Home — But Not Home Free

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-highsm-05091

The next few days were to be some of the most difficult I’ve ever spent. A week or so before the trial began, I had spoken to Millie, one of the handful of friends I felt that I could trust, preparing her for a favor I might ask. Millie was a tall and portly woman-of-color from Boston studying for ministry in the Episcopal Church and a fellow student at Birmingham-Southern College. We had grown close through the past couple of years of classes, studying, discussions, and shared burgers.

“Millie, I may need a favor in a week or so,” I had told her.

“What is it. I’ll do you any favor I can,” she assured me.

“I’m possibly going to need a place to stay for a few days, and no one can know where I am — absolutely no one. Can I stay with you, if it is necessary?”

“Are you having marriage trouble?” she asked, her face registering concern.

“No, that’s not it, Millie. I can’t explain, so please don’t ask me for details. But if I need you, I’ll really need you, and you will understand then.”

She agreed, more readily than I would have expected, and the next day she gave me a key to her dorm room.

After my testimony Bob Eddy and I had coffee, and then I drove directly to the college campus. Bob followed in another car. On the way the music on the car radio was interrupted by a recording of part of my testimony, and the announcer said, “This voice made history today,” plugging the upcoming news broadcast.

Millie was asleep when I arrived. I told her who Bob was, and he checked the room and left me there. Caught off guard, Millie fretted as I explained what had happened, and we started a vigil of watching every news broadcast on a small black-and-white television and reading both morning and evening newspapers. She brought food back to me from the cafeteria and picked up newspapers, checking in between classes.

I had been given the option of staying in a motel, but I was glad not to be alone. I was also glad not to be at home with the telephone and doorbell.

The house monitors did not know that I was in Millie’s room. The room had two twin beds, but she did not have a roommate. The bath, however, was shared with the adjacent room, so we kept the connecting door closed and locked.

Only two people figured out on their own where I was: Jesse and Andrea, a mixed-race couple who were friends of Millie’s and mine. They had heard the news broadcast of my voice and then noticed Millie buying cheeseburgers. Millie had perpetual money problems, going to college on far fewer resources than she needed. She was often quite inventive in meeting her food needs, usually filling up on the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches the cafeteria kept available. When Jesse and Andrea saw Millie buying food and leaving the cafeteria with it, they put two and two together.

They knocked on the door and called softly, “It’s Jesse and Andrea. It’s OK, nobody saw us come up.” Millie looked at me and I nodded. We let them in and the four of us sat around for hours talking and getting nerves settled.

From television and newspapers we learned much of what had happened in the courtroom. The first witness Tuesday was J. O. Butler, Sr., who was coroner in Jefferson County in 1963. He testified to the nature of the injuries sustained by the four victims of the bombing. After Butler, W. L. Allen, a deputy in the coroner’s office, was called. Art Hanes, Jr., objected strenuously against admitting reports from the coroner’s office into evidence. On the death certificates of each of the four girls, the cause of the injuries was shown as “dynamite blast,” and two of them added the word “bomb.”

Judge Gibson took out his pocket knife and cut each document, taking out the words “dynamite blast” and “dynamite blast-bomb.”  He apologized to the jury that the holes were asymmetrical. The death certificates were admitted into evidence and passed to the jury with holes where the “conclusionary statements” of the coroners had been.

Denise McNair’s father, Christopher McNair, took the stand next and described that last day of his daughter’s life.

Having established the crime and the nature of the crime, the prosecution changed to a different type of testimony.

Tom Cook, retired by 1977, had been a Birmingham policeman for more than 30 years. Cook’s name came up several times in investigation reports (including statements by Tommy Rowe), raising suspicion that he furnished police intelligence to the Ku Klux Klan, aiding the Klan’s cause. On the stand, he testified about a conversation he had with Robert Chambliss about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in December 1975, wherein Chambliss said, “Well, you know I got arrested for having that dynamite” and that he had given “that dynamite to Rowe and them.”

After the lunch break, Birmingham Police Sergeant Ernie Cantrell took the stand and described a time in November 1976 when Robert Chambliss came to police headquarters and talked to Cantrell, Captain Jack LeGrand, and Captain Bill Myers. That time Chambliss had come to cast blame on Don Luna. Former Klan investigator Luna had just been arrested for securities irregularities. Luna had given both the state and FBI agents information, and he was with the state officer when Robert Chambliss was arrested on September 29, 1963. Attorney General Bill Baxley said they were showing that Robert was accusing his enemies to police whenever it looked as though someone were talking too much.

Cantrell also testified that during the conversation in November 1976, Robert had told him and the other officers that “a fellow” had told him how to make a “drip-method bomb” using “a fishing bobber, and a bucket full of water with a hole in it.” Then Cantrell told the court that Robert said, “If I had bombed the church, I would have put enough stuff there to flatten the damn thing.”

When I was called, I had no idea what had gone before I came in, but it was little wonder that Mr. Hanes tore into my testimony on the word “stuff.”

Bob Eddy had led me out of the courtroom, and we were well out of the building when Bill Baxley called William “Billy” Jackson, a former Klansman, to the stand. He told of being with Robert and Tommy Blanton, Jr., at the Modern Sign Company downtown the night before the bombing. The group was using the sign shop’s equipment to make Confederate flags and protest signs. He also told of going to Robert’s home to join the Ku Klux Klan and attending a meeting on the Cahaba River. His testimony differed from earlier statements to police and FBI, however, in that he said these meetings were before the bombing rather than after.

The last witness called on Tuesday was Gertrude Glenn from Detroit, Michigan. Mrs. Glenn had been visiting friends who lived at 1521 Seventh Avenue North behind the church on the weekend the church was bombed. She and her friend’s son were returning to that house about 2 a.m. that Sunday and saw a two-toned 1957 Chevrolet parked at the curb near there with the inside light on. Shortly after the bombing she had identified Robert Chambliss from photos as being one of the men in that car, and she selected a photo of Tommy Blanton, ]r.’s, car.

Art Hanes’s objections to her testimony brought up legal arguments causing court to adjourn midway through and resume the next day. When I heard this, I felt so sorry for her having to go back the next morning. I had known about her since 1963, of course, having been told of her eyewitness account by FBI agents.

Wednesday morning court resumed a little after 8 am, and evidence was taken on voir dire for over two hours. The jury was finally brought in after 10:30 that morning, and Gertrude Glenn was questioned on both direct and cross at great length about the car she had seen and the men in it.

When she was excused, FBI special agent Tim Casey, who was one of the first agents on the case back in 1963, was called. He verified the photos of Tommy Blanton’s car that Gertrude Glenn had identified.

Next to take the stand was Yvonne Young, a woman who told about going to Tee and Robert’s house with Ross Keith (one of Robert’s buddies in both Eastview Klavern 13 and the Cahaba Boys, and an FBI informant who died before Bob Eddy could question him), two weeks before the bombing. Trying to find the bathroom, Young had opened a wrong door and seen several bundles of “oversized firecrackers” the color of masking tape lying on the floor. She described how Robert started “cussing” and “scolding” her for going into the wrong room.

After lunch, former fire marshal Aaron Rosenfeld was called for more expert testimony on the use of dynamite in the blast at the church, and Sergeant Cantrell was recalled. Cantrell was questioned more about the drip-method bomb Robert had talked about in 1976 and about his patrol duty and other police cars around the church through the night of September 14 and morning of the 15th.

Following Cantrell was FBI agent John McCormick, who had been in Birmingham for about a week before the Sunday morning bombing. He said that he reacted to the odor of dynamite with a headache and had gotten one investigating the scene. He further told about being present when another agent found the much-talked-about, little-seen fishing bobber in the street.

When I heard the television announcer say that the prosecution had rested its case and the defense portion of the trial would begin that same day, I was stunned. Was that all they had? I had expected it to take the rest of the week. The defense would drag on forever, right?

Art Hanes, Jr., had reserved the right to recall me, and I feared he might do just that. Surely Art Hanes, Sr., former mayor of Birmingham, former FBI agent, allegedly a former Klansman, would leave no stone unturned.

The defense led off with three Birmingham policemen. Billy Webb and Paul Hurst had been in the special patrol car on the 11 pm to 7 am shift, and both testified that nothing unusual had happened. No white men were in the area. The third police officer was Robert Chambliss’s nephew, Floyd C. Garrett, whose testimony was quite different from statements made to the FBI in 1963, except that he said he had gone to borrow a shotgun from his uncle on his way to work.

On cross-examination, Jon Yung quizzed him about telling his supervisor, Maurice House, that he had gone because he was suspicious that Robert was involved and wanted to see if he were at home. Garrett denied that.

Then the defense brought out nine character witnesses before court was adjourned for the day. All of them were asked on cross-examination if they had heard of the various times Robert had been arrested for violence and about his Ku Klux Klan activities. None of them admitted to knowledge of these things in forming their good opinion of Robert’s character.

Wednesday evening, Millie and I huddled in her little dorm room. I was disturbed that the trial was going so fast. To me, the prosecution’s case against Robert seemed weak and disjointed.

Thursday morning Robert’s sister, Bennie Mae Brown, took the stand to say she had gone to Robert’s house soon after the explosion looking for his neighbor, Clarence Dill, and found the two of them playing dominoes.

Next came a man named Edward Walker, an automobile salesman  who testified that DeSoto automobiles were not made after 1961. Gertrude Glenn had said she was driving a 1962 model; supposedly Walker’s testimony was to refute her identification of the Blanton car.

Then the defense rested. Robert Chambliss had surprised his attorneys by refusing to take the stand in his own defense.

There was one rebuttal witness for the state. Birmingham Police Captain Maurice House testified that Floyd Garrett had told him and Detective V. T. Hart that the reason for going to Chambliss’s house that morning was because he (Garrett) was suspicious that Robert had done the bombing.

After final arguments, the jury received the case at 4:09 p.m., Thursday, November 17, 1977.

Bob Eddy and Jon Yung had called me several times since my testimony in court to make sure I was all right and to see if I needed anything. When Bob called Thursday evening, there was no enthusiasm in his voice. He sounded tired and we questioned how long the jury would deliberate.

“Nothing to do now but wait,” he said.

But the telephone in the hallway rang Friday morning a little after 11. Jon Yung’s voice said, “It’s over. We won.” He told me to wait an hour before going home so that he could have the city police meet me and check the house and the church before I went in.

Millie and I hugged as I left. We were both in tears. A police car was waiting at the parsonage. I gave them my keys, waiting outside until they had checked the house and found it secure. Jesse and Andrea stayed with me during the afternoon, fielding calls and stopping people at the door.

A woman in my church congregation came with food and visited for a short while. I learned later that she thought Jesse and Andrea were police officers there to protect me, but the only police courtesy I received was when they had checked the house and church for bombs at Jon Yung’s direction.

The district superintendent of the Birmingham east district of the United Methodist Church, Dr. Montgomery, called to determine if I was all right and to commend me for courage. The Bishop, Carl Sanders, called also, and after a few comments, he asked whether I would have testified if the death penalty had been a possibility. I had to tell him that I had struggled with the same question but had no answer. I do not believe in a death penalty, and in 1963, when the church was bombed, the death penalty had previously been ruled unconstitutional. That ruling was subsequently overturned, however, so that by 1977 it had been reinstated and Alabama had again hooked up “Yellow Mama,” as the electric chair is euphemistically known.

I received letters from church people and citizens. I received a call from Mary, the church secretary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

And I received threats.

As it turned out, there would be no further indictments in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing case. Extradition of J. B. Stoner from Georgia for bombing the Bethel Baptist Church in 1958 was in process, but no charges were lodged against him in the 1963 bombing. Only one man was convicted for the crimes of many in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing case.

Bill Baxley was running for governor in 1978. He lost despite, or perhaps because of, his efforts to solve civil rights era crimes. Governor George Wallace sent Bob Eddy to Huntsville to serve the remainder of the term of Madison County’s deposed sheriff

Charlie Graddick was elected attorney general in 1978 and refused to pursue prosecution of the other men in the car that Saturday night in 1963: the one who got out and placed the bomb and set the crude timer, the young man who drove the car, and others who knew and helped. Graddick said the case was “too political,” so he put it aside.

It had been hoped that once convicted, Robert would implicate the others. He said there was a “kiss of death” on Tee if he ever talked, and he must have firmly believed in this because he died in 1985, never having admitted to the bombing nor naming any accomplices. However, he did write letters accusing other Klansmen, his nephew Floyd Garrett, and Tommy Rowe.

In his letters and interviews with Ernie Cantrell and Jack LeGrand and district attorney David Barbour while in prison, Robert contended that there had been a CIA plot to frame him. He also accused his attorneys, Arthur Hanes, Jr., and Sr., of framing him — “just like they did James Earl Ray.” I’ve been told that he often threatened me from his cell.

Robert had very few visitors, and after a time his threats and attempts to intimidate caused even the few who still did to stop going to see him, especially after Tee died in 1980.

During the weeks just after Robert’s trial I tried to resume a normal life, so I agreed to only one interview. Bill Baxley and I were taped in the living room of the parsonage for ABC’s Good Morning America. I agreed because the show did not air in Birmingham at that time.

About that same time a Reader’s Digest writer came to see me. I did not give him material that he could use in his article, so he wrote his story using other sources.

I stayed in Birmingham just over a year after the trial. My second marriage had never had a secure foundation, and after the stress and publicity of the Chambliss case, it crumbled. The spring after the trial my husband divorced me. In June, I left the Methodist Church; feeling that my congregation (and I) had endured enough, I asked for a leave of absence. I moved several times and had my unlisted telephone number changed several times, but the harassment never stopped. Someone stood outside my bedroom window and lined up bullets on the windowsill. Someone broke into my car and left a hunting knife in the driver’s seat. My telephone rang at odd hours of the night — every night. Some callers were heavy breathers, most were threats, and some only said, “We know where you are.”

I could not get a job in Birmingham; I was told repeatedly that people were afraid to hire me. I pastored a small independent church for a few months for $50 a week and housing and then worked as a security guard for several months.

I left Birmingham the first week of January 1979 under an assumed name, with one friend and all my possessions packed in a subcompact car, having sold or given away virtually everything I owned. I had no destination in mind except somewhere out of Alabama.

During the years I was gone, I was located several times even though I had changed my name and my appearance. I wasn’t always sure just who had found me, but when it was a threat, I assumed it to be the Klan. Yet when three men wearing business suits in a nondescript car take your picture through the car window, you assume it to be the FBI and wave.

In 1980, during one of my many moves, I lost contact with my son. lt would be four years before we re-established communication. For that purpose I had quietly slipped back into Birmingham a couple of times. Then in winter 1985, a month after Robert died, I moved back to Birmingham. Only a few people knew who I once was.

Having been censured by my immediate family after the trial and  further as my life changed, I did not feel free to reestablish contact with other relatives. I also feared that such associations would make me easier to locate for those who might still want to silence me. I had been warned (in writing in 1980) that should I try to make contact with any family members,I would be killed. So instead of taking up my old identity, initially I formed new friendships and pursued new activities. For several years I earned my living in an antiques restoration business.

During that time, I granted the only newspaper interview I have given in all these years. Kathy Kemp of the Birmingham Post-Herald reached me through a mutual acquaintance, and after meeting her, I agreed. She was kind enough and professional enough to guard my location and appearance at that time. That interview was published in October 1988.

I was not paid for either of the interviews I gave. I was never on the FBI payroll and received no money from them, nor have I ever received any reward money for my testimony or for cooperation with the State of Alabama’s investigation. The State of Alabama has no witness protection program, so changing my name and appearance and all relocations were at my own expense and by my own efforts.

I readily admit that a year after I moved back to Birmingham in poor health and with poor prospects, I contacted a secretary in Bill Baxley’s law office. There were no longer funds available, which I felt sure would be the case before I called. I did not speak with Bill Baxley himself.

Birmingham changed a great deal too between 1963 and 1977. J. Edgar Hoover had said that it was impossible to get a conviction during the Sixties. He might have been right. When I came back to Birmingham in November 1985, I found a city that had changed even more. But I still found an atmosphere of prejudice and fear.

Birmingham has now outgrown its nickname “Bombingham.” Its current city government reflects its racial makeup with some very talented and dedicated individuals.

Yet it is still a city prone to violent division. It is still a city that does not take a stand for tolerance and mutual respect among its citizens. And, unfortunately, its understanding of “human rights” seems to still be locked in the dichotomy of black/white and has not been opened to embrace all people.

Those who were children in 1963 are adults now and have raised another generation, still divided by race, religion, class, age, lifestyle, and neighborhood.

Had they lived, Denise, Carole, Addie, and Cynthia might have told us that hate and fear are sides of the same coin. Freedom begins by breaking free — free from fear, without hate, able to embrace all who are different because they are human, and therefore precious.

I toured the new Birmingham Civil Rights Institute shortly after it opened in 1992, and on the street outside I embraced a friend — a black businesswoman — and we agreed that Birmingham has come a long way. But we all still have a long way to go.

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