40 years for Justice: Did the FBI Cover for the Birmingham Bombers?
On Wednesday, September 11th, the nation paused to remember the worst terrorist attack the country ever sustained. But the week also brings another anniversary, that of the worst crime in the history of the Civil Rights Movement whose aftermath was equally disturbing. While it took the United States a decade to execute Osama Bin-Laden, it took almost forty years to convict those responsible for this crime of domestic terrorism. Who was responsible for that long delay? The answer may be J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, fifty years ago, a massive explosion tore through the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Killed instantly were four African American girls—Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins all fourteen, along with Denise McNair, who was eleven. Addie Mae’s sister, thirteen year old Sarah, blinded and bleeding from her wounds managed to free herself from the wreckage that had once been the women’s lounge, where the girls were dressing for the Sunday service. Sarah would spend months in the hospital; the doctors saved her life but had to remove her right eye. Sixteen others—parishioners and people just walking past the church—were injured. “In church! My, God, we’re not even safe in church,” said one anguished woman
An angry crowd quickly gathered. They threw rocks and pieces of glass at the police and sheriff’s deputies. They responded by firing shotguns over the rioters’ heads, forcing them into nearby streets and alleys.
Two other lives were lost that day. Birmingham police shot a black teenager in the back of the head, claiming that he ran after throwing rocks at them. In a Birmingham suburb, Larry Joe Sims and Michael Lee Farley, two sixteen-year-old Eagle scouts, were riding a red motor scooter covered with Confederate stickers when they came upon two black boys on bikes. Sims shot at them, killing one, thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware. Sims and Farley were later arrested and found guilty of second-degree manslaughter but the Judge, who considered the shooting merely “a lapse” in judgment, suspended their sentences and placed the boys on two years probation. In all, the bombing and its aftermath caused six fatalities, none older that sixteen.
The FBI responded immediately. Over the next few months, more than 200 agents came to Birmingham, part of the largest investigation, it was said, since the FBI tracked down John Dillinger. The Bureau named the case BAPBOMB.
What was also unusual about the crime is that authorities quickly identified the men responsible for building and placing the bomb: they were members of a radical Klan splinter group called the Cahaba River Boys. Nevertheless, it took decades to bring them to justice. First to fall was Robert Chambliss, who was convicted of murder in 1977, in part on the testimony of his own niece who had heard him boast on the eve of the bombing that after the next day the blacks would end their campaign to integrate the city’s schools. When Chambliss’ wife Flora (who had also provided information about her husband’s activities to the authorities) learned of the verdict, she was heard to yell, “Hallelujah!” Chambliss died in prison in 1985.
Chambliss first joined the Klan when he was twenty years old, reportedly after watching The Birth of A Nation, and during the next twenty-seven years, rose to become Exalted Cyclops of the Robert E. Lee Klavern. He resigned in 1951 because of “unfavorable publicity,” he later said, the result of his “one man war” against blacks, Catholics, and Jews. In the mines and quarries of Alabama, he learned about dynamite and, in 1947, first used it to destroy the home of a black man who legally won the right to move into a white neighborhood. Chambliss had found his life’s work. In 1956, he bombed Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church and by the end of the decade was responsible for most of Birmingham’s bombings which earned him the nickname, “Dynamite” Bob. His friendship with long time Police Commissioner Bull Connor won him a job in the city garage and also protected him from prosecution for his numerous crimes. The integration of Birmingham’s schools in September 1963 sent him over the edge and the result was four dead young girls.
His partners, Thomas Blanton, Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, also virulent racists, were finally tried, convicted, and incarcerated in 2001 and 2002, respectively. Cherry died in 2004.
Why did it take so long to imprison the men responsible for this terrible crime? Agents found several eyewitnesses who could place Chambliss and the others at the church at around 2:00 a.m., eight hours before the bomb exploded, and two members of Chambliss’ own family—his niece and sister-in-law who heard him make incriminating statements—were willing to testify at trial. Twice in 1965 Birmingham’s FBI field office asked Director J. Edgar Hoover for permission to consult with the U.S. Attorney and the local prosecutor, neither of whom knew the identities of alleged perpetrators, or the nature of the evidence against them, because Hoover refused to share information. And twice, Hoover turned them down. “From an evaluation of the evidence received thus far,” Hoover wrote the Special Agent in Charge on May 19, 1965, “the chance of successful prosecution in State or Federal Court is very remote.” Although Hoover constantly reminded the Birmingham Field office “that the reputation of the FBI depends upon your ability to solve [the bombing],” he would not act unless the case was rock solid. Hoover did not bother to seek the counsel of the Attorney General or other Justice Department divisions (like Civil Rights) before reaching these conclusions. Ignoring his field agents who “believed the climate of opinion…is very favorable toward…prosecution…,” Hoover believed strongly that no Alabama jury would convict white men, even for the murder of black children.
Other factors may also have influenced Hoover’s decision. Some evidence was tainted by illegal taps on Klansmens’ telephones and the installation of microphones in their homes through unlawful entry. The 1200 pages of transcripts obtained were useless in court. (When the Justice Department asked to see them anyway, Hoover refused their request.)
It is also possible that Hoover did not act because a public trial might reveal that the FBI had recruited a number of Birmingham’s citizens, including known Klansmen, as FBI informants and this revelation would have badly damaged the Bureau’s reputation.
The FBI’s most important informant inside the Alabama Ku Klux Klan was a nightclub bouncer, brawler, and self-proclaimed "hell raiser," named Gary Thomas Rowe. Rowe was recruited by the FBI in March 1960 and encouraged to join the Eastview Klavern of the Alabama Klan. Although his FBI handler warned him that he was not an FBI agent and must avoid violent activities, Rowe considered himself an "undercover man," a redneck James Bond. He soon discovered that in order to protect his "cover" (and because he enjoyed a good fight), he needed to take a leading role in the Klan's attacks on civil rights workers.
In May 1961, when Birmingham police officials learned that a bus carrying Freedom Riders was coming to Birmingham on Mothers Day, they turned to Rowe and the Klan to arrange a violent reception for the activists. Public Safety Director Bull Connor gave the Klan 15 minutes to "beat" the Freedom Riders "until they looked like a bulldog got a hold of them."
Rowe warned his FBI handler of the imminent attack, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover kept it secret from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and the bureau did nothing to stop the attack. A local news photographer snapped a picture of Mr. Rowe and other Klansmen beating an African-American with their fists and pipes; the victim was not a Freedom Rider but an ordinary Birmingham citizen who was at the bus terminal to pick up his fiancée. Mr. Rowe also assaulted a news photographer and a television reporter before the Klan's time ran out and police arrived on the scene.
The FBI's response to Mr. Rowe's actions that day revealed how an informant can dominate his handler and escape punishment for his crimes. Although a later Justice Department investigation concluded that "of the hundreds [involved] ... Rowe was one of the handful most responsible for the violence," the FBI covered up his actions that day.
Rowe told his contact that he had beaten the innocent bystander but the agent lied to the FBI's special agent-in-charge, assuring him that "Rowe was not personally involved in the fighting."
Instead of being arrested and his relationship with the FBI terminated, the Bureau rewarded Rowe with a cash bonus of $175 and praised him as "without doubt the most alert, intelligent, productive and reliable informant ... currently being operated."
In the years that followed, Mr. Rowe rose within the ranks of the Eastview Klavern and continued to attack African-Americans and civil rights workers with impunity, knowing that the FBI would protect him from prosecution.
Was Rowe involved in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church? At first, the FBI feared that he might have been since they encouraged him to stay away from the crime scene and never showed his picture to those witnesses who later placed Chambliss, Blanton, and Cherry in the vicinity of the church the night before the bomb exploded. Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, who prosecuted Chambliss in 1977, and U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who won convictions of Blanton and Cherry in 2001 and 2002, did not consider Rowe a likely suspect.
But given the central role that Rowe played in the violent events that occurred in Birmingham in the early 1960s—the attack on the Freedom Riders, the bombing of black homes, and an aborted attempt to assassinate Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth—it seems likely that Rowe knew that the church was going to be bombed on September 15 and never reported it to the FBI.
The FBI considered Rowe too important a source to investigate where Rowe was the night before the explosion—he had difficulty explaining what he was doing—and Rowe initially identified a number of men as the likely bombers but never mentioned Chambliss, Blanton, and Cherry until December, 1964, long past the time when it was clear to the Bureau that the three were responsible for the murder of the three girls and the maiming of the fourth. Hoover’s failure to act was later called “a serious error” by a Justice Department Task Force investigating Gary Thomas Rowe.
Despite the Bureau’s uncertainty about Rowe’s connection to the bombing, they continued to allow him to run amuck. In March 1965, at the conclusion of the historic Voting Rights March, Rowe and three other Klansmen fired their guns at a car driven by Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit mother of five, who had come to Selma to work with Dr. Martin Luther King’s voting rights movement. Liuzzo died instantly when a bullet struck her in the head. Rowe denied that he had shot at Liuzzo and his FBI handler accepted his story without further investigation. Following the Liuzzo shooting, Rowe quickly made a deal with the Justice Department: In exchange for immunity from prosecution, he agreed to testify against his fellow Klansmen at their federal trial in December 1965.
On the strength of his eye- witness testimony, the Klansmen were convicted of violating Ms. Liuzzo's civil rights, but they served less than 10 years in prison. Mr. Rowe was again rewarded by a grateful Justice Department with a gift of $10,000, a new identity and a job as an assistant U.S. marshal in California.
He could change his name but not his nature—his habitual brawling and drinking cost him his job a year later. Blaming his problems on the FBI, Rowe testified before the Church Committee in 1975, revealing his (and the FBI’s) complicity in the attack on the Freedom Riders and other crimes of the 1960s. Rowe spent his last years working as a private investigator in Savannah, Georgia. He died there in 1998.
Rowe's experiences suggest the dangers of recruiting informants and putting them into terrorist groups. To reassure their associates that they are truly committed to their cause, they, too, must commit brutal acts. And to hide their association with despicable characters, intelligence agencies become silent partners in the crimes their informants commit. Protecting its most valued informant may well explain why it took decades to bring the Sixteenth Street Church bombers to justice. As we remember 1963’s tragedy, we would do well to re-examine the role played by the FBI and CIA’s informants before history repeats itself.