state capital, into the Alabama state police headed by Colonel Al Lingo. As Robert told it (and FBI files record investigations of these allegations), several couriers were kept busy and well-paid for traveling between Stoner, Shelton, and Al Lingo with packages and messages. From there, according to Robert, the funds were channeled into the hands of Klan leaders and to whichever individuals were to secure materials or pay participants’ expenses. Of course, there is no documentation of the funds—no canceled checks or ledger pages. Robert and his cronies simply discussed the situation as fact, usually in terms of Klan complaints that officials were siphoning off the top and cheating the rank and file who did the actual work.
I also knew from listening to Robert and others that local politicians still ran with the approval of the Klan. It was still difficult for anyone to be elected who was not favored by the Invisible Empire, in spite of (or perhaps because of) Klan activities that included harassing and killing Negroes, beating white men—other than Klansmen that is—who had abused their wives or failed to provide for their households, and making life unpleasant for anyone who happened to be Jewish, Catholic, or unionist.
Women were not exempt from Klan discipline. A woman who was not a “good” wife (or daughter) or was having an affair, especially a woman known to socialize with a black man, was a target for Klan punishment. Informants were treated with special severity. A Klansman who beat his own wife or kept a girlfriend, however, was not usually molested by fellow Klansmen.On more than a few occasions, Tee sported bruises and lumps, moving slowly and painfully after Robert “straightened her out.” His physical abuse of Aunt Tee seemed to lessen during the years that my mother’s brother Howard, his wife Mary Ida, and their children lived in the house with them, but it was not gone altogether.
Nor was the abuse totally physical. As is so often the case, Robert’s was a sinister, calculating brutality that caused fear greater than the pain. It was a cruelty that Tee could not be protected from, but neither could she leave Robert. There was an overt threat on the head of each person she loved should she cross him. And it was clearly understood that she would not live long, and certainly not peacefully, should she try to leave him. There was nothing any of us could do to save Tee from her husband, and fear for her safety is what kept us quiet about Robert and his activities.
At the time, I wasn’t really aware that I was also in danger. I had started working downtown at the New Ideal department store in the fall of 1959 and soon formed a friendship with a woman coworker at the store. During 1961 and 1962 I frequently visited her hilltop Fountain Heights home, and she introduced me to a city detective, “Don Stevens,” who had used an upper room in her house in connection with the late-Fifties Dynamite Hill bombings. The elevation of her house allowed easy surveillance of parallel and adjacent streets while Stevens remained unseen using binoculars in a darkened room. During the Christmas season Stevens had been suddenly and inexplicably pulled from these duties, put back in uniform, and assigned to traffic duty downtown, at one of the busiest intersections. Within a few days he was severely injured by a hit-and-run driver. After months of treatment, Stevens returned to work at a desk job, able to walk only with the aid of crutches and in great pain for many years. In fact, he was crippled for life.
Stevens asked me to meet him one day in the fall of 1962 in a restaurant, a greasy little out-of-the-way place on the near northeast side of downtown. When I saw the place I almost didn’t go in to meet him, but I liked him and he had seemed distressed when he called. Over coffee and pie, he told me about the night he was injured and the big white car that hit him; how he had seen it bearing down on him and how he had run; and how it had “chased [me] all over that intersection until it finally got [me].”
He told me the story with a strong warning for me to be careful. He said that he knew who was responsible for his injuries, and yet he would never testify against this person. Should he try to press charges, he believed he would be killed. He also cautioned me against the police in Birmingham, saying that it was impossible to know who could be trusted. He told me that even officers who would prefer to be honorable were often afraid to act for fear of danger to themselves or their families.
I was not quite able to appreciate the significance of his confidences that day. I felt that he was deeply troubled., and yet I wasn’t sure why he was so clearly exposing his vulnerability to me. He was ahead of me by more than a year, but I would reflect on his warnings many times as events unfolded.
During these years, former FBI agent Art Hanes, Sr., ran Birmingham as mayor and president of the city commission, while Bull Connor ran the police and fire departments as commissioner of public safety. “Jabo” Waggoner rounded out the three-seat city commission as commissioner of public works. Clarence M. Kelley (who would succeed J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director) was special agent in charge of the FBI office in Birmingham.
The number and frequency of demonstrations, rallies, and destructive night rides increased and the scope of the targets became more and more political. I knew from Robert’s mutterings and from what I heard on the news that the businesses and homes of prominent black leaders, black churches, and houses sold to blacks were primary targets. With increasing frequency the targets were also Jewish temples and businesses as the influence of J. B. Stoner, Ed Fields, and their National States Rights Party grew and talk of a “Jewish-Communist plot” grew more strident.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose ministry in Montgomery had served as support and guidance for the Montgomery Bus Boycott after Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus in 1955, also was experiencing the lash of the Klan as churches and homes were bombed in Montgomery. The Klans in Montgomery, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Anniston kept Highway 31 (North-South) and Highways 78 and 11 (East-West) busy as members in the four major areas supported each other and assisted with “actions” in smaller towns, all under the watchful eye of Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton.
Attitudes had not changed much since February 1957, when a grand jury in Montgomery returned indictments against seven men in connection with bombings and bombing attempts in that city. They issued a statement saying that the indictments “served notice today that segregation must be preserved without bombs and bullets,” and further, “we believe we are expressing the feelings of our citizens who believe in law and order, and that they are a great majority of our people.”
The men indicted in the bombings of four churches, the homes of the Reverends Ralph Abernathy and Robert Graetz, and an unexploded bomb at the home of Dr. King, were Eugene Hall, Charlie Bodoford, Donald Dunlap, Henry Alexander, James D. York, Raymond C. Britt, Jr., and “Sonny” Kyle Livingston, Jr. The latter four were also charged when Britt confessed in 1976 to the 1957 death of Willie Edwards, who may have been the black man Robert had laughed about scaring so badly that he jumped off a bridge into the Alabama River. Britt apparently made a mistake about the fourth man being Livingston, though, and when Livingston was able to prove he was not at the scene of the crime, the case fell apart. (Alexander made a deathbed confession in 1993, but to date no one has been prosecuted for Edwards’s murder.)
As the Sixties began, the black community in Birmingham hesitantly gained the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King’s nonviolent strategy received much more attention than the NAACP’s reliance on legal battles and political pressure, especially after it was banned in Birmingham following the Autherine Lucy vs. the University of Alabama suits and countersuits in which Robert participated. The new civil disobedience was different, and it disturbed many, both blacks and whites. Naturally it disturbed Robert Chambliss, who had been enjoying taking credit for running the NAACP out of town. He called the new black leader “Martin Lucifer King” or “Martin Luther Coon.”
These were very nervous days for Birmingham. Most of us felt we were caught in a war zone that we would just as soon avoid. We could feel the battle bearing down upon us as downtown Birmingham had a few attempted sit-ins and scuffles and the civil rights rallies began at Kelly Ingram Park, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church across the street, and other churches across the city. There was no real thrust to these efforts, but that didn’t make them any less disturbing.
There were headlines and news comments. President Kennedy and the U.S. attorney general made carefully worded statements. There were talks and negotiations between some wise men of both races in Birmingham, including the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, attorneys Arthur Shores and David Vann, and Methodist minister John Rutland.
The year 1962 was punctuated by bombings and frequent reports of night-riding. St. Luke’s AME Zion Church was bombed. So was Triumph the Church and Kingdom Hall of God in Christ. So were some apartments near New Bethel Baptist Church on Thirteenth Avenue. At these times Robert would often leave the house, with the bomb blast occurring a short while later.
Birmingham’s white businessmen and black leaders reached a first agreement toward desegregation of the commercial area, and in November 1962, moderates led by David Vann won the right to reorganize the city government to a mayor-council form, effectively deposing at midterm the three-man commission powerbase of Bull Conner, Art Hanes, and Jabo Waggoner. The three commissioners campaigned vigorously against the proposed change, but they were defeated in a citywide vote. Not one to give up easily, Bull entered the race for the mayor’s office, while he, Hanes and Waggoner contested the legitimacy of the new elections, insisting they had a right to serve out their duly elected terms of office. In spite of their efforts, the mayoral election was slated for March 5, 1963.
On December 17, 1962, the City of Birmingham announced a $1,000 reward for information in the bombings, and on December 18, the reward was increased to $3,000. On December 16, The Birmingham News ran a front page editorial entitled “Birmingham Merry Christmas with Dynamite.”
In typical fashion, Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, distanced himself and the main body of the Klan from the violence with a pledge of $l,000, announced on Christmas Day, for information about the bombings.