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On a late summer Sunday morning 48 years ago on Sept. 15, 1963 at the peak of the civil rights movement, a homemade dynamite bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham before worship services, snuffing out the lives of four young Sunday school girls.
In retrospect, the atrocity, which stunned the nation, created a turning point as increasing numbers of Southerners reacted with disgust over violent resistance to racial desegregation.
Not that the realization came easy for some. Even in (“Yankeefied”) south Florida, where I was a young reporter for a Sarasota newspaper, there were soft-spoken doubts by some whites, “just between us folks. Maybe ‘they’ blew up the church to make us feel sorry for them, and it went off at the wrong time.”
“Communists” were another oft-mentioned culprit. “They want to destroy this country, you know. Get us fighting each other.”
Fourteen years later, after exhaustive investigation by Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley and the FBI, a Birmingham jury convicted the malevolent mastermind of the bombing — Robert Chambliss, a mechanic and longtime Ku Klux Klan member known by fellow Klansmen as “Dynamite Bob.”
Chambliss was also suspect in numerous other civil rights era bombings in the Alabama steel city, hence his nickname, and the city’s, which blacks often called “Bombingham.” In fact, Chambliss had been heard to boast: “I have enough stuff to flatten half of Birmingham.”
Sixteenth Street Baptist was a prime target, for its role as a field headquarters for the famous demonstrations against segregation that spring.
When Chambliss finally went to trial in 1977, I covered for the afternoon Atlanta Journal, at that time a separate paper from the morning Constitution. For more than a week, I watched an angry-looking “Dynamite Bob” as witnesses mustered by Baxley — who had vowed to solve his state’s civil rights era crimes — laid out the case against him.
Key among the witnesses was Chambliss’ niece Elizabeth Cobbs, a Methodist minister who as a young woman, frequently visited the pugnacious, ill-tempered Klansman and his wife, a warm, good-humored woman her niece called “Aunt Tee.”
In an interview in the mid-’90s, Cobbs told me Chambliss sometimes beat his wife, and she endured because “she loved him, in her way…and she knew if she left him, he wouldn’t let her get away with it.”
Aunt Tee had a private way of coping, I learned: when Chambliss was out of the house, his wife would dress their German shepherd in her husband’s clothes and dance with the dog to the radio while murmuring insults in a low, sweet voice.
At his trial, Chambliss glared at the prosecution’s star witness as he scrawled her name repeatedly on a yellow legal pad during Cobbs testimony.
The morning before the bombing, Cobbs testified, she heard Chambliss fuming at his breakfast table over a news report about the stabbing of a white teenage girl by a black youth.
“Just wait till Sunday, he said. “They’ll beg us to let them segregate!”
A few days later, Cobbs testified about hearing Chambliss blurt out during a TV newscast about the fatal bombing: “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody. It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”
“I believe Robert (and some co-conspirators) …intended for the bomb to go off right before dawn, which gave them several hours where they could have called in a warning,” the witness told me in a 1995 interview. But I also believe he didn’t care if it did hurt someone.”
The jury found Chanbliss guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison, where he died at age 81.
“I’m sure he did it,” said defense attorney Paul Hanes Jr. after the trial. “The man had less remorse than anybody I ever met.”
The ordeal of facing her blood uncle, a soon to be convicted child killer in court, fears of retaliation, harassing phone calls and other, more subtle threats, transformed Libby Cobbs life, her view of herself, and eventually her identity and her sex.
Shortly after the trial, she resigned from the Methodist ministry, divorced, and became the first pastor of Birmingham’s gay and lesbian Metropolitan Community Church. In 1979 she moved to Texas; after two years of surgery and hormone therapy at the University of Texas medical school, a judge declared her legally a male: Petric J. “Pete” Smith.
As Pete Smith, the aged killer’s former niece wrote a book about her uncle, the crime and his trial: Long Time Coming, distributed by Crane Hill Publishing of Birmingham. A smoker, Cobbs/Smith died in 1998 of lung cancer.
About two years after “Dynamite Bob’s ” conviction, I visited Chambliss at Alabama’s Kilby Prison and listened to him proclaim his lack of guilt: “I would kneel on my mother’s grave and tell you I never bombed anybody, I never killed anybody,” he said.
He claimed his lawyers “framed” him by telling him strongly not to testify, lest prosecutors badger or trick him into self-incrimination on cross-examination.
Not so, responded Art Hanes Jr. “Our entire defense was based on the argument that here was an old man in 1963 who talked pretty rough, but who swore he didn’t do it. But then, he wouldn’t tell that to the jury.”
Chambliss described the Klan to me as a grim enforcer, not just of white supremacy, but morals and personal behavior, as well. He told how he and his fellow hooded Klansmen showed up one night prepared to horsewhip a fellow who reputedly spent his income on booze and women while his family usually went hungry.
Chambliss said he went looking in the kitchen of a small building behind the small house and found flour, side meat, other food — I can’t recall what all — and announced: “Somebody’s been lying about this man!”
So the Klan let him go with a warning: “Take your wife and kids to church and Sunday school or we will whip you!”