Day in Court

All that was left was to determine when — the day and hour — I was to appear in court to testify. It was not a matter of going to the courthouse to sit around waiting to be called forth from the spectators or a witness room as it’s done on television. Nothing that simple.

I waited and tried to behave normally on Monday. I knew that a string of technical witnesses would be called first. This was the nuts-and-bolts of establishing that a crime had, in fact, been committed. The cause of the death of Denise McNair would be established by coroner’s reports, by those who had investigated the scene, and by people who were there when the blast occurred. Police and fire department witnesses would establish that an explosion had taken place and that it had been caused by dynamite. Defense attorney Art Hanes had won the point on barring the use of the word “bomb” in describing the explosion.

No one could say how long all of this would take, so I was simply on standby until I was needed. Yet I couldn’t be there in the courthouse. There could be no questions or speculation; better that no attention was drawn to me. And I think my showing up at the last minute ensured that my story would already have been told before I could be intimidated by the cross-examination skills of defense attorney Art Hanes, Jr., or the process of the trial itself.

Monday evening I read the afternoon newspaper and watched stories about the first day of trial on the television news. During the early evening, I received a telephone call telling me that they should be getting to me on Tuesday, so I should stay home and be prepared to come downtown when I was notified.

Tuesday morning, November 15, 1977, I read the morning newspaper, the Birmingham Post-Herald, which carried several stories about the trial. The first witness called had been the Reverend John H. Cross who had been pastor of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963. He told about that morning. The Sunday School lesson was on “the love that forgives,” he said. He had been teaching the women’s Bible class in the sanctuary of the church when “all of a sudden an explosion went off. It sounded like the whole world was shaking, and the building, I thought, was going to collapse.”

Then Sarah Collins Riley, the younger sister of Addie Mae Collins, testified. Sarah had been the fifth child in the ladies’ lounge that morning, and she described the scene and told the court that she lost an eye in the explosion.

Captain William Berry, Assistant Fire Marshal, testified about the explosion itself from the evidence on the scene. After Captain Berry came Dr. Joe Donald, who was the chief resident in surgery at the University Hospital, which in 1963 was the old Hillman Clinic.

Early Tuesday morning, November 15, Bob Eddy called making sure I was available.

“Should I come down there? Will you pick me up, or what?” I asked.

“Stay there. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll call you back and allow time to get you here. Just sit tight.”

“OK.”

“Are you all right?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’ll be fine. I know you will. It’ll all be over soon. Just hang on.”

We hung up. I remember puttering about the house putting things in order.

I remember sitting and just looking at the telephone. I remember that it rang a couple of times with other calls. I would hurry each time to get off the line as quickly as possible.

When Jon Yung and George Beck had passed the word to me that it was definite I would be called to testify, I told them that I would on one condition.

There was visible tensing against what I might demand. This was one of the few times I saw George Beck prior to the trial. He was in town, and he, Jon Yung, and Bob Eddy met with me that day.

“The only way I can walk in there is if Bob is with me every step of the way,” I told them.

“I’ll be there,” Bob Eddy had responded quietly.

“I mean actually with me. And stay with me, in and out,” I was emphatic.

“You got it! I won’t let go,” Bob grinned as he made that promise. He knew that I meant for him to act as bodyguard. He knew I meant for him to physically take the risk with me. And he agreed. I almost felt vindicated in my initial decision to trust him. Had it truly been only three months that I had known him?

The call to come to the courthouse that Tuesday morning came much earlier than I had expected, although I had been dressed and waiting for several hours. I left the parsonage immediately and drove east into downtown. I passed the courthouse on Twenty-first Street and proceeded another block on Eighth Avenue to Twenty-second Street, then turned right onto one-way Twenty-second beside the 2121 Building, as I had been instructed to do. As I eased my way slowly along the line of cars parked at meters, I saw Bob. He was waiting on the sidewalk by an empty parking space. I parked my car at the curb, and Bob put coins in the meter. He then led me to another car, and I got into the back seat.

The drive to the courthouse was short, but it seemed to take forever. The driver went around an extra block or two and Bob sat sideways in the front passenger seat scanning behind the car and to the sides. The precautions seemed elaborate, yet there was a long list of murders and unexplained deaths leading up to this day. As we rode, it seemed to sink in for the first time that these men were doing a job. A duty. Whatever deeper motivations there might have been, no matter how honorable, they were there because it was how they earned their paycheck. That was not a comforting thought. I forced those thoughts down and consciously reaffirmed my decision to trust and my resolve to do this thing. It had been so long, and now the hour had come.

Soon the driver swung the car onto Twenty-first Street heading toward the Jefferson County Courthouse. He turned left off the one way street into a driveway that led us under the tall old impressive front steps of the courthouse to a basement entrance near the loading docks. Bob and I got out and entered the building, taking an elevator upstairs. Getting off the elevator into a deserted hallway, he led me to an empty room and showed me where I might sit to wait. Then he left me alone, with instructions to stay there until he came for me. I waited for more than a half hour, sitting, standing, pacing, and wanting a cigarette. I wandered around in an empty courtroom alone. At one point a stranger opened the door and then went away when I said I was waiting for someone.

At last Bob came back. “They are waiting for you,” he said as he took my hand and led me back into the corridor and then onto the elevator again. When the elevator doors opened, the quiet of the building gave way to a din coming from the hallway. The elevator lobby of each floor in the building forms a T with a long hallway that runs the length of the building north and south, so I could not see the source of the noise until we rounded the corner.

The trial was taking place in Courtroom 306, at the end of the hallway. There was a crowd of reporters, along with camera personnel, lights and wires and microphones. There was a cordon of uniformed officers down each side of the hallway leading to a standing metal detector at the doorway into the courtroom itself. Bob led me down this guarded path wordlessly until we reached the officer manning the metal detector.

“You can’t go in. The court has been sealed,” the officer ordered.

“They are waiting for us,” Bob told him.

“The courtroom has been sealed. I can’t let anybody in. It’s for security.”

“This is the witness it was sealed for, you idiot! Now let us pass through,” Bob growled inches from the man’s face so he would not be overheard by the crowd behind us. He still had hold of my hand, and I think I was trying to hide behind him.

The deputy flushed and stepped inside, to reappear in seconds. He verified my name and muttered an apology. Meanwhile, the news reporters who were being held back several feet behind us were demanding to know, “Who is that? What’s happening?”

As the door opened, every eye in the room seemed to be glued to it. Apparently it had not been announced who was being called as the next witness. I was told that the media and the spectators as well as the defense team expected Tommy Rowe, and defense attorney Art Hanes, Jr., was prepared for him.

There was an almost absolute quiet that was unnerving after the din in the hallway. The quiet gave way to a murmur and then a buzz of whispers. I focused on Bob’s back and the witness chair ahead as he led me toward it. As we approached the table where the prosecution attorneys were seated, Attorney General Bill Baxley stood up and formally called me to the stand. I saw Art Hanes, Jr., and his father, the city’s former mayor, lean in toward Robert. And I saw Robert’s face set in anger as he shook his head from side to side.

When I had been sworn in and seated, I looked out over the crowd assembled in the room and instantly recognized several faces. Courtroom 306 is a very large room with a main floor and a balcony, and it was packed. The jury was to my right; the judge, the Honorable Wallace C. Gibson, to my left. The prosecution attorneys were directly in front of me, and the defense was in front of the judge’s bench.

Each time I would glance toward my left, I saw Robert staring at me as though his stern anger would enable him to intimidate me into silence as it had so many times for so many years. I found that if I leaned just a little to the left and did not sit up perfectly straight, the corner of the judge’s bench blocked my view of his face. I believe that was what enabled me to maintain control enough to accomplish what I had come to do.

Jon Yung conducted the questioning, and it went smoothly enough. Even with an occasional objection from Art Hanes, Jr., I was able to remain composed and deliberate.

I responded to Jon Yung’s questions as to my name, residence, occupation, and whether I was related to the defendant. He then moved on to ask whether I remembered the September 15, 1963, bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Art Hanes, Jr., objected to Yung’s using the word “bombing.” The wording of the question was changed to “explosion,” and the questions continued.

When asked about my visit to the Chambliss house on Saturday morning before the Sunday bombing, I told the court that there had been an incident the evening before that I brought to Robert’s attention. The newspaper article reported that a white girl had been stabbed through a bus window and that Bob Gafford had offered a hundred dollar reward. Art Hanes, Jr., again objected. The judge and the attorneys talked back and forth, and finally the judge sent the jury out of the courtroom. For the next 15 or 20 minutes, I testified about the angry and harsh statements Robert had made. This is called “voir dire evidence,” when the judge determines whether the jury should hear the testimony.

Judge Gibson interrupted to tell me that I should repeat the language Robert had used. He said, “I am not trying to embarrass the witness, but I think the language — I mean, sometimes we can’t deal in niceties, and I think this is one of those times.”

I told the court that he had said that if his “buddies” had backed him up, he would have “had the ‘niggers’ in their place by now” and that he had been “fighting a one-man war since 1942.” When I was answering questions about Robert’s demeanor, Hanes objected again, and the judge instructed me that I could say he “appeared to be angry” but I couldn’t say that he “was angry.” Then Hanes argued that none of this should be heard by the jury, and Yung argued that it should. They cited cases and precedents until at last the jury was brought back in, and I had to repeat that portion of my testimony for them.

Also, I told the court that Robert had told me he had “enough ‘stuff’ put away to flatten half of Birmingham” and that “the FBI or police could pick him up and search all they wanted to but they wouldn’t find it unless he pointed it out to them.”

I told the court that he had warned, “Just wait until after Sunday morning, and they’ll beg us to let them segregate!”

I told the court that the Saturday evening after the explosion at the church, I had sat in the room while Robert watched a news broadcast during which Robert had said, “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody; it didn’t go off when it was supposed to” when the announcer said that murder charges might be lodged against the bombers.

At length Jon Yung finished direct questioning and handed me off to the defense for cross-examination. Robert had written something on a legal pad while I testified, and Art Hanes, Jr., referred to it as he got to his feet. I noticed that Robert continued to write on that yellow pad.

After a few easy questions reminding everyone in the courtroom that George Wallace, too, had said he was fighting to save segregation, Hanes started with the hard questions. He picked at my testimony, trying to discredit and confuse me, which is, after all, what cross-examination is all about.

He questioned such things as the use of the word “stuff,” asking had I seen any “stuff.” He seemed to think something was refuted by my not defining what was meant when I said Chambliss had used the word “stuff” to describe what he had that would “flatten half of Birmingham. ” He argued that the words I had repeated from Chambliss were angry words used by many white men in the Sixties. He referred to the use of “nigger” in Robert’s remarks which I had testified to, saying that was common in those days.

Then he asked whether these things happened before or after I divorced my first husband. The way the question was worded, however, showed he intended it as a slur on my character. It was the tone of voice and the grin on his face that indicated his meaning. I swallowed a little flare of anger as I answered; simultaneously Baxley objected to the question and his objection was sustained.

Then Hanes attacked my memory of those conversations. After 14 years, he ridiculed, the court was expected to believe that I remembered so perfectly what had been said. He pulled a couple of dates at random and asked me what I had been doing on those dates. Now this was where it almost got funny; nerves can easily spill over into hysteria, so I struggled a bit to maintain composure. It happened that he named dates that were on or near significant events or routines so that I actually did recall something of what I was doing and answered him accordingly.

After several of these, he named a date that meant nothing to me, and as I started to get angry at this treatment, the prosecution again objected. Again, the objection was sustained. Art Hanes, Jr., soon ended his cross-examination, reserving the right to recall me to the stand.

Before I was allowed to step down, I was questioned again about my memory of those statements of Robert’s, and I said that it was “a weekend that I shall never forget.”

“No further questions, your Honor,” I finally heard them say after I’d been handed back and forth for questioning nine times —  five by the prosecution and four by the defense.

“The witness may step down,” Judge Gibson dismissed me, instructing the prosecution to keep me available. As I stood up, my legs were weak and my hands were cold, but Bob Eddy was right there. He had stayed nearby throughout the time I had been on the witness stand. It was nearing 2:30 p.m.

Bob took my arm and led me back along that aisle and out through that cordon of uniforms in the hallway. I kept my eyes down watching the floor until we were out and clear of the crowd. I think I was worried  I might stumble and fall I was so shaky. I saw my Uncle Howard trying to get to me in the hallway, but we did not stop.

Bob took me toward the elevators and then changed his mind, and we went down the stairs. Not to the basement to be taken away by car, as I expected; instead we left the stairwell on the first floor and calmly walked out through the front doors of the courthouse. Breathing deeply the crisp November air, I walked with him across the wide plaza between the heavy sets of brass doors to the steps and down to the sidewalk.

We crossed Twenty-first Street just as though we had been in the building to buy an automobile tag or business license, and walked down the alley behind the 2121 Building to Twenty-second Street toward where my car was parked. But first Bob took me to a coffee shop at a nearby motel. When I had regained my calm and we had established which route I was to take, he put me into my car and followed me to the refuge that I had prearranged for my seclusion until the trial was over and the verdict was in.

Robert Chambliss was free on bond. He was going home every night after the court recessed. In court, he scowled, he glowered, and (I learned later) he scribbled on his yellow legal pad: “Art Hanes, Tommy Rowe, Libby Cobbs . . . ” over and over.

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