Falling Through the Cracks

48-DP-SIO_NPS_AL_2-20-06_2_SIO_NPS_AL_16th_St_Church_2-21-06_026_aJ. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were called in to investigate the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing for two reasons: the crime’s felony status as a civil rights violation and the strong indication of police involvement.

In addition to the regular patrol cars assigned to the area the night the bomb was planted, there had been two special cars assigned to watch the A. G. Gaston Motel and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

At 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning, September 15, a bomb threat was reportedly called to the downtown Holiday Inn six blocks from the church on Third Avenue North at Thirteenth Street. However, police radio logs from that night document that this call was not broadcast on the police radio; instead there was a broadcast directing the special cars to rendezvous with the shift supervisor. For two hours these special cars were diverted away from watching Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the A. G. Gaston Motel.

Along with officers on duty between 11 p.m. September 14 and 7 a.m. September 15, several other police officers and sheriff’s  under suspicion in the case. These included Robert Chambliss’s nephew, Police Officer, .

Within a couple of days of the bombing, I became aware that FBI agents were talking to various members of our family and that they were being routinely told no one knew anything helpful. I also heard tales of the FBI’s harsh attitudes and intention to involve anyone they could; it was easy to feel intimidated by the thought of a TV crime show type investigation in a small room with a bright light in one’s face.

With these worries, it is little wonder that I was upset and unnerved when I received a call from Dale Tarrant at work early in October telling me that the FBI wanted to talk to me. She told me that she had spoken with agents and that I should just cooperate with them. She assured me that everything would be kept secret. No one would know if I told them anything that might help solve the case. She also indicated that they would talk to me whether I cooperated or not.

I reluctantly agreed to meet with the agents after work in the parking lot of the American Liberty Insurance Company, which was shielded from public view. I had a mixture of feelings as I left work that evening. First, I did not believe I could furnish any helpful information because I had not actually seen any crime committed and could not prove any of my suspicions: I just had opinions. Second, for years any mention of the FBI had been charged with distrust, fear, and ridicule, so I was not sure how I should respond to these men. I was trembling from nerves and cold as I sat in the backseat of that car with the two men in the front seat turned to face me.

The driver partially turned and entered the exchange occasionally, while the man in the passenger seat did most of the talking. He was polite and respectful, yet firm and authoritative. This was to be the first of many, many meetings in parking lots, restaurants, and motel and hotel rooms as well as telephone conversations at home and work.

I was shown a large stack of photographs to see if I recognized any of the men as being visitors at the Chambliss home. I was asked if I had any direct knowledge of the bombing itself. I was shown a piece of cloth and asked if I recognized it as belonging to Tee or from any clothing I had seen her wear; it allegedly had been used to tie together sticks of dynamite in one of the bombing attempts.

I did recognize some of the faces in the photographs and told the agents so. I knew few of the names of the men in the photographs then, but  they gained identities as I was told more about the ones I pointed out.

File:Floats.jpg

Different types of fishing bobs or floats. Source: Wikipedia. Public domain by donation of creator.

I was shown a photograph of a fishing float or bobber and told it had been found in the street amidst the rubble from the wall and stairs of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. I did not see the fishing bob itself. This was when I learned how a bomb can be timed using a decreasing volume of water or other liquid and a fishing bob. As the liquid leaks out of its container, the bob lowers and finally exerts the tiny amount of pressure needed to break either a chemical capsule or to trip a hair-fine wire. The blast itself wipes out evidence, usually even destroying the lightweight plastic bob.

The FBI agents assured me that they knew who had done the bombing, but they needed more physical evidence or incriminating testimony to build a case that would hold up in court. I was asked (or told) to visit often in Tee and Robert’s house, to watch the house whenever possible, and to report what I might see or hear. And I was to keep to myself any of the conversations I had with FBI agents. I was also told that our conversations should not be shared with the police department; if police investigators contacted me, I should let the FBI know.

The FBI agents were planning to interview my parents and told me that it might look better if I were asked to be present so that they could get the entire nuclear family at one time. I was instructed to behave as though I had not previously cooperated with them. Therefore, I was at my parents’ home the evening those interviews took place, and I spoke briefly with the agents at that time. They took each of us into a room apart from the others so that the content of each interview was private.

Family members were unaware of the conversations I had with FBI agents; Dale Tarrant, who had called me at work to arrange my first meeting with the FBI, was the only person who knew. She and I spent many hours together and separately with FBI agents trying to help gather information and shreds of conversation and observations to assist the succession of agents assigned to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church case.

During my almost five-year involvement in the original FBI investigation, the only agents I remember vividly are Robert Womack, Timothy Casey, an older gentleman named Cashdollar, and Mel Alexander. There were others, but those are the ones I had the most contact with and felt that I got to know. During that period I learned to check my telephone connection box for a tap; I learned to carry a gun at all times and sleep with it hanging on my bedpost; I learned to recognize when I was being tailed in the car and to lead a merry chase; and I learned to recognize by their headlights several of the autos used regularly by FBI agents.

From early on, the Klan knew there were informants and routinely threatened to eliminate any who were discovered. The FBI pledged to protect Dale’s anonymity and mine, but I did not learn for many years that the agents created more than one file on me: one under my real name, which held only information on those early routine interviews, and a second code-named file, which contained reports of my many other meetings with the FBI as well as agent surveillance of my own activities. (Years later I tried, under the Freedom of Information Act, to obtain my FBI files. I was told that the “photocopying” cost would be $1,000. This, of course, was a prohibitive amount; it effectively denied my access to the information.)

I knew that after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, FBI agents conducted visual and sound surveillance of Robert’s home and there were tapes of several conversations in which he made self- incriminating statements. However, the FBI did not always know who was present in the house during those conversations, and no one came forward to cooperate.

I was told there was a tape of the conversations of Saturday, September 14, including Robert’s conversation with me. I assumed that this was from the bug that Deputy Sheriff James Hancock had managed to have placed via Dale Tarrant. All of the “bugged” evidence gathered was rejected by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as insufficient for indictment.

The months of investigation became years, and as one year followed another, the Sixties became what seemed like a series of random events against a backdrop of frustration and waiting. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for the FBI agents to call and say they finally had Justice Department approval to make arrests or that there would be evidence presented to a federal grand jury. Waiting for Robert to figure out that we were talking to the FBI, that we were watching him as much as possible, and that we would tell what we saw and heard.

Apparently the FBI agents working on the case in Birmingham were also frustrated by the waiting and the dead ends. Mel Alexander was the primary FBI contact with Dale and me from 1964 through the closing years of that early investigation. I don’t recall that I ever met with him alone, although I had been alone when I had met with agents previously. There were several meetings in motel rooms and a couple of dinner meetings, but always Dale and I would be together when a meeting with Alexander took place. On those occasions I did more listening than talking.

He and the other agents kept insisting that they needed more evidence or direct testimony to tie together all the things they knew and make a prosecutable case. We were also told that there had been more than one eyewitness to place Robert and the other men at the church in the early hours of that Sunday morning. I wondered why that was not sufficient to indict. It finally dawned on me that either they did not know who that eyewitness actually was, or the witness was not credible. Or perhaps Mel was simply baiting us, thinking that one or both of us had been involved and eventually would admit it.

Dale Tarrant and I discussed all of this, among many other things, and she speculated that the FBI might reveal to us whether there really was enough of a case to prosecute if they, in turn, were baited with a “what if …. “.  She said to me, “Remember, we were out that night. We went bowling late, and  just decided to drive through that part of town to see if we could see anything going on? Remember?”

I didn’t, actually. “If we tell them that, maybe they will decide that there’s enough to prosecute. They wouldn’t put us on the stand. They  promised.” She urged me. “I want to see what they say. You just back me up. You may not remember, but you were with me that night. I’m just going to ask, ‘What if I told you that we drove down there that night?'”

The truth is that the FBI agents had given us so much information that we probably could not have been credible witnesses during those years if the case had been prosecuted. We had been told in great detail the events of that night, what could be proven and what was speculation. Tee had also provided information that would never see a witness stand. In order to “prod memory” and “make connections” we were told of activities and conversations that we might have never been able to ferret out otherwise. This, of course, added to the conspiratorial atmosphere of the exchanges.

Dale and I were out together many weekend nights, and on occasion, we had seen Robert and some of his buddies out carousing in cars or on the street, but we had not discussed any such events immediately after the weekend the church was bombed. So which weekend was which was up for grabs. Now a year later, I wasn’t at all sure whether I had actual memories of driving on Sixteenth Street or Seventh Avenue North in the early hours of September 15, 1963.

After we discussed the possible “what if … ,” Dale contacted Mel Alexander and set up a meeting. We went together to the motel. She spoke to him and another agent alone while I waited in the small sitting room of the two-room suite. Then I was taken into the back room alone, while Dale waited. We had not detailed a story between us or anything of that nature, but Mel asked me about details surrounding the planting of the bomb that Saturday night or Sunday morning. I remember being a bit alarmed at some of what he was saying. I recall telling him that I felt he could rely on what she had told him, but I could not say specifically that I had seen anything significant. I did ask whether it would make a difference to the strength of the case. He said that it might.

For a while after that meeting with Mel, not much happened, just more waiting and watching and listening. More being careful. Spring 1965 brought new terrorist activity to Birmingham, and attention was diverted from the 1963 church bombing somewhat. In April and May a series of boxes started showing up on selected people’s doorsteps. Painted an industrial shade of green, the boxes each contained several sticks of dynamite and an alarm clock. Only the first one exploded, at the home of a black family. Others were placed on the doorsteps of prominent people like Mayor Albert Boutwell and City Councilwoman Nina Miglionico.

During these weeks, FBI activity increased again, checking on all of the usual suspects and trying to find connections between the material used in the bombs and equipment in Klansmen’s garages, homes, or cars.

One morning when Dale was at our house we talked about those green-box bombs, convinced that the same bunch of hooligans were responsible and equally convinced by now that they would never be caught. “If I knew how to make a bomb, myself, I think I would put one on Robert’s porch just to see his face!” I voiced my irritation and frustration in the absurdity of our situation.

“I would, too.” Dale agreed. “God, just think how he would react if he opened his door and saw a green box sitting there. It wouldn’t even have to have anything in it. He would be so scared!”

“If only to say, ‘We know you are the bombers, and you’re vulnerable, too,’ it would almost be worth it.” By this time we were almost in hysterics, laughing at the morbid humor of Robert being targeted so pointedly.

“We ought to make a dummy bomb. Then take it up there. Knock on the door, and when he answers the door say, ‘Look Robert, what is that?'” Dale continued the joke.

I went to the back porch and brought in a cardboard box and a can of green spray paint. Dale retrieved a cylindrical tube from a roll of paper towels in the kitchen garbage can. My grandmother watched us like we were ready for the loony bin as we collected things to go into the box. Green plastic “straw” from a recent Easter basket. Another cardboard cylinder from the bathroom paper towel roll. Old electric wire that had been on the back porch for years, — and the alarm clock from my bedroom. All nested in the box, they looked absolutely lethal, at least to us. We sat around the kitchen joking about the effect such a prank would have — until the doorbell rang! Then we flew into action taking the thing apart and hiding the pieces while my grandmother went to answer the door. Fortunately, it was not Robert. We giggled like kids about our version of a “green box” bomb for weeks.

45th Anniversary of the Civil Rights March from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama

Credit: The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Also in spring 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was gearing up drives to register black voters again. Selma, where Sam Englehardt had formed the first White Citizens’ Council in Alabama, was the starting point for a demonstration march to the state capital in Montgomery. In their March 7 attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma, marchers were thwarted by Alabama state troopers and Dallas County sheriff’s deputies using clubs and tear gas.

From March 21 to 25, led by Dr. King, the marchers were joined by civil rights workers, both black and white, and federal officers for their second attempt. Among the whites in the effort, people labeled “outside agitators” by segregationists, was Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit mother of five children.

Liuzzo was shuttling demonstrators back to Selma from Montgomery after the march when her car was overtaken by another car. Bullets fired from that car by four Klansmen killed her almost instantly. Three of the four men in the car were charged with murder; the fourth, Gary Thomas Rowe, broke his cover as an FBI informant and testified against the other three Klansmen.

The FBI had a large number of paid informants, more than 2,000 according to some sources. J. Edgar Hoover’s reports to the Justice Department boasted of numerous new informant recruits. By the time Tommy Rowe’s cover was blown, there were several others already on the payroll, including John Wesley Hall, who had been arrested with Robert Chambliss and Charles Cagle on September 29, 1963. Hall’s polygraph tests had indicated that he was concealing information about the bombings and had possibly helped build the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bomb. His polygraph also indicated that although he probably had not been present when the bomb was placed at the church, he had direct knowledge of the bombers’ identities.

It seems that the greatest sources of information available to law enforcement, however, were the women who were married to Klansmen or girlfriends of Klansmen, as well as Klansmen’s sisters, mothers, nieces, and in-laws. Female informants were used by city and county officers and by the FBI agents, but few, if any, were paid informants. Most simply cooperated with authorities at great risk, just as Dale Tarrant had been working with a county deputy sheriff for many months prior to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. She had given information that could have prevented some of the violent acts and information that could have been used to charge and try many of the responsible Klansmen.

As I have mentioned, it had become obvious to me that a systematic attempt was made to identify and engage family members and associates of Klansmen—people who might be helpful in investigations leading to convictions. The detective, officer, or agent could then isolate the informant, effectively neutralizing, if necessary, any danger they might present to the Klan.

There were times when using female informants became too dangerous for various reasons. Perhaps they lost trust in the deputy or detective with whom they were cooperating. Perhaps their knowledge became too vital and too close to the mark. The law enforcement officer, of course, would be close enough to know when a possible information leak was becoming dangerous and would be able to eliminate the threat.

At least two female informants were murdered in the two years following the church bombing. The mangled body of one was found on Highway 31 North; her death was listed as a “hit-and-run” accident, although according to a description given to me by an FBI source, she had “apparently” been repeatedly run over and possibly beaten to death before being placed on the highway. The second was Marguerite “Brown,” whose father-in-law was a Klansman; she had been working with a Birmingham city detective, meeting him regularly to pass information in a small motel, also on Highway 31, north of the city. On the last night of her life, in spring 1965, she went to meet the detective, but she was reportedly dead of a gunshot to the head when the detective “found her.” Although it was physically impossible for a person to accomplish the contortions necessary to self-inflict the fatal shot, Marguerite’s death was officially listed as a suicide.

In June 1965, I moved from my grandmother’s house into a duplex in Tarrant City near my parents, and when I took my son to register for the first day of school that fall, I met Marguerite’s widower, who had a son in the same grade. We began a friendship and dated for several weeks before I learned the circumstances of his wife’s death. She had been dead five months when I met him, and he was struggling to parent their four children, who were still at home—and he was, I’m sure, anxious to have a second parent for his large brood.

When he suggested marriage, I entertained the idea, though with more than a little trepidation. I felt sorry for the children and was reasonably fond of him; I was also tired of the pressures of my own life raising a child alone. But within a few days, I received a telephone call warning me off. I was told the circumstances of Marguerite’s death and that it had not been suicide. The FBI contact who called me said that one of Marguerite’s family members, an old-line Klansman, was being watched and it was uncertain what her husband’s possible involvement might be. My son was used as a point of coercion to break off the relationship. I was told that if I persisted in forming this alliance, I might lose custody of Robin because of the “conditions” I would be putting him into.

I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I took the threat seriously. I also understood the additional danger of being in another family that was under watch, added to the one I was already in. I simply told my suitor that I needed to put off marrying because I was unsure. I certainly was not sure enough of him to tell him the truth!

I avoided seeing him for several weeks, and finally he called and asked if I had made a decision. I told him no, and he explained, not unkindly, that his children needed a mother and he needed a wife’s help, so that if I were not going to consider marrying him he was going to ask another woman to marry him. I told him to go ahead.

I felt used, manipulated, and held captive. But I also was relieved. I had had time to think what that arrangement might have cost me in time, strength, and, possibly, my life. I grew very despondent over the situation I was in. Not the broken relationship itself, but the power the situation of being associated with a Klansman had over my life. I had not been allowed to make my own decisions.

Also during this time, my mother’s inability to cope with the stress and embarrassment caused her to isolate herself and her health became frail. She became more and more demanding, mistrusting, and accusative. It was not possible to confide in family or friends. My only outlet for tension concerning the KKK or the FBI was Dale Tarrant.

The months of secrecy after the church bombing had stretched to more than two years, with no end in sight. Yet the FBI presence was always there — and so was the Klan’s.

This despondency led me the closest to suicide that I have ever come. I sat in the living room of the shotgun duplex I rented for myself and my son, who was asleep in the next room. I picked up the .25 automatic that had become my constant companion. I slid a shell into the chamber and took off the safety. I looked at that gun for a long, long time, crying. After a while, my sorrow gave way to anger. I decided that my aggravation value to those people who inspired my feelings was greater than my need for escape. I wanted to stick around as possible and, I hoped, cause enough aggravation to make a difference.

Carefully I disarmed the gun and returned it to its holster. Quietly I kissed my sleeping eight-year-old son and lay down on the other twin bed in the room we shared, reflecting that there was only hope as long as there was life. Too many people were already dead — I still had a choice.

After the call from the FBI warning me about associating with Marguerite’s widower. there were just the routine check-in contacts with the FBI. I still went to visit Tee and Robert frequently, but not as regularly.

George Wallace. Credit: By Marion Trikosko. LC-DIG-ppmsca-19605.

Robert’s political activity was the primary topic of conversation in 1965 and 1966. Heavy campaigning for George Wallace in the presidential race in 1964 fed the machinery of the United Americans for Conservative Government and launched several successful endorsements, including the election of Robert’s crony Bob Gafford to the state legislature in 1966.

Then came the day when I learned that the Justice Department was shelving the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing case. Evidence that had been sent from Birmingham to Washington, D.C., had disappeared. There was no record of federal authorities ever having received the infamous fishing bob or other bits of forensic evidence. The five-year statute of limitations for a federal indictment would expire in 1968, so effort ceased when it became obvious there would not be time to bring the case to trial — nor was any more forthcoming.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing — broken window with faceless Jesus. Credit: Alabama v. Chambliss Trial Transcript, Collection 85, Archives Department, Birmingham Public Library.

J. Edgar Hoover declared that conviction is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing case could not be obtained at this time in the South. End of story.

Mel Alexander was frustrated. Dale was frustrated. I was frustrated, a feeling that soon turned into anger. I felt as used and abused as it is possible for a person to feel. All the intrigue, all the real and perceived danger, all the risk of discovery  — for nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And now we had the rest of our lives to watch every word, lest we betray our involvement in this aborted attempt to do the right thing.

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