Cussing and Fussing

On September 4, 1963, Robert Chambliss purchased from Leon Negron’s General Store in Daisy City, Alabama, a case of dynamite, along with caps and a roll of fuses. He had this case of dynamite opened in the trunk of his car late that night when he and other Klansmen gathered at Jack Cash’s Cafe on Third Avenue West. They laughed and talked about the bombing of attorney Arthur Shores’ home at 1601 Center Street a little earlier that evening.

About midnight, Robert left the cafe and went home, leaving a message for two of his buddies. Later that night, Klansmen John Wesley “Nigger” Hall and Charles Cagle, two of the men in the Cahaba Boys, went to Robert’s house. They moved the box of dynamite from the trunk of Robert’s car and put it into Hall’s car, just as Robert’s message had instructed them to do. (An FBI surveillance photograph on file shows Tee standing on the porch watching Hall and Cagle move the box from one car to the other.) Hall and Cagle took the case of dynamite to a field in the Gardendale area and hid it under kudzu vines. Cagle then told Klansman Levi Yarbrough where it was so Yarbrough could retrieve it and deliver it to Troy Ingram‘s house in Cahaba Heights.

The blast at Arthur Shores’ home had been a “toss and run” bomb. It did not have a timing device, and several Klansmen had been seen in cars in the area. That type of bombing carries the risk of being seen and of being injured, making it more exciting, and the group enjoyed it, just as high school boys enjoy a prank.

For the next ten days, there were demonstrations at local schools as desegregation efforts were begun in earnest. Members of the United Klans of America, the National States Rights Party, the United Americans for Conservative Government, White Citizens’ Councils, and assorted parents and students staged protests and disruptions at each of the city’s high schools. Emotions were running high, sparking new racial confrontations.

I heard a sketchy radio news report Friday night, September 13, about a white high school girl being stabbed by a young black male, and I read a brief article about it in the Saturday morning newspaper. I stopped at Tee and Robert’s about 7 o’clock on my way to work that morning. Tee had not been feeling well, and to give Tee a break from Robert’s demanding attention, I asked him if he had heard about the incident. Robert hadn’t, and he immediately left the house by the back door and walked down the alley to a supermarket half a block away to buy a newspaper. When he returned, he sat at the kitchen table and read the front-page article while Tee served his oatmeal and coffee.

Robert scolded her for not having fixed me a cup of coffee in spite of my objections that I did not want any. I hated coffee at their house; it was thick and strong, and the Eagle Brand canned milk he used was too sickeningly sweet for me. I accepted the coffee, though, to avoid the harangue going on any longer. When he was agitated and angry like this, anything could set him off. After reading the article, he ranted about the “poor little [white] girl” on a bus returning from a school football game who had been stabbed through the bus window by a young black male who had been outside the bus. She was the daughter of a city detective, and I had been in a grade or two of school with her older sister.

(That article in the morning newspaper later became important to substantiating my memory of the breakfast conversation that took place between Robert and myself. In the fall of 1977,  as part of the pretrial investigation of Robert Chambliss, Assistant Attorney General Jon Yung and Investigator Bob Eddy from the Alabama attorney general’s office questioned me about that morning, and I recalled that the newspaper story had been on the front page below the fold or near the bottom of the page. During our next meeting, they handed me a tear sheet of the 1963 newspaper with the article circled in red; it was, indeed, just where I had remembered it.)

“Bob Gafford is going to offer a hundred dollar reward,” I had told Robert that Saturday morning.

“By God, if Bob can put up a hundred, I’ll put up a thousand,” Robert bristled as much at Gafford, it seemed, as at the knife-wielding young black man.

“That’s a lot of money, Robert. Do you think it’ll do any good?” I asked.

“Nothin’s gonna do any good except puttin’ the damn niggers in their place and keepin’ them there! That poor little girl, just ridin’ a bus, doin’ nobody no harm. They’d been to a ball game …. .”

“Where does she go to school?” I asked him.

“I don’t know … that goddamn nigger reached through the bus window and cut her on the arm.”

“What happened before that? How could he reach into a bus window from the street, Robert? Was she leaning out or something?” I reflected that the account didn’t add up.

“The bus stopped and the niggers on the street started yelling things cause they was white kids on the bus … trying to start something. She was just minding her own business,” he defended.

“She was a detective’s daughter. Do you know him?” I asked.

“Bieker. He’s a good man.”

“I knew one of his daughters in school.”

“This girl’s still in school. She’s too young for you to know.”

“I know that. Bonnie was in school when I was. This must be the one who was real little when I went over to their house after school a couple of times.” I added.

“This wouldn’t have ever happened if we had put the niggers in their place a long time ago. I’ve been fighting a one-man war since 1942. If the boys would have backed me up, we’d have put the niggers in their place by now.” His face was tight and his jaw jutted forward defiantly.

“How have you been fighting a one-man war, Robert?” I asked, still trying to occupy his attention and give Tee a rest.

“George Wallace is a lily-livered coward. That little bastard has sold us out. He used to be a man, but he just won’t do anything now. We got him elected, and he’s not gonna do what’s right.”

“He’s just doing what he can,” I replied. “He knew in the beginning that he couldn’t keep any promises about the schools. The federal government passes a law, and all Wallace can do is make noise. He did exactly what he said he would—no more and no less—he stood in the door,” I told Robert, knowing that he would react.

“That’s why we’ve got to fight for states’ rights. If Wallace wasn’t such a coward, he would have done more to keep segregation.”

“Maybe so. But when the laws change, there seems to be no way to keep things from changing. Do you wonder why they would even want to integrate?” Somehow this seemed logical at the time. In my mind, I could easily understand blacks wanting better jobs, education, and housing, but I could not understand why a black person would have any desire to run the risks involved in widespread integration of facilities.

My thoughts were heavily influenced, of course, by knowing that Robert and men like him created the danger, and I could not envision that danger ever going away. The abyss between the cultures of southern whites and blacks at that time was such that even though I had had four years of relationships with blacks at work, it did not occur to me that they would be comfortable interacting with whites in general. My black coworkers and I would laugh and cut up when we were alone but when customers or another white employee was around, we would “behave.”

At that moment however, Robert got my full attention. “You just wait until Sunday morning. They’ll beg us to let them segregate!” His face was grim and defiant.

“What do you mean, Robert? What’s so important about Sunday morning?” I thought there was a rally or something planned that I hadn’t heard about, and I expected him to furnish details about some huge show of force, maybe a motorcade or a downtown demonstration.

Instead, he set his jaw and glared as he looked me squarely in the face and said, ”Just wait. You’ll see. Everybody will.”

During this exchange, Tee had served his breakfast, refilled his coffee cup, and put juice and some sort of medication before him on the table. She had not said a word. Robert had eaten, paying little attention to the food, and Tee hovered in the background, puttering about, pale and stooped. I remember being worried about her.

As he ate, he continued, “I can stop all this foolishness.”

“How on earth can you expect to make any difference, Robert?” I asked him. By this time I had become disturbed, as I usually did, by his mood and the things he was saying. I think I wanted to see him admit helplessness even if it meant more of his anger. He did not. He caught me off guard again.

“I’ve got enough stuff put away to flatten half of Birmingham. And they’ll never find it. I could take them right to it, and they couldn’t find it if I didn’t point it out to them,” he told me with pride, leaning his head slightly back as though looking down his nose, his eyes partially closed. He looked smug. Perhaps “conspiratorial” is a better word, as though his boast was also a confidence.

“Robert, don’t do anything that’s going to get you into trouble. People don’t need to be hurt. Besides, what would Tee do if something happened to you.” A lot better, I thought to myself.

“I ain’t gonna get caught doing anything. I know what I’m doing. Mommy, get some more coffee. My buddies and me can do what we need to. When I do something, I’ll be in something I can get away in.” He had finished eating and took his false teeth out. I knew from past experience that he would proceed to lick them clean, so with my stomach beginning to lurch, I stood and explained that I had to go to work.

I hugged Tee, told Robert good-bye, and walked with Tee to the door. She whispered for me to ignore him and not to tell anybody how he had carried on. I slipped Tee a couple of cigarettes, which she put into the pocket of her duster-style housecoat. Later she would sneak a smoke. Robert would not allow her to smoke because it was unseemly for a woman, so we all slipped her a few each time we went by. We hugged at the door, and I left, heading for the south side of town to work.

As the day progressed, Robert would be busy. During the day other family members and friends stopped by to visit, which was normal procedure on weekends. Robert was in and out of the house all day.

About dark Robert invited one of the youngsters to go with him “out to the airport.” At the airport, Robert met the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, Robert Shelton, and the three of them rode back into town in Robert Chambliss’s car. The two men, with the youngster in the car, discussed the plans to bomb the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Robert then dropped the child at the Chambliss home and left to “go to Troy’s house.”

One of the women visiting that evening said he came home about 10:30 p.m., and she left while he was still there. Reports from other people indicate that Robert was at home for only a few minutes, didn’t return until morning, and then left several times again before 10 am, and several times more later in the day.

Dale Tarrant was also at the Chambliss house that Saturday evening, and soon after Robert dropped off the youngster and left for Troy’s, she went to find a phone. She called Deputy Sheriff ]ames Hancock and asked to meet with him, saying that it was urgent; he did not agree to meet her and hung up on her.

For many months, Dale had been in and out of the Chambliss home helping Tee serve coffee at meetings, stuffing envelopes with political literature, visiting, —and listening and watching. Everything she had heard and seen, she had passed on to the deputy. She had even helped him place a bug in the house, but he couldn’t talk to her that night when she called him. Later that night, they spoke again and met at their usual area (north of Tarrant City) about 6 o’clock Sunday morning. Hancock asked Dale many questions, teased her, and drove around town and the rural areas for several hours, even stopping for coffee. She was frustrated that he apparently did not believe her. During the many months she had been giving him information about Robert’s Klan activities, nothing ever seemed to be “enough” for him to bring charges against Robert and his buddies.

Before 10 o’clock that Sunday morning, Hancock dropped Dale back at her car, telling her he would “check it out”. He later reported that as he drove back toward town, the bomb exploded. He had not called in any alarm or bomb threat in the four hours he had Dale’s information, and what’s more, he had Dale isolated so that she could not give her information to anyone else until the expected time for the explosion had passed.

Years later, when Hancock was finally questioned about his failure to perform his duty as a law enforcement officer, he insinuated that the two of them had spent the time being intimate and that her information was not “specific,” even though she told him where a bomb had been placed. Hancock effectively neutralized Dale’s role as an informant, a pattern that was repeated with other law enforcement agents and their informants on Klan activity.

As for Robert’s alibi, there were five people who saw him at his house when the explosion occurred on Sunday, September 15 at 10:22 AM, and during the following half hour: his wife, one of her sisters, one of his sisters, one of his nephews and one of his next door neighbors. My grandmother and I spoke to Tee on the telephone minutes after the blast, and I could hear Robert in the background. So I knew he was at home—at least at the time of the explosion.

I did not learn until quite recently about the youngster’s trip to the airport with Robert or the incriminating conversation that was overheard. In all the years of investigating the church bombing, no one ever questioned the children in the Chambliss family: not the local police, nor the FBI agents, nor the state investigators. They missed altogether the fact that kids were in the Chambliss home that evening.

My Aunt Viola had also gone to the Chambliss home that Saturday evening before the bombing, taking her two children with her. So she, too, was in a position to perhaps know firsthand about the visitors that evening and to overhear enough to piece together that something big was in the works. Robert had talked a lot that night.

Bob Gafford and Robert saw each other on Saturday, but Bob Gafford had witnesses to his whereabouts late that Saturday night. He and his wife, along with Hubert Page (a Klan leader in Klavern 13) and his wife and son, had gone to the bowling alley at Eastwood Mall. They said they were there from before midnight until after 2 o’clock Sunday morning. Robert Chambliss’s employer came into the bowling alley and, seeing Bob Gafford, teased him about offering the small one hundred dollar reward and Robert’s one-upmanship in offering a thousand for information in the stabbing of the detective’s daughter.

Bob replied that Robert was going to cost him a hundred dollars because the reward was in the name of the United Americans for Conservative Government and had only been offered for publicity. The one thousand dollar reward, however, was big enough to get someone to give information, which would force the UACG to pay their pledge also. With this incident, Bob not only got UACG publicity, which did turn out to be free, but he also established his own alibi and Page’s for the time frame during which a bomb was being placed under the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church miles away. Few alibis for those hours were quite as neat.

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