Sunday, September 15, 1963, started like a lot of Sundays. I lived with my son and my grandmother in her home at 2320 Thirty-fifth Avenue North, and none of us got up to go to church that morning. Mama Katie was only 69 years old, but she suffered greatly from arthritis. We had gotten up at a leisurely hour and had put together an informal breakfast. My Uncle Howard often dropped off his children at the Thirty-fifth Avenue Baptist Church and came by to visit until it was time to pick them up.
Our television set was black-and-white, and the boxy cabinet was on wheels. We had pushed it into Mama Katie’s bedroom the evening before so that she could watch it from either her bed or rocking chair. She had watched one of the television preachers that morning and had been up for a while before she came out to the kitchen to drink a cup of coffee. She had left the television on, and we could hear it in the background while we talked.
We abruptly stopped talking and exchanged looks of question and worry when we heard and felt the rumbling vibration of — what — a bombing? Usually they happened at night. In the dark. This was Sunday. It was broad daylight. My stomach tightened as we decided that perhaps it was at ACIPCO or U.S. Pipe, two huge foundries a mile or so distant, one to the east, the other to the west.
Minutes passed, and other than the distant whine of a siren we heard nothing. Then we heard a voice on the television saying there had been an explosion, and I think it said “apparently a bomb.”A special report would follow. We turned up the volume on the television and listened to the reports about and from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. At first the voice-over was matter-of-fact, but it took on a somber note as the scene unfolded. There on the screen was the church building, with crowds of onlookers, fire trucks and police cars, and police officers with shotguns. The camera eventually focused on a gaping hole in the side of the building; rubble and pieces of the building were strewn across the sidewalk and on automobiles battered by the blast.
Instantly I knew that Robert had been in some way involved. It was a gut-level knowing that couldn’t be shaken, but couldn’t be proven either. It came from how we had grown to know that he was usually “on the road” or “at a meeting” when something happened.
We spent the rest of the day watching the reports. The voice on the television said that several people had been injured by flying debris. The minister, the Reverend John Cross, had a bullhorn and called for calm, trying to keep his people from losing self-control. At one point he seemed to be weeping, as were many others. Reverend Cross helped dig through the rubble, and we watched as a small body, wrapped in a white sheet, was brought out on a gurney.
We wept and groaned as the small bodies were removed, one by one, from the rubble, through that huge hole in the wall where windows and concrete steps had been, and across the crater in the ground where dirt and the sidewalk had been blown away to a depth of two and one-half feet, and more than five feet wide.
Firemen and ambulance attendants stumbled and struggled across that chasm bearing their burdens: children. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. One, only one, was alive. That morning a special service had been underway at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The youth were taking on responsibilities usually reserved for adults, and five girls were in the ladies’ lounge preparing to take their places in the worship service. They were combing hair, primping; one was tying the sash of another’s dress. They were excited. They were nervous. They were happy.
Then the wall caved in. Pieces of the 30-inch-thick stone and concrete wall, metal security grating, and the glass and wood of the window filled the room with the impact of the explosion. The opposite wall of the room disappeared as debris traveled through the superheated air forced out from the center of the detonated bomb.
Four of the children were found in one place, felled by the wall as it came in: Denise McNair, age 11; Addie Mae Collins, age 14; Carole Robertson, age 14; and Cynthia Wesley, age 14. A few feet away, they found 11-year-old Sarah Collins, Addie Mae’s sister, buried under the stone and glass. She was alive, but just barely.
Earlier that morning, at about the time these girls had been arriving at their church, my cousin, 11-year-old Kathy Hillhouse, had also gotten ready to go to Sunday school. She was going to walk to Thirty-fifth Avenue Baptist Church a block away from her home. She was running late, and as she rushed out of the front door a man came up the porch steps. He was not a stranger to her, but he was a man she did not know well, so at first glance she did not recognize him. He was wearing dress trousers, a white shirt, and tie, and he told her he wanted to talk to her mother and father. Kathy turned in the doorway and called out, “Mother! There’s a man here wants to talk to you.”
Her father, Jim Hillhouse, was at work at Reid’s Service Station on Seventh Street. My Aunt Viola came to the door, and when she saw who was on the porch, she pulled Kathy back inside the house.
“Mother, I’m going to be late,” Kathy complained, trying to pull away from her mother’s grasp on her arm.
“You’re not going anywhere, go back inside,” Viola snapped, pushing Kathy into the house. Viola went out onto the porch, and she and the man sat in the porch swing for several minutes talking. As they talked, Kathy realized that this man was at Robert Chambliss’s house occasionally and lived only a few blocks up the hill toward Fairmont behind the Hillhouse home. She had seen his children at church, although they were older than she. She had not recognized him at first, because every other time she had seen Floyd Garrett he had had on his distinctive Birmingham police department uniform with badge, gun belt, and billy stick.
He finally left, and Viola came back inside. She was upset and crying. After she had fretted for a short while she telephoned Dale Tarrant. Kathy listened as Viola told Dale about the man’s visit and what had been said. Kathy heard her mother saying that he had told her that a bomb was at the church and that she was to “keep your damned mouth shut. If anybody asks, you don’t know anything. Understand?” He had further threatened that if she told anything she knew “we will put it on Jim.” After the man left, he went to his own home. He had apparently been on his way home but felt it imperative that he stop off and warn Viola into silence along the way. He had worked 3 p.m. until 11 p.m. Saturday and had been out all night.
At home Garrett changed clothes and, according to his statement later to the FBI, fed his dogs. He told FBI agents that his children went to Sunday school, and he said his wife left for church at 10 a.m. He said that he was called at 10:30 a.m. by the police dispatcher and told to come to work because of the bombing; the church was in his regular patrol beat. He told the FBI that he went to the Thirty-fifth Avenue Baptist Church to tell his wife he was going to work and then went to see his uncle Robert Chambliss. Robert told the FBI that this man, Floyd Garrett, had on “work clothes” when he came by the Chambliss house shortly after 10:30 a.m.. Both Chambliss and Garrett said he had come by to borrow a shotgun to use in riot control because his own had jammed. Chambliss did not have a shotgun, so Garrett left without one.
Garrett said he got into uniform at the station and Sergeant Jones unjammed his shotgun for him. By the time the FBI questioned Garrett several days later, they knew that the bomb had been on a crude timing device. They also had a description of a car with white men in it near the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church at 2 a.m. that Sunday morning.
Garrett’s alibi for the time the bomb was placed was that he had picked up his girlfriend at midnight, had taken her to buy groceries (at a supermarket a few blocks from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church), and had then spent time with her until he went home early that morning. He did not tell the FBI that he had gone by the Hillhouse home. His story would be somewhat different when he testified as a defense witness in 1977. Under oath, he said that he had gone home from work when he got off at 11 p.m. Saturday night, that he was still asleep when the dispatcher called, and that his wife had woken him up.
Questions. So many questions. The first question was how? Robert was at home when the bomb had exploded. I was so naive that I did not understand timers and drip buckets — yet.
When Floyd Garrett was questioned by the FBI, no one seemed to think it strange that a police officer would need to “borrow a shotgun” to go “on duty” when the police department furnished arms. In fact, he told his superior officer, Captain Maurice House, that he had gone by to see if Chambliss was home because he was suspicious of Chambliss. And apparently it was months later before anyone thought to ask Garrett about his uniform — a man who was so impressed with his uniform that in the ten years he had been on the force, he was seldom seen out of it. Yet that morning, he was “on his way to work” when he went to see Chambliss but didn’t have on his uniform.
Could it have been that he had to go to Chambliss to get his uniform before he could go to work? There were reported sightings of “policemen” not in police cars the night before the bombing.
Tee and Mama Katie and I had spoken on the telephone a few minutes after we heard the explosion. I called Tee later in the afternoon, and Robert was gone, but she again affirmed he had been home when it happened. It had become almost routine to check and see if Robert was at home when a bomb exploded in Birmingham. Many times, he would leave the house, and within an hour there would be a blast.
Attorney David Vann, who would later become mayor of Birmingham, said he saw Robert at the scene of the bombing that afternoon in the crowd. The witness who had seen white men in a car at 2 am also saw the same car circling the area several times that afternoon. Were Robert and the others admiring their work?
Mama Katie fretted so that by mid-afternoon she took to bed and stayed there for several days. Her arthritis was apparently irritated by the circumstances and, I think, a profound sadness bound up in fear.
There was a lot of talk on the telephone that day, but no one voiced any open accusations despite whispered speculations. I can only guess at events in and around the Chambliss home that afternoon because I stayed away. I stayed home, watching the television, taking care of Mama Katie and Robin, and worrying.
During the afternoon two more black children died in other, separate incidents in Birmingham: Virgil Ware was shot on his bicycle by two white youths on a motorcycle, and Johnny Robinson was shot in the back by a policeman for throwing rocks at a car loaded with catcalling white youths displaying Confederate flags.
The juveniles who killed Ware were identified from photos taken at an NSRP rally that afternoon. One pleaded guilty to manslaughter; the other was convicted at trial. They each received seven-month suspended sentences.
Officer Jack Parker said he was firing at the feet of Johnny Robinson and his companion — with a shotgun — at 100 feet, and he was surprised when the youngster “appeared to stumble and fall.”
Early that evening, our doorbell rang. I stepped into the hallway and saw Robert was standing on the porch. We had opened the wooden inside door for air circulation, but we kept the glass-and-aluminum storm door locked, so I saw Robert without him seeing me in the darkened hallway. I turned and went back to my grandmother to ask what she wanted me to do. She told me not to let him in. We were actually afraid of him at that moment, afraid that we could not hide our certainty that he had set that bomb.
I went to the door and spoke to Robert through the screen, wondering how I was supposed to keep him from entering the house, knowing that he had always done what he wanted. He came and went as he pleased, and I had certainly never barred him. There was conscious fear that he would notice behavior that wasn’t “normal” and that thinking we might “tell on him,” he would do something to us. He said that Tee wanted to know how Mama Katie was doing, and he wanted to see if we needed any help. He took hold of the door handle to pull it open, expecting me to unlock it to him. I ignored his hand as I told him that she was in bed and had said that she didn’t want any company because she was trying hard to go to sleep. I don’t know who was most lame in that exchange. It was obvious that he had come by in person to gauge our reaction to the bombing rather than calling us on the phone to check on Mama Katie, and it was obvious that I was making excuses to send him away.
He hesitated, and I saw anger cross his face. After a moment, he ran a hand through his hair, ducked his head, and grinned, saying, “If y’all need us, call.”
He turned, went across the concrete porch he had worked so hard helping to pour several years earlier, and down the three steps to the sidewalk that split the front lawn. He looked back once as he got into his car parked at the curb.
During the days that followed, the tension was thick in both the city and among Chambliss family members. Conversations were guarded, and yet everyone attempted to behave as though everything were normal. The greatest fear was that Robert would become angry and lash out if he thought anyone might speak out against him. There was no one to tell of our suspicions, though, and no proof.
During the following week, the Sunday morning bombing was a regular item in news broadcasts, reward monies were increased, and the investigation continued. The FBI was brought in because of indications of possible police involvement, and even though local FBI agents had gone to the scene almost immediately, J. Edgar Hoover sent in additional men.
The next Saturday afternoon, September 21, I visited Tee again. I was in the Chambliss living room when the evening news came on the television and Robert came into the room, sitting down on the sofa to watch. I was sitting in a chair near the front door, and although there were other family members in the house, only the two of us were in the dimly lit front room at the time. I don’t think Robert even realized that I was there.
He leaned toward the television across the room. The news anchorman was updating the story of the bombing and stated that murder charges were being considered rather than the lesser charge of bombing or even bombing of an occupied building. Robert spoke, apparently to the man on the screen, saying, “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody. It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”
He looked and sounded upset as though pleading to be believed. It struck me that he may not have meant to have anyone, especially children, killed in the blast, yet wasn’t there always that danger when they planted explosives? Was he speaking for himself or from a knowledge of the mind and motives of some others who were guilty? After that evening I never doubted that he had, in fact, been responsible for those deaths because he had known exactly when and where the bomb was supposed to explode. I felt certain that he had either put the dynamite in place and set the timer with his own hand, or he knew the hand that had. And he could have called a warning when the planned explosion time passed and there were people in the building. He seemed to want it understood that they had believed the bomb had failed to detonate or that it had been discovered, so they sat back and kept quiet.
In subsequent days, Robert’s remarks were more guarded and angry, and they often came in the form of criticism of others. Where he had, in the past, laughed about arguing with Troy Ingram over which of them was the better bomb-maker and claiming that Troy was just a braggart, now he would snarl comments about Troy and renounce his stupidity. His anger seemed to be directed toward J. B. Stoner, Ed Fields, and other National States Rights Party men, as well as his “buddies” and Robert Thomas, Grand Dragon of Eastview Klavern 13. He spoke with Robert Shelton several times (or said he did) but later expressed anger that he couldn’t reach Shelton when he wanted to. He expressed fear that Robert Thomas was going to “put me and [Herman Frank] Cash, [Thomas] Blanton, and [Bobby Frank] Cherry in the electric chair.”
Between September 15 and 29, when the state would make a move against them, the Klansmen were not sitting back quietly. They were still at work. The same day that Robert had talked to the television saying that the bomb didn’t go off when it was supposed to, a fellow Klansman brought a friend of his named Billy to the Chambliss home to meet Robert. Billy wanted to join the Klan. He had been in on sessions at a downtown sign shop making Confederate flags and protest signs for NSRP and wanted to do more.
I didn’t know who those two visitors were, but I knew that it was Klan business. They talked in the living room away from family members. The next day (September 22), the Cahaba Boys had another of their Sunday meetings near the Cahaba River bridge on Highway 280. A young Klansman named Tommy Blanton, Jr., met Billy and took him to this meeting.
Later statements by Billy indicate that some sort of pledge or oath was signed that day by the dozen or so men present. By the time the group had gotten back to Troy Ingram’s house, Billy was frightened and intimidated. During the next few years, Billy’s story changed several times about what happened that Sunday, how long he was in the Klan, and how active he was in Klan activities.
Two nights later, Tuesday, September 24, the Center Street home of attorney Arthur Shores was bombed again, this time with two bombs. One exploded very near the house, and a crowd started to gather by the time the police arrived. The second bomb, rigged for delayed detonation, had been placed nearer the curb; it exploded and threw potentially deadly shrapnel through the neighborhood, endangering the people who were gathering and police officers responding to the initial incident.
On Thursday, September 26, Charles Cagle took FBI agents to a field near Gardendale (north of Birmingham) to show them where he and John Wesley Hall had hidden the dynamite they had taken from Robert Chambliss’s car the night of September 4. The field was empty.
During the last few days of September, several meetings took place at the St. Francis Motel in Homewood, a bedroom community just south of Birmingham. Alabama Highway Patrol Colonel Al Lingo used the motel as his Birmingham headquarters in the Sixties. It was a convenient meeting place for clandestine notables; Colonel Lingo, head of the Alabama Highway Patrol, was the state’s top law enforcement officer and answered directly to Governor George Wallace. The St. Francis was a midscale place with just enough glitz to avoid being suspect of renting hourly rooms.
One meeting of particular note for my story took place on September 29, 1963, in Colonel Al Lingo’s room. I know this because much later, in January 1978, I was doing research in the Birmingham Public Library preparing a paper for a class at Birmingham-Southern College during the winter mini-term. As I entered the archives department, a classmate who was working there as an intern called me aside and, whispering, led me to a small room where there were a number of boxes filled with papers. She explained that the papers, files from Mayor Albert Boutwell’s office, were discovered in the attic of old Fire Station No.1, which had been closed by the city and cleaned out. The papers had not been sorted or archived by library personnel, and she left me with them without informing her supervisors.
I made many notes as I went through copies of police reports, surveillance reports, and notations from 1963 to 1965. I photocopied one that read:
Persons in attendance at meeting in Colonel Al Lingo’s room at St.
Francis Motel September 29, 1963:
Colonel Al Lingo
Major William R. Jones
Bill Morgan (United Americans for Conservative Government)
Herbert Eugene Reeves, a Klansman
Robert Thomas, a Klansman
Wade Wallace, distant relative of Governor Wallace
Art Hanes, former mayor
Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard, KKK
Hubert Page, a Klansman
Don Luna, a Klansman
Same persons listed in above group, including Robert Shelton and Art Hanes, were also present at the Alabama Highway Patrol Office later in the evening.
Persons picked up for questioning on evening of September 29, 1963:
Levi “‘QuickDraw” Yarbrough
Robert “”Dynamite” Chambliss
John Wesley Hall (“Nigger” Hall)
On September 30, 1963, Captain Bob Godwin took Hubert Page, a Klansman, to Huntsville, Alabama, where he was given a polygraph examination by a deputy sheriff.
Don Luna accompanied state investigator Posey, and these two men knocked on Robert Chambliss’s front door on the evening of September 29, 1963, in a joint operation.
“In a joint operation:” Evidently, an agreement was struck that night, and a plan was made. Robert Shelton had told Robert Chambliss “not to worry, the Klan would take care of him.” But during the evening Robert had worried and was so agitated he had an acute attack of a chronic stomach problem. The doctor was summoned to make a house call. Robert was medicated and sedated into rest, until the doorbell rang late that night. Alabama Highway Patrol investigator Posey and Don Luna, a fellow Klansman, were on the porch. Don assured Robert that they would “get him out of it” as the trooper placed Robert under arrest and took him into custody. No search of the house was made; the arrest was quiet and expected.
Along with Robert, John Wesley “”Nigger” Hall and Charles Cagle were later charged with the minor crime of “illegal transportation and possession of dynamite,” a misdemeanor. The maximum sentence was six months in jail and a fine.
Robert often stated afterward that he “passed” a polygraph, but he was so heavily sedated that he almost went to sleep in the chair and was virtually unable to coherently answer questions. Robert Shelton was at the highway patrol headquarters that night when the men were questioned. He told Robert to “keep the Klan out of it.”
Chambliss, Hall, and Cagle stood trial and were convicted. They appealed the conviction and were cleared of the charges. It was clear then and is now that the deal struck between the State of Alabama and the Klan leadership was to foil the possibility of the FBI investigations progressing. Whatever evidence the city or state had was effectively tied up by these charges, and it would be possible to delay whatever action the FBI might attempt. The charges by the State of Alabama had simply muddied the waters. Charges brought against Chambliss, Hall, and Cagle had no connection to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing case at all; the charges stemmed from their September 4 movement of dynamite.
When the kudzu field on Mockingbird Lane near Gardendale was checked on September 26 by FBI agents guided by Charles Cagle, no dynamite was found. On October 1, however, Alabama Highway Patrol Colonel Al Lingo, Major Bill Jones, Investigator Ben Allen, and Birmingham Police Captain Joseph McDowell took Cagle back and “discovered” a box containing 130 sticks of dynamite — at the same location.
Captain W. E. Berry of the Birmingham fire department was called to handle the explosives. In his report he stated that the ground under the box was not discolored, indicating that it had only been there a short time, and that the box was “bone dry,” indicating that it had not been there on September 28, the last time it had rained in the area.
On October 4, Birmingham Police Captain McDowell took FBI agents to the spot where the state officers had discovered their box of dynamite, confirming it to be the same location the FBI agents had checked with Cagle on September 26.
The state had made their arrests and had produced their evidence, while the “joint operation” ensured that the arrested would eventually be cleared.