Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

The FBI and Hoover

For months after the explosion, FBI agents seemed to be everywhere in Birmingham. They followed Klan members around the city incessantly. Informants were put on the payroll and dozens of written statements were taken. The reward fund grew steadily until it reached nearly $80,000. Pressures to solve the case were tremendous but the FBI slowly plodded on. Family members, girlfriends and acquaintances of known KKK members provided the FBI with a great deal of information, which was faithfully recorded in thousands of pages of written reports.

Book cover: Hoover, The Man and His Secrets
Book cover: Hoover, The Man
and His Secrets

In the meantime, agents had recruited John Wesley Hall, who was arrested with Chambliss and Cagle. Hall had failed a polygraph test concerning the church bombing and the test indicated that he knew more than he was telling. But it was not enough for an indictment. Another paid FBI informant had deeply infiltrated the Klan, and the Bureau relied on his information despite suspicions that their own informant may have been involved in the church bombing. "He twice failed lie detector tests in which he denied participating in the group's bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church," writes Curt Gentry in J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets. The months dragged on. Still, there were no arrests. However, the FBI's suspicions settled on a local Klan group called the Eastview 13 Klavern.

Through hundreds of interviews, the FBI concluded that four individuals were responsible for the Sixteenth Street Church bombing. These men were Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas Blanton Jr., all members of the Eastview 13 Klavern. It was later discovered that Chambliss himself had bought a case of dynamite from a store in Daisy City, Alabama, on September 4, 1963. He also had made incriminating statements to family and friends before the bombing. Agents said Blanton's vehicle was seen near the church at 2:10 a.m. on September 15, 1963. "Photograph of his car positively identified," the report reads. In the same report, the FBI said, "Blanton's alibi for September 14-15, 1963 cannot be verified and stated to Bureau agents that he had heard Chambliss say he would make a shrapnel bomb."

In their reports on Chambliss, the FBI said he was a "logical suspect" because of his "acts of physical violence against Negroes and his free use of dynamite in terrorizing tactics." He was known to be "active in Ku Klux Klan activities, since at least 1946, and was Exalted Cyclops of the Klavern until 1951." Although he denied involvement in the church bombing, "Chambliss admitted to FBI agents that he purchased a case of dynamite but denied knowledge of ultimate use or present location of this dynamite."

However, Hoover did not approve of an arrest at that point. He felt that prosecutors could not get a conviction in any court in the South at that time. Hoover believed that the black civil rights movement was under the control of foreign and domestic communists. During the early 1960s, the FBI had several ongoing investigations of black political organizations and leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was active in the city of Birmingham during 1963. Hoover had no ambition for involvement in civil rights issues. Instead, he became obsessed with the destruction of King whom he saw as a Communist and a troublemaker. This obsession continued even after King's assassination in1968. (Hoover amassed a file on King that consisted of thousands of pages.)

Although agents favored a prosecution of the four suspects as early as 1964, Hoover would not approve of a meeting with U.S. attorneys. According to a review of the case by the Department of Justice, which was obtained by The New York Times in 1980, Hoover stated, "the chances of a prosecution in state or federal Court is very remote." In addition, Hoover was so tight-fisted about what the FBI knew about the bombing that all the details in the case were never completely passed on to the Department of Justice.

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