Opening Files

When I first met him, I did not know how much Bob Eddy did not know. He did not seem to know who I was other than a niece of Mrs. Chambliss. He was apparently wondering why I had refused to appear before the grand jury and seemingly expected, from the information he had, that this might be just another “I don’t know anything, I didn’t see anything” interview — the sort of thing he had gotten from other family members, friends, neighbors, Klansmen, and politicians who had been interviewed.

Attorney General Bill Baxley, I learned later, had during much of his time as attorney general attempted to obtain FBI files on the case. The FBI in Washington had refused to turn over files, evidence, and information for years. When finally some of those files had been made available, Bob Eddy had been given office space, and the FBI had doled out information to him as it saw fit.

The information Bob had available on me was a rather slim file with nothing of substance in it other than a summary report written by special agent Robert Womack on October 12, 1963, after they had interviewed me a couple of times. It contained the Saturday morning conversation between Robert Chambliss and me and my own impressions of Robert as a violent man capable of almost anything. There was, however, another file. This file that had been code-named and had had most of its telling details (which might have revealed the person’s identity) expunged.

Bob Eddy and his fellow investigators and prosecutors had spent hours upon hours going over files, and as I spoke to him, bits and pieces of information had jumped into his mind. I saw it in his face when he realized that I was one of the missing links.

Frankly, I left the hotel room that first night feeling that I might be stepping into a hopeless situation, again. It might be just another political show to appear to be doing something for votes, I thought. I feared that Bob might be just another street agent with no authority and no initiative. He, too, might be subject to the boss pulling the plug, as the FBI agents had been a decade earlier.Yet how could I not stick with it at least long enough to see?

My next meetings with Bob Eddy were much more intense. He was armed with more detailed questions and asked about events and conversations that were more pertinent. Soon he introduced me to assistant attorneys general Jon Yung and George Beck.

Jon Yung was a small man, dapper and tough. Yet he, too, was gentle and respectful during our meetings. He was present at many of the ensuing meetings I had with Bob, and on a couple of occasions, I met with him alone. Jon was to conduct the questioning in court, and I started to realize that he was building a rapport toward that end: helping me to trust him and feel at ease with his questions.

During those many interviews, I repeatedly told both of them that I would not testify unless the case (with my testimony) had an absolute certainty of conviction; nor would I testify if there were a possibility of convicting without my doing so. I wanted to help; I wanted the horror put to rest. I wanted Robert, whom I knew to be a human monster, to face a penalty for his crimes. Here was a man who had talked about, even bragged about, a long career of assaults, batteries, maimings, and murders, and yet had never been convicted of a crime more serious than “flogging while masked.”

No, I did not want to testify in open court. I did not want to subject my family or my church congregation to that. I did not want to risk acquittal, which would have meant a very sure death sentence for me and perhaps for others I could not protect. I did not want to, but I knew — and they knew — I would.

I was assured that the other men in the car with Robert Chambliss that night would also be charged. I was assured that J. B. Stoner, Robert Shelton, and others who were believed to have furnished support, financing, and approval (if not orders) would also be prosecuted. I was assured that the involvement of police officers in the crimes would probably result in charges of conspiracy.

Yet there was no pretense about the risk involved. It was obvious from the beginning that no one could be allowed to know that I was continuing to meet with investigators, telling them everything I could think of that might lead to other testimony or tie together facts they already knew. Nor could anyone be told if the decision were made for me to testify — not even family members could know in advance of the actual court appearance.

All of this evolved over a period of weeks, and although I was trying to be cooperative and they were being polite and kind, there were some cat-and-mouse tactics going on.

One factor, which should be obvious, is that I had had many years to shove all of this far back into the recesses of memory so that it would not haunt me to such an extent that I could not live and function. During that process of purposeful forgetting, some details had blurred. I could not always be sure that I actually remembered certain things of my own knowledge or whether I was recalling information given to me by the FBI. On the other hand, when my current offerings were not as complete as these investigators expected, there seemed to be doubt about my willingness to cooperate.

Only weeks away from a trial date that had been awaited for more than fourteen years, they were still putting pieces of the puzzle together! During September and October 1977, several rather drastic or unorthodox steps were taken to establish the truth and usability of any testimony I might give. One problem was that Bob was aware of but had not been given the code-named files on me; the FBI was still holding files coded for witness protection. So it was still problematic to tie together details, and they had still not talked to the “other” witness who had been with me during so much of the FBI’s investigation. Bob asked me if I would go over the FBI file on me with him. It seems that the local office still would not release some information without my expressed permission and that perhaps there was confusion. I agreed.

Bob picked me up, and we went to the Federal Building, usually known as the “2121 Building,” on Eighth Avenue North in downtown Birmingham. This structure housed the FBI offices as well as local offices of other federal agencies. He parked the car in the underground parking garage accessed from the alley behind the building.

We were joined by Jon Yung and another man who seemed to be escorting us. We rode the elevator to the fourteenth floor and exited into a hallway.

We then entered a large meeting room with a huge rectangular table ringed by upholstered chairs, like one would expect to find in the boardroom of a successful corporation. This was not, however, our destination; we went through this room to a doorway in the far corner of the left-hand wall. This opened onto a stairway leading down one flight to the “nonexistent” thirteenth floor. Leaving the stairwell through a door with a coded lock, we went into another room and then another hallway. There we waited at a locked door until we were identified and a code was keyed into the lock.

Aside from the intimidation factor of this routine, it seemed unnecessarily obtuse. It also struck me that a person could disappear into this labyrinth and never be heard from again. Paranoia? Perhaps.

Once admitted into the inner sanctum of the FBI’s offices, we went through windowless halls and finally into a very small windowless room that held a desk with a chair behind it and a chair in front of it. Half a dozen or so men ranged tightly packed around the walls. A large man sat facing me across the desk, upon which he placed a ledger-bound volume of pages four or more inches thick. Obviously Bob and I were not to “go over” the file, as his request had suggested to me.

The man at the desk first carefully verified my identity and then opened the file before him and started to scan the entries, reading excerpts and asking, ‘Was that you?” or “Did you say that?” to each. For quite some time this continued, with me answering either in the affirmative, or not recalling specifically.

Then, almost lulled into the routine of the process, he read an excerpt that jolted me to attention as I denied the truthfulness of the entry. “Mel Alexander wrote this report on—” he recited the date in December 1964 and read on from the report which had been sent to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. In the report Alexander said that he had uncovered, at last, the evidence that would ensure a conviction. Then he had recorded the “what if . . .” scenario that Dale Tarrant had presented and that I had not denied. But it was different.

I had not denied it in 1964 because I didn’t think it was presented as knowledge on my part. Whether it was presented to Mel Alexander as a fact that we had driven by the church, curious to find out what might be going on that night, or whether he had decided to use it to push his superior into action on an indictment, I do not know. Dale had said the scenario was not presented as fact but as a question: “What if . . .” such witnesses would testify, would it be enough to prosecute?

Mel’s report claimed that an account of the sighting was given to him as fact and that an offer to testify had been made. Weighing Mel Alexander’s reputation against Dale’s life, it’s difficult for me to believe that she would falsify anything she gave him after so many years of trying to help gather information. Her efforts to gather evidence had predated Mel Alexander; her efforts to bring an end to the bombings and violence in Birmingham by passing information to Deputy Sheriff James Hancock predated the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and any involvement with the FBI. Hancock had betrayed her trust in him, and yet she had risked passing information to the FBI.

Were there actually two witnesses to the bomb being placed that early Sunday morning about 2 a.m.? Did we ride downtown and drive along Seventh Avenue North and see the two-toned Chevrolet that belonged to Tommy Blanton near the alley that ran behind the church? Did she see a man carrying something by a handle going toward the building? Then after going around several blocks, did we again see the car parked on Seventh Avenue apparently waiting for the man on foot to return to it? Were Chambliss and at least two other men recognizable? Were there four or five persons in the car? Mel Alexander’s report allegedly answered these questions, and even in the face of such compelling “evidence,” J. Edgar Hoover had refused twice to turn the information over to the Justice Department to seek an indictment.

What did I know or not know about the Klan and its terrorist activities? During 1963, all of 1964, and partway through 1965, I was not certain that Tommy Rowe was a paid FBI informant, though Robert often said that he was.

I was never specifically told that the FBI had put John Wesley “Nigger” Hall on its payroll as an informant. I was not told that Henry Alexander, one of the night-riding Klansmen from Montgomery and one of the traveling men between Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, and Anniston, had also been put on the FBI payroll.

I did know, in general, that hundreds of Klansmen were recruited onto the informants’ dole by FBI agents in the South. These men routinely engaged in violent behavior, committing crimes against black citizens and destroying property, and were rewarded for calling in occasionally or for following (as it was later revealed in Senate investigations of FBI agents) “suggestions” for Klan activity. Testimony before the Senate task force indicated that Klansmen on the take were routinely encouraged to sleep with other Klansmen’s wives and were given instructions to instigate violence on occasion.

In answer to questions about the night of the bombing, however, I’ve wrestled with the events that took place so many times, I’ve visualized the streets and the faces, had my dreams invaded with nightmares. Was I there that night?

I think I was in the car with Dale, but I was not aware of where we were. My own attention was not drawn to the specific events, and that night blended in with many others when she and I were together going bowling, eating out, or just riding around talking.

Do I think she saw what she reported in the “what if . . .” scenario? No. Was the “what if ” a description to cover up the presence of yet another person who was witness to the events of the evening of September 14-15, 1963, whose safety could not ever be guaranteed? Yes, I believe that it was.

I believe that Robert’s wife, my Aunt Tee, had either firsthand knowledge of exactly what happened or knew who was in the car and had details of the plan to place the homemade bomb under the sidesteps of the building. I believe that Dale tried to let Mel Alexander know this for Tee, and he misinterpreted the scenario.

I was not satisfied, however, to settle with this speculation. By this time, I had spoken with Dale Tarrant and convinced her to meet with Bob Eddy. She had done so, but she adamantly refused to testify and denied having been personally near the church that night.

So much was at stake, and underlying everything was my personal ethic that demanded my memory be completely accurate. I had to verify my recall and sort all of this out for my own peace of mind.

During this period of time, I was blessed in having a varied circle of supportive friends of unique talents whom I could trust implicitly. I called upon two of them: Dr. Barbara Lester, sociology professor at Birmingham-Southern College, in whom I had confided during the earlier weeks of the renewed investigation, and a woman I knew less well, who was a clinical psychologist and also an acquaintance of Barbara’s. I knew this woman was trained in hypnotherapy, so I asked Barbara to approach her about exploring the accuracy of my memory through hypnosis. I also asked Barbara to act as monitor to any sessions should her friend agree.

A few days later, the three of us gathered in a Highland Avenue apartment. I lay on the living room floor, my head on a pillow, relaxing as the psychologist led me into trance, with Barbara and a tape recorder witnessing the session.

It says a great deal about trust to recall that, although I was nervous about being hypnotized and what I might recall, I went into an altered state of awareness quite easily, although I had not been able to trust local, state, or federal law enforcement officers and had found it necessary to make a conscious decision to trust Bob Eddy. And I was only beginning to trust Jon Yung.

When I was guided back to full and current awareness of my surroundings by the psychologist, I did not instantly remember the content of the session. I was a little puzzled and embarrassed that both the psychologist and Barbara were rather wide-eyed and excited. Barbara played the tape back, and I, too, became wide-eyed. My statements under hypnosis established to my satisfaction that I did not have a memory of witnessing any events at or near the church during the evening of September 14 or the early morning of September 15, and I had not personally seen the car on that particular night. The images in my mind were due to information I had received. They were not visual memories.

I had also, in response to questions about the morning of September 14, repeated Robert’s remarks in a tone and modulation of voice that could almost have been him on the tape rather than a mimicry. I wept from the emotional impact.

I never told Bob Eddy or any others connected with the investigation that I had done this, nor did it change even one detail of what I had told him already. I had recited earlier my account of Saturday morning, September 14, to Bob and Jon during one of the first of our evening meetings. Jon had taken notes. Several days later, when I met with Jon alone, he handed me a tear sheet of the front page of the September 14, 1963, Birmingham newspaper. He had circled, in red, near the bottom of the page, the article about the girl being stabbed. I had told them that it had been on the front page below the fold.

I remembered Robert laying the newspaper on the table still folded with the headlines on bottom and the fold toward me as I sat across the table. He had pointed and gestured that morning, and at one point he had put his open hand palm down on the page in emphasis. This was when he was telling me to “Just wait until after Sunday morning . . .”.

When he had first said that to me, and the first several times that I repeated it, I had thought that it sounded rather clumsy. The construction of the sentence sounded strange and contrived. Why had he, on Saturday, said “Just wait until after Sunday morning . . . “?

Why not “tomorrow morning” or something like “after tonight”? There seems only one reason why Robert would phrase it the way he did; that morning was not the first time he had made the statement. He had used the same words before, probably several times, to several people. And he had been saying it for less than a week, for he simply said “Sunday morning,” meaning the next one. It was not a threat in his mind: it was a promise, it was a plan.

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