No Turning Back

Bill Baxley called the grand jury back into session in September 1977, and on September 26,  indictments were returned against Robert Chambliss for four counts of murder resulting from the dynamite explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. He was arrested at his home that same afternoon by a deputy sheriff. Bob Eddy went with the deputy and waited while Chambliss changed his clothes and sat for Tee to comb his hair. Subsequently bond was set at $200,000.

I had hoped that Robert would remain in jail until the trial, but friends and family members managed to raise the money to post bond after about ten days. Once the wheels were in motion and Robert knew that he would be tried, the danger was great.

I do not know how Robert learned that I might speak against him. That question has never been answered. The only possibility I have been able to discover is that either Ernie Cantrell or Jack LeGrand let it be known that I had spoken to Bob Eddy rather than the grand jury. Perhaps Robert’s attorneys noted my name on the grand jury witness list. However he found out, I learned that he threatened to make a phone call and have me killed and my church bombed.

I took his threats against me and my church seriously. Yet I continued to conceal my cooperation and my intention to testify, if needed.

Late in October, I was told that a trial date had been set: November 14. From that point on, there was a sense of urgency about every meeting with the men who worked for the attorney general of the State of Alabama. Each meeting was gravely serious, and I would be asked the same questions a dozen different ways, as well as new ones. I was also given occasional tidbits of information about the other evidence to be presented and other witnesses. There was also mention of other investigations that were expected to become of primary focus when the trial of Robert Chambliss was over.

It had become pretty well established that my personal knowledge and observations, those to which I could give direct testimony, would be useful in this case but probably not in the other cases. Yet it was crucial that those others be pursued because those were the men who would feel threatened and vengeful enough to cause me and other innocent people harm after the Chambliss trial was completed and the information was public.

I started to feel like a fish on a hook. They wanted to hang on and play me until all were safely in the boat, but then what: Would I be thrown out wounded to fend for myself? Would I wind up fried and served up on a platter?

I had one last meeting with Jon Yung just days before the trial was scheduled to begin; all contact after that would be by telephone. I went to the motel near the civic center where we had met several times before. He was in a first-floor room visible from the parking lot. I parked some fifty feet or so from the door and walked to the room; I had learned not to park by the room I was going to. That way, if someone recognized my car, they might not figure out which room I was in. Then I had to be careful and not be noticed going in or out.

Jon was in his shirt sleeves, but he did have on his tie; his suit jacket was on a chair near the dresser. The rooms were always neat where we met. Except for papers and files, tape recorders occasionally, cameras, and other equipment, there was little sign that the men occupied the space. There was usually a coffeepot or some sort of soda available.

I knew that Bob Eddy had been away from home for months, except for an occasional day or two. I assumed the same was true for Jon Yung. Both of them were looking tired and often seemed harassed and worried.

I sat in a chair near the door facing into the room with my back toward the window. The drapes were closed. Jon sat down occasionally on the corner of the bed or on the dresser, but mostly he paced about.

I recall that I was chilled. I recall my muscles being very tight and painful trying to avoid trembling. I do not remember that it was particularly cold, though, just the usual early November nip in the air.

It was definite now; the only things that would make it unnecessary for me to testify would be either a confession—which was not likely—or the death of one of us: Robert or me. As the trial date approached, it became more and more real. For all those years it had been a hope, a dread, a fear. Now it was a scheduled event. It felt somewhat like preparing for surgery. You have to be there, but you have absolutely no control over the outcome.

Of course I was nervous. Of course I was afraid. It seemed that we had covered everything there was to cover and the afternoon meeting had turned into early evening. As I started to get up, preparing to leave, Jon stepped in front of me. He had a large envelope in his hand. “Are you ready for these?” he asked, as he handed me the contents of the envelope.

I took the eight-by-ten sheets of heavy paper, and although I do not know what I did expect, I looked at something that was totally unexpected. At first it was hard to focus and understand what was in the black-and-white overexposed glossy photograph at the top of the stack. As my eyes adjusted, the details started to emerge: walls, cabinets, instruments, a gurney with a wadded sheet and — these were the morgue shots of the victims of the bombing. Perhaps there were a dozen prints. Different angles. A few of them included more than one of the victims.

I forced myself to look at the photos, one by one. Each one became more blurred by my tears. These horridly cold, brutally clinical photos of once beautiful, once alive and whole children, were burning into me trying to erase the picture of the four children I had carried in my mind for 14 years.

File:16th Street Baptist Church bombing girls.jpg

Chambliss’s victims, clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair).

I had been able to close my eyes and see the smiling faces from photographs that became so well-known after their deaths. The photos used in a plaque mounted in the sanctuary on a wall near the church altar. Those smiling faces had protected me from the other pictures I had in my mind all those years of the scenes we had watched on television of the shrouded bodies being brought—one by one—from the rubble that had been their church.

I had wept the morning they had died. I had wanted Robert to bear the public shame of his acts all those years and had tried in every way I had known to help bring that about, but this — this was — oh, God, the facts. I looked at the pictures, tears welling into my eyes and running down my cheeks. I handed them back to Jon. He didn’t speak, but he watched me and waited.

“I’m ready,” I told him, and I left the room. I managed to get into my car and start the engine before my control broke. I could no longer contain the flood of emotion. This was not simple grief, this was not just shock, this was not limited to anger. This was years of pent-up rage and pain.

I can remember to this day, as I write 17 years later, how the streets looked as I drove home in the darkness, the lights blindingly bright as they were refracted through my tears. I can hear in my ears that voice that was my own — screaming, keening, and crying out to God in sorrow, in rage; railing at the injustice, the cruelty, and at the guilt of impotence: to have not known what to do when it might have made a difference.

Memory can be a blessed tool or it can be a crippling burden. In work and in school my ability to recall detail and even verbatim conversations had been valuable to me. And though I had spent several years pushing the memories of the Sixties into a contained place so that I could live and be productive, they flooded back. Vivid, detailed, and absolute.

When I arrived home, I was drained. Perhaps I felt purged. I think that I thought the release of those emotions would strengthen me and that the coming days would provide healing of the wounds, for myself and for others.

I still could not discuss the case with other people, and all I wanted to do was to shout in accusation at a city, a system, a people who could allow — not just allow — but also accept such atrocities.

I wanted to tear it up and put it back together right. I used the weekend to pull myself together. I conducted the regular worship service in my church on Sunday, quietly prepared my son for the inevitable, and slept little.

The trial began on Monday morning; Robert Chambliss would stand trial for one count of murder. They would try him on only one count, explaining that, “If something goes wrong on this, we’ll immediately arrest him on another count.” The victim named in the charge was 11-year-old Denise McNair.


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