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Southern Explosure

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Thirty-eight years after the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, two of the four principals are dead, but the issues are still full of life. Thomas Blanton Jr. is one of two surviving Klan bombers, and after a jury convicted him in early May of murdering the four black girls that Sunday morning, former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley wrote a blistering Op-Ed for the New York Times accusing the FBI of concealing evidence and aiding the Klan for decades after the event. The FBI's denial made page one the next day: "There's no reason we would have done that," a bureau spokesperson declared. The Times also published a letter from the special agent in charge of the FBI's Birmingham office, calling Baxley's Op-Ed "a disservice to all the agents who tirelessly investigated the 1963 bombing."

Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home is a history of that bombing, of the FBI "investigation," of the people responsible for it--high and low--and of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. She grew up there--she was 10 years old at the time of the bombing--and later she worried, because her father, who had fallen from an elite family, had spent many evenings attending what her mother called "civil rights meetings." But Diane knew he had Klan literature around. Eventually she realized that her father could have been attending Klan meetings, and might even have been one of the bombers. Many years later she set out to find out the truth about him--and ended up writing this magnificent book.

Although the 16th Street Baptist Church served as a rallying point for demonstrators in the 1963 campaign, it was not a Movement church. McWhorter calls it "the snootiest black congregation in the city," and its founding minister worked with the local industrialists to persuade blacks not to join the union. At services they didn't sing gospel songs but rather "the sedate hymns of white Christianity." And 16th Street Baptist was the only church in the city that charged the Movement for using its facilities.

The bomb was a huge one--perhaps a dozen sticks of dynamite. When the blast was heard across town, Klansman Ross Keith, almost certainly one of the bombers, told a friend, "I guess it's somebody discriminating against them niggers again." The four girls who were killed were in the women's lounge, freshening up for their roles as ushers in the main service. Denise McNair was 11; the three others were 14: Carole Robertson, Addie May Collins and Cynthia Wesley--Wesley was wearing high heels for the first time, "shiny black ones bought the day before."

There is a survivor who was in the women's lounge with the other four: 12-year-old Sarah Collins, sister of Addie May. When they found Sarah in the rubble, her face was spurting blood. She was loaded into an ambulance--a "colored" one. On the way to the hospital she sang "Jesus Loves Me" and occasionally said, "What happened? I can't see." Today she is 50 and still blind in one eye.

Immediately after the four girls were identified, the authorities began "furious background checks on them, the search for some flaw deserving punishment." But their records were clean: None, that is, had participated in the recent civil rights demonstrations. Thus, even the city fathers and the local press had to agree they were "innocent."

The big question was never who the bombers were--they were identified by the FBI and the police almost immediately. The big question, McWhorter shows, is what permitted them to get away with it--"the state's malevolence or the FBI's negligence." Dozens of bombings had been carried out by the Klan in the preceding few years, virtually none of which were prosecuted. The FBI's informant in the local Klan, Gary Thomas Rowe, participated in some of them. McWhorter's index has ninety entries for "bombings," starting in the late 1940s. Most Klan bombings in the fifties targeted upwardly mobile blacks moving into middle-class white neighborhoods.

After the 16th Street church bombing, local authorities kept suggesting that blacks were the bombers. The police took the church custodian in for questioning. The FBI's pursuit of witnesses was unhurried, which gave the Klansmen more time to coordinate alibis. FBI informant Rowe told a Birmingham policeman that the man who put up the money to have the church bombed was Harry Belafonte.

The man convicted just weeks ago, Thomas Blanton Jr., was part of an extremist subgroup of the Klan. Initially he focused his violent hatred on Catholics, like the Klan of the 1920s. He had a neighbor, a widow, who was Catholic; she received regular "anonymous calls" from a voice she recognized as his--she had known him for eighteen years--telling her "Niggers and Catholics have to die." Once he threw red paint on her new white Ford and slashed her tires. Earlier in 1963 Blanton had been talking about organizing a church bombing, but he wanted to bomb a Catholic church, not a Negro one. "His associates pronounced him not intelligent enough to make a bomb but dumb enough to place it."

The other man recently charged with the bombing has been judged mentally incapable of standing trial. But in 1962-63, Bobby Frank Cherry was 32 years old, had "no upper front teeth, a 'Bobby' tattoo on his arm, seven kids, and a wife he beat and cheated on." He had been a police suspect in the 1958 attempted bombing of Birmingham's Temple Beth El, and McWhorter has evidence strongly suggesting that he also participated in bombing churches in January 1962, almost two years before the four girls were killed. If the FBI had investigated him after the 1962 explosions, that might have prevented the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings, but as McWhorter points out, "instead the FBI was investigating Martin Luther King," proposing to, as the bureau put it, "expose, disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the leader of the civil rights movement. (In the middle of the Birmingham battle, Bobby Kennedy agreed to let J. Edgar Hoover wiretap King.)

The killing of the four black girls finally spurred the Kennedy Administration to propose, Congress to pass and new President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing racial discrimination in public facilities--the first significant civil rights legislation in a century. The bombing followed the biggest and most successful mass civil rights demonstrations in US history--police met the thousands of marchers with fire hoses and dogs. Today the history of the civil rights movement seems like one of steady progress: first the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, which propelled King to national prominence and established nonviolent direct action as the new tactic, supplanting the legal gradualism of the NAACP; then, in 1960-61, the sit-in movement, in which small groups of courageous students across the South took the lead in a direct personal challenge to segregation; then the Freedom Rides, where a few brave people provoked racist violence that compelled the Kennedy Administration to enter the civil rights arena; and finally Birmingham, where mass protests filled the jails and finally won national legislation outlawing segregation in public accommodations.

What's been forgotten is the grim situation that faced King and the Movement at the outset of the Birmingham campaign in 1962. It had been seven long years since the Montgomery bus boycott--seven years with intermittent acts of immense heroism but without concrete victories. The Southern states were defiant, and the Kennedys, as Victor Navasky argued in Kennedy Justice, considered activists like Martin Luther King to be a problem that endangered their real initiatives, like a tax cut and fighting communism. By 1963 King and the Movement desperately needed a nationally significant victory, somewhere.

King himself had not, up to 1963, initiated any civil rights protest himself--starting with Montgomery in 1955, he was brought in as a spokesman after the action had already begun. Birmingham was no different. Here the real hero and moving force was Fred Shuttlesworth, in many ways the opposite of King--a man of the people, not of the elite; a man who courted danger and pushed the envelope, who stayed till the end, unlike King, who was criticized for leaving town early and leaving "a community stranded with false hope and huge legal fees." Much of the story of Birmingham is the story of Shuttlesworth's brilliant strategic initiatives and awesome physical courage--and King's more cautious efforts to negotiate a settlement by enlisting the White House, in exchange for calling off the demonstrations. It was Shuttlesworth who set out to launch mass demonstrations, fill the jails and compel the city leaders to desegregate downtown businesses and public facilities. McWhorter's book also shows just how close the Birmingham campaign came to failure. A month into the campaign, few people had signed up to go to jail--barely 300 in total, even though King himself had gone to jail. "There are more Negroes going to jail for getting drunk," one Movement leader commented.

What turned this around was an idea of James Bevel's--he had been a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader, who later became field secretary for King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His idea for Birmingham: Fill the jails with children. The adults were full of doubt and fear, but the kids were eager. Hundreds boycotted school on May 2, 1963, instead gathering at the 16th Street Baptist Church, then marching into the streets--more than a thousand of them. The children confronted the cops, singing in high voices "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" and "Which Side Are You On?" and then were ushered into buses to go to jail. For the first time, King and his lieutenants had achieved Gandhi's goal--fill the jails.

The next day thousands more showed up to march. That was the day of the fire hoses. The city's fire chief initially resisted officials' attempts to enlist the fire department in attacking demonstrators, on the grounds that the national union of firefighters officially opposed using fire equipment to "control" crowds. But when the orders came, they turned on high-pressure hoses powerful enough to knock a big man off his feet, blast the shirts off people's backs and flush individuals down the gutters.

The success of the civil rights movement on the national political landscape required not just heroic action by large numbers of ordinary black people; it also required that the viciousness of the opponents of civil rights be presented vividly and dramatically to ordinary American newspaper readers and TV watchers. In this, the Birmingham movement turned out to be supremely fortunate to have the grotesque Eugene "Bull" Connor as police commissioner. Photos of young demonstrators linking arms and standing up to the high-pressure hoses made page one around the world. Life magazine ran a two-page spread of the most dramatic photo of firemen blasting demonstrators, headlined "They Fight a Fire That Won't Go Out." The photos of police dogs attacking demonstrators had the same effect. The New York Times ran a photo of a dog biting a demonstrator on page one, three columns wide and above the fold, headlined "Dogs and Hoses Repulse Negroes at Birmingham."

Key reporters had already found the civil rights drama a compelling story. In 1960, the New York Times published a blazing Harrison Salisbury story on page one before the Birmingham campaign got going: "Every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, reinforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state's apparatus." State authorities responded by charging Salisbury with forty-two counts of criminal libel. The Times's response was to order its reporters to stay out of Alabama--not exactly a fighting stance--which meant that other news organizations would henceforth get the story while the Times relied on wire copy for the climactic battles. The Times didn't return until a year later, when Claude Sitton persuaded executives to let him cover the aftermath of the Freedom Rides.

While the Times proved gun-shy on Alabama, CBS-TV didn't; network president Frank Stanton sent reporter Howard K. Smith to Birmingham to make a documentary. (Even though Stanton was not exactly a civil rights advocate; he also "blacked out all Negro speakers at the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions.")Smith's crew set out to interview leading whites; the head of the elite Women's Committee told him on camera that "one of the contributing factors to our creativeness in the South is sort of a joyousness of the Negro." But she was worried because it had been four or five years since she had "heard Negroes just spontaneously break into song." Smith also turned out to be the only national reporter on the scene when the Freedom Riders arrived and were savagely beaten by a white mob while the police stood by.

Who Speaks for Birmingham? aired on CBS in 1961 and featured Smith's account of the mob attack on the Freedom Riders. Network executives complained that the program "presented Birmingham's Negroes in a better light than its whites," but executive producer Fred Friendly fought to keep the whole thing, and in the end gave up only Smith's closing line, a quote from Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." But when the same Howard K. Smith criticized Kennedy in his regular Sunday radio commentary, asking whether "we really deserve to win the cold war" in view of the racist violence in Birmingham, CBS News suspended him from his job as Washington bureau chief.

The media coverage was crucial, but one of the secrets of the demonstrations was that neither the police nor the media distinguished between marchers and spectators. Only a couple of hundred people joined the early official demonstrations, but a thousand or more turned out to watch and see what happened. The police attacked everybody, and the press reported thousands of demonstrators.

Carry Me Home includes the most detailed account ever of the Birmingham Movement's strategy and tactics, day by day and hour by hour, but what makes it unique is its account of the local opposition to civil rights, and particularly the links between the "Big Mules," who ran Birmingham's industrial economy, and the Klan bombers. The book's most important contribution is its decisive evidence that the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church "was the endgame in the city fathers' long and profitable tradition of maintaining their industrial supremacy through vigilantism."

Birmingham had never been what you would call a happy place--the New South's one center of heavy industry, it was a city where the ruling elite fought working-class militancy with the most blatant racism. Power in Birmingham centered on US Steel, which ran the town along fascist lines--one Communist organizer in the 1930s was sentenced to a shackled road crew for possessing "seditious" literature, which included The Nation magazine. The dirty work of the Big Mules was carried out by the Alabama Klan, which was reorganized in the 1930s as an antiunion shock force.

Charles DeBardeleben headed the Big Mules--he ran the biggest coal company in the state, and his father had pretty much founded Birmingham as a coal and iron center. By the mid-1930s DeBardeleben was also a secret corporate benefactor of the Constitutional Educational League, part of a global network of pro-Nazi propagandists. The league's 1938 banquet featured George Van Horn Moseley, who "advocated sterilizing all Jewish immigrants to the US." McWhorter names the names of the other key Big Mules and shows their connections to the bombers of the 1950s and 1960s.

History also loomed large for the Jewish businessmen who owned the downtown department stores that were the target of the demonstrators' demands for integration and jobs. Birmingham's Jews had been traumatized a generation earlier during the Scottsboro trial, when the nine "Boys" were defended during their rape trial by a Jewish attorney from New York named Samuel Liebowitz. The state's closing statement challenged the jury to "show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York." The jury obliged.

That was 1933. Thirty years later, Birmingham's Jews were still feeling defensive. One liked to tell his gentile friends, "It wasn't the Birmingham Jews who killed Jesus. It was the Miami Jews." Now they declared that they were as opposed to "outside agitators" as Bull Connor--indeed, one Birmingham Jewish organization issued a public statement demanding not only that Martin Luther King stay away but that the Anti-Defamation League stay out of Birmingham.

Birmingham is also famous as the place where Martin Luther King composed his best-known written work, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." It wasn't King's idea. Harvey Shapiro, an editor at The New York Times Magazine, suggested that King write a "letter from prison" for the magazine. The missive that King wrote turned out to be a classic, "the most eloquent treatment of the nexus between law and injustice since Thoreau's essay 'Civil Disobedience.'" But when King submitted his piece, the Times editors rejected it. It wasn't printed for another two months, and then in The Atlantic Monthly.

The Martin Luther King who appears in McWhorter's account is not very heroic. His claim that "unearned suffering is redemptive," made at the March on Washington earlier that year, seemed irresponsible to more and more blacks, ranging from SNCC militants to ordinary Birmingham blacks. In King's first statement after the bombing, he asked, "Who murdered those four girls?" and answered, "The apathy and complacency of many Negroes who will sit down on their stools and do nothing and not engage in creative protest to get rid of this evil." Carole Robertson's mother had not participated in the demonstrations; she was so outraged at King blaming her for her daughter's murder that she refused to join the three other families in a mass funeral for the girls.

At the other end of the spectrum in black Birmingham were the men who saw the events as providing "a chance to kill us a cracker." The Movement's insistence that marchers take a pledge of nonviolence was based on leaders' knowledge of the deep rage that black men in particular bore for whites. "At mass meetings, King began passing around a box for people to deposit razors, knives, ice picks, and pistols, and salted his inspirational calls to dignity with reminders that being black did not in itself constitute a virtue." People needed courage and hope before they could take the pledge of nonviolence.

McWhorter's panoramic cast includes blacks on the wrong side of the Movement. "Rat Killer" ran the 17th Street Shine Parlor, a popular after-hours spot where visiting stars like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and the Temptations hung out, and where Movement preachers got their shoes shined. But Rat Killer was "Bull Connor's right-hand man" in the black community--he traded information for informal permission to sell bootleg liquor and do some pimping.

McWhorter weaves her personal story throughout the book, and these sections provide uniquely rich and revealing evidence of the blindness of middle-class whites in this era. The book opens at Birmingham's elite white country club on a Sunday, when McWhorter was having brunch as usual with her family. It turns out to have been the morning the church was bombed. McWhorter was a year younger than the youngest of the four girls killed. Although the bombing marked a turning point in the nation's history, her family took little note of it. She doesn't remember it at all, and her mother's diary entry for that day says only that Diane's rehearsal for the community theater production of The Music Man was canceled--not in mourning over the deaths but because whites feared that black people would riot.

The police dogs that horrified the world were well-known to McWhorter. Before the historic day they attacked the demonstrators, the police brought one of the dogs to an assembly at her school to demonstrate its crime-fighting abilities. McWhorter was so excited by the event that she changed her career goal to police-dog handler (she had planned to become an Olympic equestrian).

At the end of the book, McWhorter finally confronts her father on tape. He says he's told friends his daughter is writing a book about "the nigger movement," but says he wasn't in the Klan and was never involved in murdering anyone. She concludes he was a camp follower but not much of an activist.

The rest of the key figures in the story are mostly dead now: Bull Connor died in 1973; Robert Chambliss, until Blanton the only man convicted in the bombing (in a 1977 trial brought by then-Alabama Attorney General Baxley), died in 1985 while serving his prison term. (Baxley ran for governor in 1978 and lost.) The FBI's Klan informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, admitted that he and three Klan members shot and killed Viola Liuzzo on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march; the killers were acquitted of murder (but not of violating her civil rights), and Rowe went into the witness protection program after the trial and died in 1998. The other Klan bombers died too, until the only ones left seemed to be Bobby Frank Cherry and Tommy Blanton.

Chambliss's 1977 trial exploded back to life early this May with Baxley's New York Times Op-Ed. He wrote that he had "requested, demanded and begged the FBI for evidence" from 1971 through 1977; that his office was "repeatedly stonewalled"; that the bureau practiced "deception," the result of which was that Blanton went "free for 24 years" while the FBI had "smoking gun evidence hidden in its files." He concluded by describing "the disgust" he felt over the FBI's conduct. No state attorney general has ever spoken so forcefully in criticizing the bureau.

Now Blanton has been convicted, but virtually all the other Southern white men who killed blacks during the heyday of the civil rights movement have gone unpunished. In the end the Klan bombers may not be the biggest villains in this story. It's the city and state officials, including the police and the FBI, who tolerated and sometimes encouraged racist violence, and the Kennedy brothers, who didn't want to do anything about it until they were forced to. Diane McWhorter started writing about "growing up on the wrong side of the civil rights revolution"; she ended up with the most important book on the movement since Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters. It should become a classic.

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