America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)
THE DESECRATED SANCTUARY
the 1963 SIXTEENTH STREET BAPTIST CHURCH BOMBING
On September 14, 1963, five very dangerous men met in Birmingham, Alabama.
Traveling farthest was Colonel William Potter Gale, former chief aide and consultant on guerrilla warfare to General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. By 1963 Gale was the paramilitary commander and cofounder of one of the most outspoken white supremacist organizations in his home state of California, the Christian Defense League.
Joining him was former admiral John Crommelin, a naval hero during World War II, who would soon plot a coup d’état against the American government with fellow senior military veterans. Crommelin, who came to Birmingham from his home near Montgomery, Alabama, by 1963 had already run repeatedly for public office, most recently as a 1962 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Alabama under the National States Rights Party.
Three men from Mobile also made the journey. Noah Jefferson (Jeff) Carden, described in military records as having “psychopathic tendencies” and suspected of bombings in his former home state of Florida, joined the two former military officers. So did fellow white supremacist Bob Smith, who was then mentoring a Mobile high school student, Tommy Tarrants, who in a few years would become the chief terrorist for the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Tarrants did not make the trip, but another one of his mentors became the most important source on the mysterious gathering.
In interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jack Nelson in 1991, Tarrants described a common house painter and notorious white supremacist named Sidney Crockett Barnes as the most violent person he had ever known. Barnes, like Smith, was in the process of moving from Florida to Alabama, fearful that law enforcement would become aware of his connections to the wave of anti-integration terrorism then plaguing the Sunshine State.
All five men who met that day in Birmingham—Gale, Crommelin, Carden, Smith, and Barnes—were identified in FBI documents as loyal followers of the Reverend Wesley Swift. All were either on Swift’s mailing list for tapes or were ordained ministers in the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian. During Crommelin’s last Senate campaign, Swift himself had joined four other Christian Identity ministers, including Gordon Winrod, the official pastor for the NSRP, in campaigning for the former admiral.
It is through Barnes, though, that we know the details of the September meeting in Birmingham. In March 1964, Barnes described the gathering to a friend, Willie Somersett, who was secretly taping their conversation as a Miami police informant. Somersett described additional conversations, which were not taped, relating to the outcome of that meeting as well.
According to Barnes’s taped conversation, Gale had met with segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace in the summer of 1963 with a plan to stymie the increasingly successful movement to integrate Alabama. But Wallace had rejected Gale’s plan as too radical. Everything that had transpired in places like Birmingham since that time had convinced the five men that Wallace—the man who once defiantly proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”—was becoming soft. Barnes told Somersett that in response, he and his associates decided to take measures that would both deal a blow to the civil rights movement and embarrass the populist governor. If the following day’s events were connected with the September 14 meeting, the horrible atrocity did more than just deliver a blow to the psyche of Birmingham’s black community; it shocked the conscience of the entire nation.1
United Press International described the dynamite blast that “ripped” through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on the Sunday morning of September 15, 1963, injuring “dozens of persons, and at least 20 were hurt badly enough to have hospital treatment.” In the immediate aftermath, “the survivors, their faces dripping blood from the glass that flew out of the church’s stained glass windows, staggered around the two-story brick and stone building in a cloud of white dust raised by the deafening explosion.”2 Four girls did not survive the attack. The coroner’s report detailed the horror:
NAME: Addie Mae Collins
DEATH WAS CAUSED BY: Multiple Fractures, Lacerations of Head and Back (Chest)
AGE IN YEARS LAST BIRTHDAY: 14
NAME: Carol Robertson
DEATH WAS CAUSED BY: Fractured Skull and Concussion
AGE IN YEARS LAST BIRTHDAY: 14
NAME: Cynthia Wesley
DEATH WAS CAUSED BY: Compound Fractures of the Head and Chest
AGE IN YEARS LAST BIRTHDAY: 14
NAME: Denise McNair
DEATH WAS CAUSED BY: Fractured Skull and Concussion
AGE IN YEARS LAST BIRTHDAY: 11
DESCRIBE HOW INJURIES OCCURRED: Dynamite Blast—Bomb
The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church remains a metaphor for the tragic sacrifice and principled persistence that marked the entire civil rights movement. That preceding May, children had left the middle-class church and marched onto the streets of Birmingham, eliciting a wave of violent police retaliation that shamed the Magic City into desegregating many of its public and private facilities. Just four months later, the martyrdom of four girls in that same but broken building shamed a lethargic Congress into a renewed focus on legislation that would, over time, desegregate the rest of the nation. But in the immediate wake of the bombing, it seemed at times as if the city itself could come undone.
UPI described the riots that followed the bombing as a “reign of violence and terror.” It added:
It took police two hours to disperse the crowd of 2,000 hysterical Negroes who poured out of their homes… . Shootings and stonings broke out spasmodically through the city, continuing through the afternoon and into the night… . At least five fires were reported. Police shot and killed a Negro boy stoning white persons’ cars. A 13-year-old Negro riding a bicycle outside the city was ambushed and killed.3
Tensions remained high as President John F. Kennedy decided how to handle the trouble. On the one hand, the situation seemed too much for the Birmingham Police Department, the Alabama State Highway Patrol, and the Alabama National Guard to handle. On the other hand, Kennedy feared that federal intervention might inflame the situation further or give Alabama’s racist, rabble-rouser governor, George Wallace, the kind of public attention he coveted. Kennedy sent two personal representatives to the city to negotiate a truce between civil rights leaders and Birmingham’s white establishment.
Perhaps more than anything, the arrival of civil rights leaders from around the country, and the leadership of local activists, helped pacify the city. Notably, as he had after the murder of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Birmingham from his home in Atlanta to eulogize the four girls. This was not surprising, as Birmingham had been the major focus of King’s operations for the previous two years. King told the gathering of mourners:
These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.
And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity… . They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers… .
The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city… . Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience… .
And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair… . We must not become bitter nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.4
The riots that initially plagued Birmingham following the bombing could have metastasized into total chaos but for the appeals of level-headed leaders like King, who reminded residents of the city of the power of nonviolence and compassion. These leaders were channeling the spirit of the Sunday school lesson that was never delivered that tragic Sunday morning, designed by a minister with the last name of Cross, about a “A Love That Forgives.”
For some, the bombing also validated the sentiment, frequently cited by King, that the long “arc of the universe” ultimately “bends toward justice.” It took forty years, but three of the individuals responsible for the bombing went to prison for the crime. It required intense media pressure and dogged Alabama prosecutors to pry incriminating records from a reluctant FBI, but the system ultimately worked.
Such a sentiment, while reassuring, is misplaced. Records suggest that the FBI is still concealing potentially important evidence in the case. For reasons that are still unclear, the FBI may well have protected the mastermind of the attack, a man deeply steeped in Christian Identity theology until the day he died: Jesse Benjamin Stoner. Such obstruction, however, as much sense as it made in 1963, can no longer be justified.
The FBI routinely withheld material from local prosecutors in the 1960s, believing that they would compromise Bureau sources and methods for the sake of a state trial that was likely to be sabotaged by a racist police officer, a bigoted juror, or a segregationist judge. The conventional understanding of the FBI’s obstruction in the BAPBOMB case (the FBI’s code name for the bombing) says that, as his men failed to develop a federal case, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover decided that it would be best to maintain these sources—including violent Alabama racists who were turned into informants during the course of the investigation—for other purposes, rather than waste them on a doomed state prosecution. As it turned out, even after the prosecution of one bomber, Robert Chambliss, fifteen years after the fact, the FBI continued to withhold vital informant and wiretap information from Alabama prosecutors. Only in the 1990s was this evidence released, resulting in the convictions, in 2001, of Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry. Again, the FBI claimed that it was simply protecting living sources.5
But additional, new information raises a different and more alarming possibility, one that is rare but unfortunately familiar in FBI crime fighting. This new information, developed by historian Gary May, suggests that an FBI informant inside the Alabama KKK, Gary Rowe, a man whose service as a source predated the Sixteenth Street church attack, may have been involved in the actual bombing. Although this obviously would have occurred without the approval of the FBI, it would have placed the Bureau in a position of having to undermine its own informant and expose its own poor judgment for the sake of resolving the BAPBOMB case. Unfortunately, Hoover was known to look past even murders committed by his informants if it meant protecting the image of the FBI.
Yet another layer of obstruction may not only inhibit our understanding of the BAPBOMB case but also limit how we view the southern backlash against civil rights agitation as a whole. Most Americans are familiar with the types of individuals who were eventually convicted of the Birmingham church bombing—the racist vigilantes who wanted to protect “the southern way of life.” They are the thugs memorialized in pictures and films, beating the Freedom Riders with iron pipes in an Alabama bus station and terrorizing nonviolent college and high school students sitting at the Woolworth lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi. The violence in those cases seemed visceral, sudden, and reactionary. For that reason, the perpetrators were often easy to catch, even if they avoided conviction. The FBI managed to identify these types of individuals and their roles in the church attack within months of the September 15 bombing—although the Bureau withheld that information from local investigators for almost fifteen years.
Less easy to identify, or certainly to prosecute, was a higher caste of racists, known to historians of “the southern counterrevolution” but less obvious to the layperson. These were the members of “respectable” segregationist groups like the White Citizens Councils, which outwardly sought legal remedies to resist integration. These individuals even avoided the coarse language of the “lower-class” rebels, couching their opposition to legal integration in the language of anticommunism. Yet some of these red-baiters openly associated with the rebels who blew up churches and burned crosses—always taking care to have plausible deniability in the event of a crime. Even with the late-coming FBI information, Attorney General Baxley was able only to cast aspersions on such people in the press. But the best histories of the case, such as Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home,6 routinely question whether these types of individuals knew about or instigated the Birmingham bombing or whether they served as accessories-after-the-fact. New information, developed here, suggests an even more nefarious connection between these individuals and the Birmingham bombing.
These red-baiters may have been a bridge between the racist rebels and the religious radicals discussed throughout this book. For the men and women in this latter category, the goal of violence went way beyond simply preserving Jim Crow. They were as dedicated in their religious zealotry as any member of Al Qaeda. As the 1960s proceeded, their radical interpretation of Christianity became very influential at the highest levels of a number of major racist organizations, blurring distinctions between the three castes of racists—southern nationalist foot soldiers, “respectable” anticommunist segregationists, and religious radicals—and obscuring the motivations behind some of the more well-known acts of terrorism during the era. The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church may have been the first such fatal act of religious terrorism.
If a group of outside religious radicals or even elite Birmingham racists wanted to instigate or exploit an attack on a major center for civil rights activity, while keeping a safe legal distance between themselves and the bombing, they had their perfect outlet in the collection of rebels who eventually did the deed. The men of Eastview Klavern 13 were violent, reckless, and desperate, a collection of outcasts whose fondness for violence placed them on the fringes of even the United Klans of America (UKA), the nation’s largest KKK organization. Known as the Cahaba River Group or the Cahaba Boys, because they met secretly underneath a bridge near Alabama’s longest free-flowing river, they were still attempting to get an official charter from the UKA as of September 1963. One can easily imagine someone suggesting the Birmingham Baptist church bombing to these ruffians as a ticket to respectability, or a loose-lipped Cahaba Boy boasting of his plans for such an attack to the kind of men who would want to exploit the information. But if a renewed look at the records suggests that additional individuals expected or condoned the attack on September 15, it does nothing to exonerate the men who committed the actual crime. While overlooked leads point to the possibility that a handful of other individuals, some of whom are still living, may have assisted in the attack, what is astonishingly clear is that the FBI identified the men directly responsible for the bombing fourteen years before any of the conspirators went to prison.
The first man to eventually go to prison, Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, obtained the dynamite from Leon Negron’s store in Blossburg, Alabama. Negron stocked dynamite and blasting caps for the surrounding mining community, but due to his political views, he was not averse to selling his dynamite for alternative purposes. On September 4, 1963, Chambliss and two fellow Cahaba Boys, Charles Cagle and John Wesley Hall (called Nigger Hall by Eastview Klan members because of his dark complexion), arranged to hide the cache for later purposes. A fifty-nine-year-old truck driver who licked his false teeth clean in public, Chambliss was not the kind of redneck that Blake Shelton celebrates in a country music song or that Jeff Foxworthy jokes about on a comedy record. Birmingham police connected Chambliss to several racial bombings as far back as 1947.7 Days before the crime, Chambliss boasted about an impending attack to a family member, Mary Frances Cunningham, a threat she conveyed to a member of the sheriff’s office. The deputy sheriff later claimed that he withheld the story from law enforcement because he did not want to expose the fact that he was having an affair with Cunningham.
By then, Levi “Quick Draw” Yarbrough, another Cahaba Boy, had recovered the dynamite stash and brought the explosives to fellow Klansman Troy Ingram. Yarbrough worked as an employee for the state of Alabama. His idea of fun, according to witnesses, included shooting near the feet of black prisoners who labored on state construction projects.
Questions remain as to whether Ingram or Chambliss constructed the actual dynamite bomb used to destroy the Birmingham Baptist church, supposedly a more sophisticated device than those normally used in similar attacks. Ingram, a forty-nine-year-old automobile mechanic, engaged in a perverse competition with Chambliss over who was the better bomb maker.8
The FBI considered the possibility that neither man was the bomb maker or that they had help from others with demolitions training. Levi Yarbrough’s brother-in-law received such training in the military, and the FBI considered him a person of interest in several bombings, both before and after September 15. When questioned, the brother-in-law minimized his connections to members of Eastview Klavern 13, such as Charles Cagle, despite testimony suggesting a deeper association.9 His name was listed among the original persons of interest in the BAPBOMB case files. Twenty-two years of age at the time, the brother-in-law was one of the few individuals with connections to the Cahaba Boys who comes close to the age profile of one of two white men, described by witnesses as approximately nineteen years old, seen walking away in the immediate aftermath of the church explosion. When shown photographs, witnesses identified Ingram as resembling the older of the two men. This older man also had a limp, and Ingram recently had been treated for an injured foot.
Witnesses also identified pictures of other Eastview members, including Chambliss, as resembling white men in suspicious cars with radio antennae flying Confederate flags in the early hours before the bombing. One witness described Chambliss in the backseat of a 1957 blue-on-white Chevy with two other men, parked by a funeral home near the church. This same witness, Kirthus Glenn, positively identified a car in a picture as belonging to Cahaba Boy Tommy Blanton. Here the FBI’s decision to withhold wiretap material from Attorney General Baxley risked becoming a public travesty of justice. Glenn, a major asset in helping prosecutors convict Chambliss in 1977, had died by the time new prosecutors were able to bring Blanton to trial, in 2001. Lucky for the FBI and its reputation, a jury looked past the somewhat ambiguous but incriminating statements recorded by a bug planted under Blanton’s kitchen sink and convicted Blanton without Glenn’s testimony.
Not all of the suspicious individuals reported by witnesses were directly associated with Eastview Klavern 13. One man identified as being near the scene was Howard Thurston Edwards, a KKK and NSRP member from Irondale, Alabama. Edwards can be seen in photographs of the 1961 attack on Freedom Riders at the Birmingham bus station brandishing a metal pipe, which he used to beat the civil rights activists. In this case, the identification of Edwards is important because the informant knew Edwards from years before and saw him frequently agitating at rallies against integration. The FBI lost interest in Edwards when it could not develop any additional evidence connecting him to the crime or to members of the Cahaba River Group. But as author Diane McWhorter noted, the Birmingham police considered Edwards to be a prime suspect in the crime. In Carry Me Home, McWhorter suggests that the Edwards lead distracted the police, pushing them in the direction of another radical segregationist group, the NSRP, and diverting them from the guilty party, the Cahaba Boys. McWhorter referred to the NSRP lead as a wild goose chase.
But McWhorter documented a close relationship between key members of Eastview Klavern 13 and the NSRP. Robert Chambliss and Tommy Blanton in particular consistently spent time with NSRP members such as Ed Fields in the months leading up to the September 15 attack. “The Klan wasn’t violent enough for them,” asserted Bob Eddy, Baxley’s chief investigator, referring to the Cahaba Boys. “They were responsible for fire-bombings, floggings, dynamiting people’s homes.”10 In fact, UKA leader Robert Shelton expelled Blanton and Cherry from the group in part because “he did not like them hanging out so much with the National States Rights Party crowd.”11
One NSRP member who enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Chambliss was Bob Gafford. Gafford owned a successful automotive repair shop that still exists today, and he later became an Alabama state legislator. Among the elite caste of segregationists in Alabama, Gafford and his wife, Florence, helped form the latest “respectable” pro-segregation group in Alabama, the United Americans for Conservative Government (UACG), in 1963. Couching their opposition to segregation in the language of anticommunism rather than blatant bigotry, the leaders of the UACG grew the organization to include an estimated sixty-three hundred members. But most historians recognize the group for what it was: a front for the KKK.
Gafford lived next to Chambliss and even employed the violent racist in his auto repair shop from time to time. In an event he never explained, Gafford called both Chambliss and Cherry in the early evening of September 14, 1963—the day before the bombing. Gafford then proceeded with his wife and two married friends, Bill and Mary Lou Holt, to a bowling alley. The Holts were no ordinary choice for a double date. Bill Holt, a second-generation pipe fitter, was viewed as an “elder statesmen” inside the KKK, according to McWhorter, and had served as a leading member of Eastview Klavern 13 until back problems had forced him to lessen his commitment. He also knew Chambliss, Blanton, and Cherry. His wife had the type of looks and engaging personality that drew the attention of many men. Because of her charms, the UACG sent Mary Lou to Washington, D.C., to lobby against integration. But she also enjoyed a darker reputation; “her name was often mentioned … as associated with the radical fringe of Birmingham vigilantism.”12
More relevantly, evidence suggests that Bill Holt was among many members of the KKK who likely had foreknowledge of the church bombing. Historian Gary May notes that many of those with ties to Eastview Klavern 13 managed to have verifiable alibis on the evening of September 14, when, per the official narrative, a handful of Cahaba Boys finalized their plans for the following morning. Neglecting to mention Gafford, May notes how Bob Chambliss, “not a popular fellow with Eastview men … nonetheless received an unusual amount of phone calls” from key figures in the Klan, including Ross Keith, Hubert Page, Gene Reeves, Tommy Blanton, and Frank Cherry. Subsequently, these callers “went out on the town, creating alibis for each other.” A few “drank at a Birmingham bar,” while others found their way to the bowling alley with the Gaffords and the Holts. Exalted Cyclops Robert Thomas and Eastview’s Grand Titan Hubert Page (and his wife) joined the Gaffords and the Holts that night.13
According to McWhorter, Page (who eventually married Mary Lou Holt after she divorced Bill Holt) expected the bombing to occur between 10 PM and 2 AM that evening and became incensed when the bomb detonated in the morning, killing the four girls. Page later joined Gafford and the head of the UACG, Bill Morgan, at what McWhorter calls “the kiss of death meeting” at the Cahaba River bridge on the Thursday after the church bombing. There, according to an informant, the elder statesmen berated Chambliss and the others for the negative publicity surrounding the accidental murders of the four girls. “If any one of you ever talks, it will be the kiss of death for you,” one of the attendees insisted.14
One person who talked a lot to authorities about the bombing was Gary Rowe, another member of the Eastview group. The FBI recruited Rowe, a “barroom brawler with a police record” to infiltrate the Alabama KKK in 1960. Rowe, May argues, considered himself to be a “redneck James Bond” and engaged in acts of violence to solidify his bona fides among his fellow KKK members. Rowe joined the attack on the Freedom Riders in 1961. Most famously, in March 1965, the FBI learned that Rowe had ridden in a car with three fellow Klansmen, some of whom had sprayed gunfire into the vehicle of Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights activist working on the Selma voting campaign, killing her. Although the FBI warned Rowe against participating in criminal activities, it nonetheless looked the other way at his transgressions, placing more value in the information he could provide than in holding him accountable for his wrongdoings.
But the information Rowe provided to the FBI about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing puzzles historians like May and McWhorter. Notably, Rowe implicated those with indirect associations to the crime—those like Holt, Page, and Thomas—early on in the investigation. But Rowe failed to finger those directly involved in the attack (Cherry, Blanton, and Chambliss) until December 1964, long after the FBI had established their culpability.
To May, this indicates that Rowe may have participated in the actual bombing. He clearly knew and associated with Chambliss and the other bombers, but he appeared to be protecting them for some reason. Rowe offered a confusing explanation about his own whereabouts on September 14 and 15 and could not provide a verifiable alibi. May believes that Rowe had already participated in a major bombing in May 1963, in part because he needed to pacify doubters like Bill Holt, who suspected Rowe of being a government informant. Perhaps, May speculates, Rowe needed to prove himself one more time. This would explain why the FBI remained reluctant to cooperate with Alabama investigators decades after the crime. The FBI lost a measure of public trust when Rowe exposed his history as an informant (and his history of crimes committed while on the FBI payroll) to Congress in 1975.15
Congress learned that the conflicts of interest obvious in the FBI’s dealings with Rowe was not uncommon. It became clear that in the BAPBOMB case alone, the FBI had leveraged two of the conspirators, Ross Keith and John Hall, after the bombing, and it is not a coincidence that the FBI began cooperating with Attorney General Baxley only after these two men died. In fact, the decision to protect sources and methods, even at the expense of solving crimes, continues to be a problem for the FBI in the present day. Probably the most famous example, besides Rowe, is Whitey Bulger, the Massachusetts-based Irish mobster who helped the FBI’s Boston field office in its operations against the Sicilian Mafia in New England. In using Bulger as a source to bring down the Sicilian Mafia, the FBI let Bulger and his criminal cohorts escape justice for everything from strong-arm robberies to murder. Each time the federal authorities allowed Bulger to escape scrutiny, they made it more likely they would do so in the future, so as not to expose the embarrassing lawlessness “overlooked” in the past. Bulger grew to have a form of pseudo-immunity; his prosecution eventually highlighted a retinue of scandalous FBI activity nearly as long as Bulger’s criminal record. The FBI likely helped Bulger escape arrest by the Massachusetts State Police in 1994. Law enforcement finally arrested Bulger in 2011, but not before paying millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements to Bulger’s victims.
Given the sheer number of informants the FBI uses to investigate criminal activity, and given the large number of waivers the FBI grants each year to allow these informants to violate the law in the name of ongoing investigations, there may be many more Gary Rowes and Whitey Bulgers. In fact, the need to protect “sources and methods” will emerge as a subtheme in our investigation of domestic terrorist groups, and it may partially explain why law enforcement agencies and students of American history have failed to notice the influence of religious extremists in the early history of racial violence.
“Sources and methods” include not only human beings but also wiretaps and electronic bugs—what the FBI refers to as TESUR, or technical surveillance. To J. Edgar Hoover, a well-placed listening device could be as if not more valuable than a human informant; such bugs helped Hoover maintain power through blackmail of American politicians. It now appears likely that the need to protect one electronic surveillance source may have prevented Baxley and his investigators, and later federal prosecutors, from identifying and convicting the likely mastermind of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church: J.B. Stoner. Stoner thus provides a key link between the southern nationalists who executed the actual crime and the religious extremists who visited Birmingham on September 14.
When he reopened an investigation into the Birmingham bombing in 1971, Baxley zeroed in on Stoner as his first suspect. Many people, including Bob Eddy, suspect or have implied that Stoner masterminded the Birmingham bombing but admit that there is no strong evidence to prove it. This is why a set of recent discoveries, which show the FBI continuing to withhold potentially vital intelligence on Stoner, is perhaps the most shocking story left to be uncovered in the case.
Behind the scenes, law enforcement agencies, especially the FBI, strongly suspected that Stoner had orchestrated more than one wave of interstate, coordinated bombing campaigns against Jewish and black institutions. These notably included the bombings of several targets in Birmingham, which in 1963 became national headquarters for the NSRP, after moving from Stoner’s home city of Atlanta. There is little doubt that Stoner attempted to bomb the church of indefatigable civil rights activist minister Fred Shuttlesworth, the Bethel Street Baptist Church, in 1958. He telegraphed news of the attack to an undercover informant before it happened and avoided arrest only because the sting operation was too close to legal entrapment. Authorities also believed that Stoner planned the successful bombing of that same church in 1962. (A jury convicted him for that attack in 1983.) A car that closely resembled Stoner’s was seen at some Birmingham bombings earlier in 1963, including on May 11, when two bombs almost simultaneously destroyed the motel room of Martin Luther King Jr. and the home of King’s brother, A.D. King. Neither man was present, but the bombings set off the first major race riot in the history of Birmingham. On September 25, as the race riots following the September 15 bombing began to settle down, two shrapnel bombs blew up in the Titusville neighborhood in Birmingham and broke the temporary calm. A secretary for the Birmingham NSRP, Phillip Maybry, quoted Stoner as saying that the shrapnel bombing was our “baby,” referring to the NSRP.16
From the start, some of those who best knew Stoner accused him of participating in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. An anonymous source provided a detailed account to national reporter George McMillan, accusing Stoner of masterminding the attack using members of an elite southeastern bombing group called NACIREMA (American spelled backward). In the 1990s, Herbert Jenkins, a former police chief of Atlanta, admitted that he was that anonymous source, but no one knows how he obtained his information or if members of NACIREMA may have helped in the crime.17
Reports indicated that Stoner may have offered bomb-making training to the Cahaba Boys. Other, unconfirmed reports said that Stoner, and two NSRP members he brought to Alabama from Atlanta, met with “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss immediately before and not long after the church bombing. There is little doubt that Chambliss, Blanton, and other Cahaba Boys associated with the NSRP and the likes of Fields and Stoner. In records the FBI provided to Attorney General Baxley in the 1970s, entire sections are devoted to investigating the Birmingham NSRP. Based on those files, Baxley went public to the media about the strange circumstances of NSRP member Bob Gafford’s calls to Chambliss and Cherry on September 14. He also noted that Gafford met with Chambliss shortly after the bombing. Even more suspiciously, when Baxley, in his 1970s investigation, went to reinterview Cherry about the church bombing, Cherry asked to make a phone call in anticipation of the questioning. When Baxley traced the phone call, it again led to Gafford.18
The FBI’s investigation of the NSRP did not shed any additional light on these matters, and as time went on, agents focused their suspicions on the Cahaba Boys and their associates in the UACG more than on the NSRP. But just as several members of the Eastview Klavern 13 were rank-and-file members of the UACG, some leaders of the UACG, such as Bob Gafford, were also affiliated with the NSRP. Gafford and others had even attended a meeting with Stoner earlier in September. The failure to fully examine the cross-affiliations between members of the Cahaba River Group, the UACG, and the NSRP appears to be one of the major oversights in the investigation.
But what seems like oversights may well be an artifact of selectivity, as it is now rather obvious that the FBI did not provide William Baxley and his investigators with the full story on its investigation of the NSRP, especially of Stoner. Baxley deposited his full records, including records provided by the FBI, at the Birmingham Public Library, where they can be viewed today. When one explores the entire file, the dearth of material on Stoner sticks out like a sore thumb. There is far less material on Stoner, for instance, than on his NSRP cofounder, Edward Fields, even though Stoner had a much more substantial résumé when it came to violence in general and bombings in particular. Even more conspicuous is the fact that nowhere in the thousands of pages of material can one find a direct interview with Stoner himself. The material is filled with dozens, if not hundreds of interviews with possible suspects who provide alibis and narratives relative to the crime, including first-person accounts and sworn statements.
Less suspicious and less senior NSRP members provided their alibis directly to the FBI, but not Stoner. Yes, there are instances when suspects refuse to cooperate with the FBI, but at least their records document an attempt to interview the suspect and often-repeated efforts to get the suspect to change his mind. The FBI files provided to Baxley do not even contain a record of Stoner rejecting an interview.
Even when pressure from national news organizations forced the FBI to finally relent and give Baxley the files, in 1976, the FBI was far from forthcoming with information. Bob Eddy says that the original stash of documents was much less extensive than what is now available to the public in the Birmingham library. The Bureau told Eddy that he would have to develop additional leads on his own from the initial, limited material it provided to him. Then, if Eddy requested material based on those leads, the Bureau would provide him with additional records from its BAPBOMB file. It is important to note here that if Eddy was not given enough information to suspect that additional files might exist, he obviously would never have the impetus to request them. Eddy says he still suspects that Stoner may have been a key player in the church bombing. But he also said that the available evidence to support an indictment was lacking. Nor did any additional evidence emerge during the later prosecutions of Blanton and Cherry (although attorneys for Blanton suggested Stoner as an alternative suspect in the crime). Eddy’s experiences in the latter two cases, when the FBI provided a new Alabama attorney general with wiretap records that helped cinch the case against both men, did nothing to disabuse him of his frustrations with the FBI. But he had no reason to think that the FBI continued to withhold vital information after that point.19 That good faith now appears to be misplaced. It may well be that Eddy could not build a case against Stoner in 1977 or in the decades that followed because he was never given or told about potentially vital material that the Bureau developed on Stoner.
In contrast to the material disclosed to Eddy that is now available at the Birmingham Public Library, the BAPBOMB file the FBI provides to the public on its online vault is extensive in volume, but it is heavily redacted. Many pages are deleted or removed from the file set, and the material that is exposed to the public is often so covered in black ink that the narrative is barely comprehensible. But the online vault does provide one unique advantage relative to the Birmingham library files: One can search the digital text through the FBI’s internal search engine and through Google. In contrast, the hard copy original of the FBI’s BAPBOMB file is available in Birmingham without missing pages and without any redactions. This material, together with records from local investigations, makes it clear that the FBI did not provide its entire file to Attorney General Baxley. This is not particularly surprising given the scandal associated with the FBI’s decision to withhold the wiretap tapes on Blanton and Cherry until 2001. What is surprising is that the complete files contain evidence that the FBI never revealed to Alabama prosecutors and investigators: That it also had wiretaps planted in Stoner’s Atlanta law office.
The records are very clear on this. An October 9, 1963, document shows J. Edgar Hoover asking U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy for wiretaps on Stoner. The document reads:
MEMORANDUM FOR THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
In view of the tense racial situation in Birmingham, further inflamed by the bombings, it is believed that additional activity on the part of those who are responsible for the bombings could easily lead to more rioting, bloodshed and loss of life, materially affecting the security of the United States.
It is requested that you authorize the installation of a technical surveillance at the office of Jesse Benjamin Stoner in Atlanta, or at any address to which he may move.
JOHN EDGAR HOOVER
Former FBI agent Wesley Swearingen says that when Hoover wanted a wiretap, even if an attorney general turned down his request, Hoover would plant the bug anyway. But Bobby Kennedy even approved Hoover’s requests for bugs on Martin Luther King Jr., so it is unlikely that he refused a request on a noted white supremacist like Stoner, especially at a time when his brother, the president, was stationing federal troops outside Birmingham to prevent the kind of “rioting, bloodshed and loss of life” Hoover was describing in his request. Any doubt that RFK approved the Stoner wiretap was resolved two pages later in the same file. Following the aforementioned request by Hoover is a page referencing the same date, October 9, but which has been deleted. Anyone familiar with FBI records would recognize this kind of form, which indicates that a record has been removed for classification purposes “and placed in the Special File Room of Records Branch.” Just two pages later, we find the following:
Subject UNKNOWN SUBJECTS; BOMBING OF SIXTEENTH STREET BAPTIST CHURCH, BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA, 9/15/63
This serial, the original memorandum from the FBI to the Attorney General dated 10/9/1963, which was returned to the Bureau signed by the Attorney General authorizing FBI to conduct electronic surveillance, has been permanently removed for retention in the National Security Electronic Surveillance File, per memorandum XXXXXXXX to Mr. XXXXXXXXX dated 7-13-73. See 62-115687-1 for details and where maintained.21
Stoner is not referenced by name (nor is anyone else), but the date of the relevant Stoner technical surveillance (TESUR) request is referenced, and the account appears two pages later in the overall file section. The FBI consistently keeps records in a logical order by subject matter. But if there is any further doubt that such surveillance was not only approved but took place, further records make it obvious. Additional files show the FBI doing a “survey” of an office in Atlanta, albeit for someone with a redacted name. Such surveys were simply surreptitious visits (possibly even break-ins) to a designated area for technical surveillance, to see if planting a bug was feasible and, if so, how exactly to accomplish that. The record makes it clear that the FBI determined that the surveillance of the Atlanta office was viable, and for an indefinite period of time rather than a fixed length of days. Furthermore, additional documents, from weeks later, show the FBI asking for more recording devices to continue the technical surveillance of the Atlanta office. In other words, the surveillance, as one would expect, succeeded, and routine adjustments needed to be made to continue it.
Because the names on the other documents are redacted, one could conceivably argue that they refer to another person, not Stoner. A recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, however, puts that suspicion to rest. The FBI transferred a number (but not all) of its files on Stoner to the National Archives. The author’s FOIA request for that material resulted in the release of twenty-five hundred pages—but four hundred pages were withheld in full because they were wiretap records. This may not even represent the full amount. Other files have not been released to the author, and the FBI refused to release or even acknowledge the existence of anything relating to Stoner from its National Security Electronic Surveillance File.
When told about this development, Bob Eddy was surprised. He never saw any records of any transcripts or recordings on J.B. Stoner. Moreover, he never had any reason to think they existed because the original Hoover memo, requesting the TESUR, was never given to him. Bill Fleming, an FBI agent who reviewed FBI files in connection with the later prosecutions of Blanton and Cherry, was also contacted by the author. Fleming said that he never saw any records on a Stoner wiretap; nor did he have any reason to suspect they existed.22 Attorney General Bill Baxley was also surprised to learn about the Stoner wiretaps. Stoner was the first person Baxley investigated for masterminding the church bombing.23 Although Baxley is still less convinced of Stoner’s guilt than Eddy, both men believe the transcripts should be released.
There is reason to be concerned that some material, at least on Stoner, could have been destroyed. Researcher Ernie Lazar claims that the FBI destroyed its Birmingham field office file on Stoner. Obviously, this would be the most likely file to hold any new information on Stoner’s connection to the Birmingham bombing. The destroyed file might augment information, reported in Birmingham police files, that Admiral John Crommelin stayed with Stoner in Birmingham the weekend of the church bombing.
All five Christian Identity zealots who met in Birmingham on September 14, 1963, were, in fact, also members of the NSRP. Gafford’s friends Mary Lou and Bill Holt were also on the mailing list for Wesley Swift’s sermons. If Stoner was not an official minister in the church, he acted like one. Stoner used the official NSRP newsletter, The Thunderbolt, to promote ideas that could have served as sermons for Wesley Swift. Regarding Jews, the publication said that “Jew-devils have no place in a White Christian nation.”24 Of blacks it said, “The Negro is actually a higher form of gorilla. God did not wish for the white race to mix with these animals. Tell your friends and children these scientific truths so that communist teachers and preachers will not be able to brain wash them with ‘the Big Lie’ that all men are equal.”25
Stoner, of course, also traveled the country with Identity minister Connie Lynch, riling up southerners into fits of violence. On the surface, this work appears to be counterproductive. By inciting violence, the rabble-rousers increased the chances that a riot would elicit federal intervention, a development that few southerners, raised from childhood to resent military occupation under post-Civil War Reconstruction, would welcome. This would be particularly true for a provocative attack like the shrapnel bomb that struck the Birmingham neighborhood of Titusville on September 25, 1963.
No right-thinking person who experienced the riots that followed the murders of little Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, and the other children could expect such an attack to do anything other than incite further violence. Klan terrorists often used conventional dynamite bombs to cause property damage and to scare targeted groups rather than to kill victims. This appears to have been the intended purpose of the bomb that exploded on September 15; an apparent problem with the triggering mechanism delayed the detonation, and thus the four girls died.26
But the shrapnel bombs used on September 25 had only one purpose: to maim and kill. The perpetrators had actually designed one of the two bombs for a delayed explosion. It appears that the bomb makers intended the first device to lure out spectators and law enforcement; the second explosion could then have killed dozens of police officers and citizens. It was a sheer stroke of luck that no one got injured in the Titusville bombing. If, as Phillip Maybry quoted Stoner as saying, the shrapnel bomb was our “baby,” what motive could explain such a brazen act of attempted terrorism?
The issue here again involves the differences between rank-and-file segregationists, even violent KKK members, and the men who believed in radical, Christian Identity theology. To the former, federal intervention was anathema to their customs and traditions going back to the era of Reconstruction. To the radical religious zealots, that same deep-rooted resentment among the general white population was exactly what stoked a violent response from bystanders at the University of Mississippi in 1962. The provocative riots that triggered the federal intervention in the first place—in Alabama and in Mississippi—developed only when the black community boiled over after major, provocative acts of violence. Thus, for the religious zealot, who as Tommy Tarrants revealed wanted to “polarize the races” in hopes of fomenting a race war, the shrapnel bomb, and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church itself, represented the best hope for accelerating the end-times. Wesley Swift pointed to this idea in his sermon “Armageddon: Local and Worldwide” in May 1963, saying:
I tell you that here in America we are on the edge of an unusual chain of events, and it may be that the sudden movement of your enemy may be your salvation. Someone said: “there may not be another election but there is going to be deliverance.” You are in one of the most unusual periods in the history of our nation. You are going to see brush fire wars which can break into the big ones and could start anytime.27
Any Identity believer observing the tinderbox that was Birmingham in 1963 could have guessed what would happen if someone attacked a target as honored in the black community as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. After several months of bombings and bombing attempts, the city became known as Bombingham and the neighborhood that included the church was known as Dynamite Hill. The bombing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s hotel room, which coincided with the attack on his brother’s home, on May 11, ignited the first major race riot in the history of the city. In early September, after several months of bombings and other acts of racial violence, President John F. Kennedy prepared for an armed intervention in the city. In just the period from September 1 to September 14, there were three bombings in Birmingham. All the ingredients were present for racial violence on a scale that would impress even Wesley Swift.
Yet the weight of the evidence suggests that the bomb that went off on September 15 was not intended to kill anyone. The reaction of the suspects after the fact certainly point to that. Hubert Page was furious that the four girls were killed. Robert Shelton wanted nothing to do with those associated with the bombing and may have used a source, Don Luna, to implicate the men to the FBI. But even if the five Swift followers could not have anticipated the killing of the four girls, they still could have known, through someone like Stoner, about the impending attack on the church. Their hope for racial violence and federal intervention on a grand scale would be in the local reaction to the bombing. In the perverted worldview of religious radicals like Swift, the unintended death of four girls presented a unique opportunity.
The riots that followed the bombing of the church on September 15 could actually have been much worse, with far more violence and casualties. The Reverend Ed King, a white minister who became a leading member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, described the tension in an interview with the author.
He went to Birmingham to help mourn the girls’ deaths and to lead protest marches against the violence. The activist became concerned when he went outside and noticed “whites with machine gun emplacements a block away from the church… . I realized some of them thought there would be a march or a demonstration.” No such event was planned. Then again, no marches had been planned following the funeral for Ed King’s close friend Medgar Evers, but chaos followed in Jackson when local police overreacted to peaceful protests by black Mississippians. In Birmingham, a few months later, thousands of mourners joined the family to pounce. In the marches that followed, Ed King saw moments when misunderstandings could have led to another disaster. In Jackson, “the police panicked … in Birmingham I realized the same thing could happen.” Only in Birmingham the police had “machine guns ready, and we could have a massacre… . All it would have taken was a bottle breaking that sounded like a gun.”28 He approached Diane Nash Bevel, a major civil rights activist, then married to one of Martin Luther King’s top lieutenants, James Bevel, with his fears. She patiently convinced the thousands of mourners to go home.
But if the five Swift followers who had visited Birmingham on the eve of the church bombing had had their way, a bloodbath would have been unavoidable. In his secretly taped conversations with Somersett, Sidney Barnes told the informant that the five men stayed in Birmingham to try to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. after he arrived to deliver the eulogy for the four girls. They followed King in Birmingham—with Noah Carden waiting to shoot the minister with a rifle—but they could not get close enough to take a clear shot.
One can imagine the impact that killing King would have had on a black population already stirring with anger over the murders of September 15. The attitude among America’s black community, according to Ed King, “was ‘there is nothing the white racist will not do.’ There is nothing Washington will do to protect us. They [the white supremacists] have killed these little girls. This wasn’t voter registration.” “If white police had killed more blacks at a funeral” following an uprising over the assassination of Martin Luther King, “I think there would have been riots in Jackson, in Atlanta, in New Orleans.”28
The most obvious interpretation of Barnes’s account is that the Swift followers came to Birmingham with foreknowledge of the church bombing and took advantage of an opportunity to piggyback on the bombing when the unanticipated carnage created horrible riots, bringing Martin Luther King Jr. from his home in Georgia back to Alabama. But it is also the case, as Ed King makes clear, that anyone who followed Martin Luther King’s activities in Birmingham would have anticipated that a bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church would draw him to the city. Either way, whether such an attack resulted in unexpected killings or not, the state of Alabama is very lucky that Barnes’s efforts to kill King failed. Even still, Barnes told Somersett that the assassination plot on King remained active for several more months, but the group never had an opportunity to strike again.
In fact, according to historian Neil Hamilton, killing Martin Luther King had been a major goal of Swift and Gale since they had founded the Christian Defense League in 1960. Multiple attempts on King’s life can be traced to followers of the Church of Jesus Christ-Christian. Stoner, for instance, offered a bounty on King’s life as early as 1958.
None were more determined to kill King than a new arrival to the white supremacist scene in Mississippi, Samuel Holloway Bowers. Bowers’s tenure as head of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, from 1964 to 1968, places him among the most violent sponsors of domestic terrorism the nation has ever known. Many are familiar with the most public act of violence—the murder of three civil rights workers in June 1964, known to some as the Neshoba County murders and to others as the Mississippi Burning killings. Few, however, have looked deeply enough at the crime, or more particularly at Bowers, to see that that terrorist act was even darker in its objective than anyone had imagined.