SC shooter ignored history

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the murders of the pastor and eight parishioners at historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The assailant – who’s still on the loose as of this writing – appears to be a young white man. But while this tragedy is senseless, history tells us that survivors and even those beyond Charleston will use this to begin or continue to propel meaningful dialogue and action.

Any student of history should not be surprised that this young man targeted a black church in his attempt to demobilize its people. Attacks against the black church have long been a strategy by terrorists. During slavery, the black church caused ire among slaveholders who were afraid that collective black thought would lead to insurrection. This fear led to limitations of the religious freedom of blacks, slave and free, in the South. In fact, Emanuel was destroyed by fire a few years after its founding in 1816. This event did not destroy the congregants who eventually rebuilt. The church became a stalwart symbol of Charleston’s civil rights struggle of the 20th century.

During Birmingham’s civil rights movement, terrorists here also attacked the black church. On Christmas night in 1956, civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth emerged from a parsonage left hobbled by six sticks of dynamite. Shuttlesworth was the pastor of the Bethel Baptist Church in the black working-class neighborhood of Collegeville in Birmingham. In later years, Shuttlesworth pointed to that event as validation that God would protect him as he led Birmingham’s civil rights movement. “…God took fear from me. He prepares you, I guess for what you have to do for Him,” Shuttlesworth said in later years.  Shuttlesworth was not the only one galvanized that night. Those who gathered that night were revitalized as well as black people throughout the city.

Bethel Baptist Church and parsonage following the '56 Christmas bombing.

Bethel Baptist Church and parsonage following the ’56 Christmas bombing.

The day after the bombing, 250 black residents rode local buses to test the new federal decree that outlawed segregated public transportation (but local laws still upheld segregation). Throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, Shuttlesworth was instrumental in calling attention to the plight of folks living under the weight of Jim Crow. The church would be bombed twice more – once in 1958 and again in 1962. Neither of those occurrences resulted in casualties, either.

Fire personnel and onlookers view the damage at 16th Street Baptist Church.

Fire personnel and onlookers view the damage at 16th Street Baptist Church.

Unfortunately, the same thing can not be said of the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 where four young black girls were murdered. That horrific event helped to wake up ambivalent white Americans to the plight of Southern blacks. And black people in Birmingham and beyond were more determined than ever to fight. If history has any say, years later we will view this tragedy as a turning point, too.

Robert Chambliss and the Tale of Two Nieces

The Archives department of the Birmingham Public Library is making Robert Edward Chambliss’s jailhouse correspondence available to the public today, the 35th anniversary of the start of Chambliss’s trial.  The papers were given to the library by the FBI. In 1977 Chambliss was convicted to a life sentence for the murder of Carol Denise McNair, 11. McNair, along with Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14, was killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to review the letters, which were written on yellow legal paper and in cursive.  Chambliss wasn’t concerned with modern grammatical conventions as he disregarded many commas and periods and capitalized words at random.  Given the age of the letters, I was surprised to find that the ink had not faded.

Many of the letters are written to his niece Willie Mae Walker.  Chambliss addresses the envelopes with “To My Best Niece Mrs. Willie Mae Walker.” Within the letters, he would make numerous requests of Walker from sending him money for cigarettes to contacting “Good White” lawyers who could help get him released from prison either for good behavior or medical reasons. 

In one letter, Chambliss asked Walker to contact the local newspapers and place the following ad:

Who Will Help an 80 year old innocent convict to get out of Prison.

His Doctors Say He Will Never Be Well Again.  He is Being Held a Political Prisoner

Who needs to Be Free Before He Dies. Please Write R. E. Chambliss, 119771

St. Clair Prison Hospital P.O. Box 280 Odenville Alabama 35120

Sure enough, Walker sent a typed letter to the Birmingham News’s advertising director Harris Emmerson to find out ad rates for a two-week run. 

Chambliss also asked Walker to track down another niece, Elizabeth Cobbs or Libby Ann as Chambliss called her.  Many observers of Chambliss’s trial say it was Cobbs’s testimony that sealed his conviction.  Cobbs, a Methodist minister, was the prosecution’s star witness.  In Spike Lee’s 1997 seminal documentary, Four Little Girls, Howell Raines, the former executive director of the New York Times and Birmingham native, said “The old man [Chambliss] looked over his shoulder and sees this woman walking in and he turns around. His attorneys lean over to him and ask him ‘Who is that?’ And it’s clear they’re totally unprepared for this witness.” 

Cobbs testified that while watching news reports of the bombing, her uncle said, “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody. It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”

Chambliss wanted Walker to find Cobbs so she could “repent” of her testimony.  Chambliss blamed Cobbs for his conviction.   In one letter dated December 18, 1983, Chambliss wrote, “…She Swore Lies on Her Uncle and got Him Charged with 4 Murders and got Him a Life Sentence.”  He thought the Methodist church may have known of Cobbs’s whereabouts; he told his niece to contact them.  Chambliss never mentioned he knew that Cobbs underwent a sex change in 1981 and changed his name to Petric Smith. In 1994, Smith wrote Long Time Coming, in which he recollects about growing up with violent segregationists and how he felt during the trial. Chambliss died a prisoner on October 29, 1985.  Smith died in Birmingham in 1998 from lung cancer. He was 57.  

Historians and journalists have given no treatment to Walker.  I want to know more about her, this best niece. Did she believe in her uncle’s innocence? Did she feel a sense of relief after his death? Is she still alive?  As with any important find, we are left to discover answers through additional digging. If you were able to ask Walker one question, what would it be?

The Archives department is located in the Linn-Henley Research Building and is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday – Friday.  

One of the letters Chambliss wrote from prison

Envelope addressed to niece Willie Mae Walker