The “banality of evil” has become such a cliché that it’s kind of a shock to encounter a bad guy who, instead of a bespectacled bureaucrat, is a full-blown horror show, spewing rank bodily fluids along with the moral effluent. The newly released prison letters of Robert E. Chambliss, the Ku Klux Klansman convicted of murder in the 1963 bombing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, read like a made-for-TV movie script titled “Worst Human Being Ever,” complete with a credulity-taxing detour toward redemption as well as a marital reversal and the too-tidy ending.
Yet Chambliss’ very badness raises an inconvenient question about good people: For years this despicable villain—known drolly as “Dynamite Bob”—was an accepted partner in the civic ecosystem, and his incendiary hobby was considered mundane until it implicated a broad community in one of the most terrible crimes of the civil rights era.
Today, on the 35th anniversary of the trial of Robert Chambliss, the Birmingham Public Library Archives is unveiling the letters, to get a jump on the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the city’s civil rights turning points of 1963. That “Year of Birmingham” was framed by the mass nonviolent demonstrations of the spring, led by Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the church bombing four months later that killed four African-American girls in Sunday school. Convicted of the crime in 1977, Chambliss died in 1985 while serving his life sentence, but not before sending a barrage of innocence-protesting letters to public officials and, as we now read for the first time, members of his family.
“Normally I’ll want to see a collection before I commit,” says Jim Baggett, the Birmingham library’s chief archivist. But when the call came about the Chambliss letters last June from the local FBI office, he said, “there was no way we wouldn’t want this.” Baggett is at work on the first comprehensive biography of Eugene“Bull” Connor, the elected commissioner who not only set the police dogs and fire hoses on school-age marchers in 1963 but also protected, if not directed, Chambliss, dating from his house bombings in the late 1940s against upwardly mobile blacks moving into a neighborhood soon nicknamed Dynamite Hill.
By the time Chambliss bombed his first church—Reverend Shuttlesworth’s, Christmas 1956—he was well along in the Frankensteinian life cycle of the vigilante, whose extralegal services in due course threaten the very status quo they were engaged to maintain. Initially Birmingham’s heavy-manufacturing elite (through their political intermediary, Connor) had encouraged hard-up employees like Chambliss to take up the tools of the industry—the dynamite that extracted the coal fuel for their blast furnaces—in defense of the racial segregation fundamental to preventing labor solidarity. But by 1960, when the one-two punch of the Civil Rights Movement and an economy shifting to service-rendered Klan terrorism proved bad for business, it was too late to bring Chambliss to heel.
The letters attest resoundingly to Chambliss’ undying faith in the impunity he so long enjoyed, a grandiose entitlement underscored by aggrieved self-pity. Convinced that he will be released any minute (whereupon he plans to sue six people for “2 million or more each”), he constantly instructs his wife, Flora, to call Governor Fob James and “Tell Him Your Condition and Mine.” His condition (apparently cancerous stomach ulcers) is a favorite pretext for epistolary aggression along the lines of: “I’ve Ben about to Mess My Self to Death (over 20 times) all Day Saturday and Saturday Night.”
For those familiar with Chambliss’ biography, the letters’ creepiest motif is his cloying concern for the sickly wife—“My Poor Dear Sweet Little Mommie”—he had horribly abused. He signs off, “Your Hubbie,” and puts three Xs on the sealed envelope flap. Flora’s own letters—newsless belaboring of the weather (generally to explain her failure to visit)—are riveting for the reality they conceal: it was she who provided the FBI, via a sister and a niece, the identities of the five main bombing suspects and the best scenario we have of those dark hours of Sunday morning when the dynamite was probably planted beneath the side stairs of the church.
Chambliss’ only moment of truth comes three years after Flora’s death, in the wake of a 1983 New York Times Magazine article on the church bombing by Howell Raines, a Birmingham native. After reading an anonymously sent local editorial on the Times’ revelations—notably Flora’s betrayal—the stunned husband “laid in his bunk with a vacant look in his eyes, not saying a word,” as a fellow inmate wrote to Chambliss’ niece. After all, he had apologized to Flora before her death, more or less: “I Hate you Had to Rub Me With Bin Gay and Had to Wrap My Feet in a Blanket I never Did Do any Thing For You.”
Besides that gratifying story arc, there is also a hint of grace to rival Of Mice and Men. Early in Chambliss’ incarceration, his adjoining cell mate was Tommy Lee Hines, a mentally impaired young African-American whose Klan-backed conviction of rape (ultimately overturned) became a national cause celebre. With a fatherly tenderness approximating humanity, Chambliss tried to teach the alphabet to Hines, who proudly pretended to read long-memorized hymns and “The Lord’s Prayer.” During one of Hines’ periodic catatonic spells, Chambliss reports dejectedly to his wife, “I Tride and Tride to Get Him to Eat or Drink His Sweet Milk He Want Do Eather one I’ve Just about Worried My Self To Death With Him I Give Up And Shut up.”
The narrative is steered back onto its logical course by Chambliss’ final cellmate: J.B. Stoner, a fellow church bomber, from the Neo-Nazi branch of the resistance. In a rare stab at humor outside a bathroom context (“I am on the Comode Siting & Thinking, Siting & Stinking”), Chambliss refers to J.B. as “Jersey Bull” in jocular letters to his “best neice,” whom Stoner sends his “White Racist Greetings! To hell with the jews!” It was that niece, Willie Mae Walker, her intentions unclear, who gave the family’s correspondence with Chambliss to the FBI when it reopened the 16th Street Baptist case in the late 1990s. Two accomplices, Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry, were eventually convicted, but not because Chambliss ever divulged what really happened that night, despite Flora’s urging. In one letter she coaxed him not to worry about all his previous, nonfatal dynamite work: “Those little old Bombings don’t amount to anything.”
In times of social dislocation, it is useful to be reminded that little old banalities can lead to a catastrophe that lasts forever, and not just for the victims. Though beyond-the-pale surrogates for the polite folks are designed to be disavowed and discarded, the Chamblisses serve notice on all who approve their ideology if not their methods: it’s not pleasant to be on the same side of history as church bombers, which the citizens of Birmingham are preparing to acknowledge yet again.
One has to wonder how many people have gotten the message, if white students at the University of Mississippi can stage a racist protest against the reelection of President Barack Obama immediately after commemorating a fatal civil rights anniversary of their own: the bloody riots that took three lives when James Meredith desegregated Ole Miss, 50 years ago.
Diane McWhorter is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Carry Me Home and A Dream of Freedom. This is her first contribution to Weld. Featured image courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives.