Reckoning

FBI Poster of Missing Civil Rights Workers. L to r: Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner.

It seemed that the decade between 1962 and 1972 was punctuated by gunshots. Life was full of violence and change, and the periods were bullets: Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy in 1963; civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney in Mississippi in 1964; Viola Liuzzo in 1965; James Meredith in 1966; Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy in 1968; George Wallace on the campaign trail in Maryland in 1972.

These and many less well-publicized hate-attacks added to the horror story of history that was the Sixties and early Seventies and to the horror story that our family was plunged into. Added to the gunshots were the bombs, the fires, the “accidents,” the “suicides,” and the “apparents”: apparent heart attack—no autopsy, apparent stroke—no autopsy, apparent cirrhosis, stomach cancer, etc., etc.—no autopsy. Even the “apparent” heart attack that ended the life of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972 was never investigated, and no autopsy was performed.

Convinced that there would never be a satisfactory outcome and that the bombing cases were closed issues, I had to try to put myself back together. Yes, there were other things happening: there were old people dying, younger people getting married and having babies, the highs and lows of life went on. What I had to do was try to figure out what “normal” meant for me.

Deeply disappointed in religious people, I had withdrawn from church in 1963, denounced religion, and sworn that I would never darken the door of a church again. I stayed broke a lot back then; the women’s movement hadn’t started up yet, and I found myself training men making twice my salary how to do my work. In spring 1966, I had the assertiveness to point this out during my annual evaluation and consequently was put on probation for three months.

In an attempt to save my credit, I advertised my car for sale. The ad was answered by a dapper and learned man who turned out to be the Pastor of Woodlawn United Methodist Church. On his second trip to look at the car, he worked the conversation around to me. He told me he saw pain in my eyes — and I was instantly in tears. He didn’t buy the car but I found a faith again and a new church home in the summer of 1966.

After that I began to change. I first went back to work in retail display, but a severe injury to my knee brought that to a quick end. I again got a job in insurance, this time with a general agency, underwriting automobile insurance.

I also went through a number of romances, drank myself calm enough to go to sleep almost every night, and lay awake the others. Between 1966 and 1968 I had two major surgeries, one to try to repair my injured right knee. Ironically, Tee was sitting nights with the other patient in my semi-private hospital room. That first night after surgery, she bathed my feverish head and said she was paying me back for bathing hers with a sock so many years before.

When I left the hospital to recuperate at home confined to a wheelchair or the bed, there was no one to care for me except 11-year-old Robin and a friend from work who stopped by each evening to cook our supper, give me pain medication, and move the cigarettes too far for me to reach. She was afraid I would burn up the bed when the medication kicked in.

That’s when I started to wake up — to come out of it. Flat on my back with nowhere to look but up, I realized there is more to life than wallowing in victimization. That’s when the world changed from black-and-white to living color for me. I knew there would be no quick fixes. No instant sainthood here. No walking on water — in fact, after the surgery I had to learn to walk again on an altered and atrophied leg.

In the next couple of years, I made a lot of mistakes. Stupid stuff. By 1970, I was tired, bankrupt, and desperately determined to close that dark era. Besides, the world had Vietnam and Watergate. It had forgotten Birmingham, it had forgotten the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and it had forgotten the Freedom Rides.

The forgetting world hardly knew who Robert Chambliss and his “buddies” were, and it knew nothing of me.

In the fall of 1970 I met a young Vietnam vet and married him. Since no one seemed to think our marriage was a good idea, we enjoyed each other with a you-and-me-against-the-world attitude. For a year or so after I remarried I tried pretending to be a normal, stay-at-homebody, but soon I found that I was too restless, and, besides, we needed additional income. I began to sell real estate, studying for and passing the state licensing examination.

This was an excellent diversion for a while. Previously I had worked as an insurance underwriter, and I had studied contract, agency, and tort law in preparation for the Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriter designation. So the challenges of putting together real estate deals in the inflation-ridden boom of the Seventies occupied my mind pleasantly for a time. Soon, however, the unrest again took hold, and I started yet another new phase in life.

God and I had gotten on pretty good terms by this time. I had stopped drinking and usually slept nights, I knew the returns of tithing and praying, and I was strongly spiritual (if not theological) in my thinking. I gave in after years of fighting off God, and in spring 1975, I announced my intention to study for the ministry in the United Methodist Church.

This was a singularly pivotal time in life for me. The years of stress and duress, fear and frustration, disappointment and disillusionment had given me a strength and resolve that otherwise I might not have had, and perhaps could not have had. Daily knowing that a slip can end one’s life gives a very clear perspective of the brevity of life and the high cost of wasted years.

I would not acknowledge closed doors. With a G.E.D. from 1961 and credit for four courses from the University Extension Center, I applied for admission to Birmingham-Southern College, declaring myself a ministerial student.

I stood the examination of the Charge Conference of my local church and I was touched and amazed to hear people one after another stand to speak in witness of my calling to ministry. The district superintendent at that time was openly opposed to my ministerial candidacy, but I quietly and consistently kept taking the prescribed steps toward that end.

I said above that this was a pivotal time in life for me. Not only did it reflect strength gained from prior years, but, although I could not know it at the time, it also established me as a person whose credibility was so unimpeachable that my testimony could make a profound difference on the witness stand a few years into the future.

I started classes with “Intro to Theology” under Dr. Earl Gossett in summer 1975. In June 1976, I was appointed to my first pastorate, Acmar United Methodist Church, a rural church about 25 miles northeast of Birmingham that met every other Sunday and alternate fifth Sundays. It was my privilege to baptize my goddaughter, Maria, in that little church, and while there I increased the frequency of services to weekly and brought about some repairs to the building. Not a particularly spectacular first year, but it was good, very good.

My husband and I had moved into married student housing on the Birmingham-Southern College campus after I was appointed to Acmar. For about a year prior, we had lived in a house owned by Woodlawn United Methodist Church while I studied, taught in the church, and served as director of the church’s child-development center. Robin had quit school and married at age 17, and early in 1977, at age 20, with the advent of a divorce, he moved in with us in the small two-bedroom apartment on campus, and worked in a record store in the nearby town of Hoover. That, too, proved fateful as 1977 rolled around.

In January I did my chaplaincy internship at Carraway Medical Center under the Reverend Wayne Vickery, and in the spring my attention was drawn inexplicably to Denman Memorial United Methodist Church. Not knowing why and not being familiar with the church, I simply put it on my prayer list and started praying about it.

In April, I received a call from Denman’s pastor, telling me that he was going to Nashville for further schooling and had been asked by the superintendent and the bishop to help select his replacement. Faculty members at Birmingham-Southern College had given him a list of possible names, and mine was among them. We met, and he later suggested to the hierarchy that I be appointed to the church. This is just the way things were happening in my life. It didn’t matter where I lived. For the first time I knew the meaning of “home.” The only vow I ever made God was to do what I found under my hand to do — the rest was up to Him.

My life was so busy during that spring and summer that I hadn’t paid any attention to any world outside my own. It was demanding, it was challenging in a way I enjoyed, and I was content. Not satisfied, but content.

Life was basically good, and there was very little contact with my family. A cousin married, and I conducted the ceremony. That was a joyous occasion.

My Uncle Jim Hillhouse died in July 1977, and I performed the graveside service. This event marked one of the few times during those years that I saw Robert Chambliss; I was deeply disturbed and sickened by his presence and by his flicking of cigarette ashes into Jim’s grave. Still, conducting the service was a favor I gladly did for Jim’s wife, my Aunt Viola.

Pulpit appointments were made during the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church in June 1977, and I started to pastor Denman Memorial’s small congregation. Many of those people at Denman were champions of love and support, and they would be sorely tried before the year was out.

Robin took his G.E.D. exam late in summer 1977 and was set to begin college classes in the fall semester; his freshman year would be my senior. We were both excited. It had taken me a long time to get back to school, and I was anxious for him to be able to go to college while he was young.

Before moving into the parsonage at Denman toward the end of August, we took a short and much-needed vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains. On the Friday we were to leave, I finished my work early in the day, had the car serviced, and went home to our apartment on the Birmingham-Southern campus. There I found a telephone message from Sergeant Cantrell of the Birmingham Police Department; I tried to return his call, but he had left the office for the weekend. My Aunt Mary called a few moments later to tell me that Birmingham Police Department Captain Jack LeGrand had called her—he also was trying to locate me. Unable to return LeGrand’s call either, we left on vacation, going first to Mobile to visit friends, then to Atlanta and into the mountains.

When we returned the following Thursday, August 12, 1977, I turned on the evening news to hear that the grand jury was hearing testimony in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing case. FBI agent Mel Alexander had told us that the bombing case had “fallen through the cracks” at the U.S. Department of Justice a decade before, but now in 1977, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley was calling for a “day of reckoning.”

The first image I saw on the television screen was Robert Chambliss in the hallway outside the sixth-floor grand jury room; he was attacking a news cameraman. The look on Robert’s face and his balled-up fists were so familiar and so disquieting, the effects of my relaxing vacation were instantly negated.

About the same time my telephone rang. It was my Aunt Mary. She told me that “they” were looking for me and had a subpoena to call me to testify before the grand jury. Jack LeGrand had called her again, trying to locate me. She said she had been pestered all week with calls. I started to tremble a bit inside as I verified with her who in particular would be the person to contact. I called police headquarters and learned that LeGrand  had already left for the day. Rather than speak to anyone else, I looked up his number and called him at home. I realized it was better to speak to him at his home, for there was almost no chance that the call would be traced. I’m not sure why I felt so strongly, but the atmosphere in Birmingham and the South as I grew up was not one to give honest people faith in law enforcement. Crooks and conspirators consorted openly with neighborhood cops.

I still was distrusting of all law enforcement personnel. I did not know Jack LeGrand, but I recognized Ernie Cantrell’s name. Cantrell had been one of the officers on duty from 11 pm until 7 am the night of September 14-15, 1963, assigned to patrol the church and the A. G. Gaston Motel. That night, a special car had been posted a half block away with a clear view of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church’s street-side steps under which the bomb had been placed. A “decoy” bomb threat was said to have been called in to the Holiday Inn Motel on Third Avenue North, and the special car then rendezvoused with other cars and watched the motel rather than the church property that night. However, the “decoy” bomb threat was not broadcast on the police radio band, and transcripts of police radio transmissions for that night do not show a call received for the motel about 1:30 am. It does show, at 1:34 am, a call ordering a rendezvous between two cars, but there were no instructions to abandon watch on the church.

Old feelings of mistrust were stirred up in me, When I reached LeGrand by telephone and told him who I was, he started to say something excitedly, but I cut him off by saying, “I understand that you are looking for me.”

He regained his composure somewhat, and I’m sure saw my call as a real stroke of luck that he would be able to take some kind of credit for. “You have to report to the grand jury at 10 am tomorrow,” he gruffly demanded.

“No, I won’t do that,” I replied as calmly and politely as I could manage.

“You have to! I’ve got a subpoena for you, and I’ll serve it tonight. You will be arrested if you don’t cooperate!” he shouted, blustering.

“I’ll be glad to try to cooperate., but I will not come to the courthouse and be filmed in that hallway with speculation as to what I may be saying. I have a family and a church congregation, and I won’t subject either of them to that.” I was still outwardly calm, but my insides were trembling. I was, however, entirely deliberate in my refusal.

“You can be charged with. . .”

“If you will listen just a minute, Captain, I will make an appointment to speak to someone from the attorney general’s office and try to help any way I can, but I absolutely will not testify before a grand jury.”

He was quiet for several seconds and then said, “Give me your number, and I’ll call you back.”

Taking a deep breath, I gave him the number and listened as he told me to stay there until he called back. Of course I was afraid that the next sound I would hear would be sirens, but I figured it right. He was taking no direction without the attorney general’s staff. They were letting him front for them and do their legwork.

I received a call back in less than a half hour, with instructions to contact a state investigator—a telephone number, a room number, and a name. I called, and a man answered the telephone. “Is this Bob Eddy.”

“Yes.”

“Jack LeGrand said you would be expecting my call,” I told him, amazed that I actually sounded calm.

Eddy asked me to come to the Rodeway Inn near the University of Alabama at Birmingham. My husband went with me, which for him was a brave thing to do; after that trip, however, he was kept out of and away from my contacts with these investigators. That night he sat at the far end of the suite while I talked to them.

There was a small table covered with papers and file folders. The state investigator Bob Eddy sat down at the table after he let us into the room. There were two other men present, but introductions went right past me, if there were any; I was not impressed that one of them might be the attorney general.

Bob Eddy was a big man. Tall and solidly built. Thin brown hair, a round face, big hands. He greeted me politely and asked me to sit with him at the table. He seemed just a bit disoriented when we began, as though he did not know what to ask me and was not sure why I was there.

After a few general questions that I answered honestly, if vaguely, I decided that we might as well see where this was going. I told him, in effect, that I was sure he had a file from the FBI containing everything I knew as fact, and I couldn’t really add anything that I had not told to the FBI years before, so just what was it I was expected to tell a grand jury? I as much as told him that I was not willing to publicly make any statements and then be left hanging out to dry as the investigation came to nothing — again.

Bob’s attention level visibly changed, and he asked me a few pointed questions. Then he said, “Just tell me what you do know.”

“What I know or what I believe I know?”

“Everything. “

I told him I believed that Robert had, in fact, been involved in placing the bomb that exploded that Sunday morning and that there had been four men, possibly five, in a two-toned Chevrolet belonging to the younger Blanton. I had been told about the car and shown a picture of it by FBI agents during the 1960s investigation. I told him that most of what I knew or believed I knew was from knowing Robert, his history of violence, and statements he had made to me.

“Do you know who the other men in the car were?” he asked.

“I’m not positive.”

“Who do you think they were?”

“I believe that Tommy Blanton was driving the car and that Troy Ingram may have been one of the other men, and probably Jack Cash.” I told him that I didn’t know about the other man, perhaps Charles Cagle or Hall or someone else.

“Why couldn’t Bobby Cherry be the other man?”

“Why not?” I returned.

A short time later, he ended the interview, and I agreed to meet him again in a few days.

“Does this negate the subpoena to appear before the grand jury?” I asked him as I started to leave.

“Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of them. You don’t need to talk to anyone except me or to someone I introduce you to, with me present. OK?”

“All right,” I agreed. “But what about the city police?”

“Don’t talk to the city. Don’t talk to the county. If they try to talk to you, make them call me.”

I assured him that I would. It occurred to me that this could be a reenactment of the isolation of informants that had been such a hallmark of Klan-related investigations in the past. There was something about this big yet gentle man, though, that made me feel he at least cared whether I were safe. I made a conscious decision that night to trust Bob Eddy to a degree I had not trusted anyone before or since. I also made a decision that I really could not totally trust anyone except him and myself. When we returned home, I sat my husband and Robin down and told them that the next weeks or months would be out of my control. Remembering the years dealing with FBI agents, I told them that there might be times I could not and would not tell them where I was going or when I would return.

I explained that this was not to worry them and I would not involve them where it was not necessary, nor would I tolerate any interference; there would be things I could not tell them, so they were not to ask.

I did not know then that Bob Eddy had been working out of an office in the FBI headquarters and that he had been given (bit by bit) information that agency had deemed all right for him to have.

I did not know how much time and money the state had expended in interviewing Gary Thomas Rowe. I did not know that when the investigation got close to him, Robert’s buddy Troy Ingram had been found dead in his vehicle.

I did not know that Klansman and former FBI informant John Wesley Hall had agreed to talk to Bob Eddy when he came back from a few days in Florida, but that he did not return. He was found dead in his bed in Florida. Nor did I know that Klansman and former police informant Ross Keith had also died shortly after being located for Bob Eddy by Birmingham police.

There was a great deal that I did not know because I had not been watching these people. My current life was in a world removed from Robert Chambliss and his cronies, and that had been the way I wanted it.

 

 

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