Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

"Dynamite Bob"

Over time, Baxley managed to enlist the support of Elizabeth Cobbs, the niece of Robert Chambliss. She provided the attorney general's office with incriminating statements made by Robert Chambliss before and after the bombing. A family friend, Gale Tarrant, also claimed to have called the Birmingham Police on the morning of the explosion and reported that a bomb was placed at the church. Tarrant told police that the day before the bombing she heard Chambliss ranting about "the meeting place where the niggers plan their marching."

In September 1977, a grand jury was formed to hear testimony concerning the involvement of "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss in the church bombing. On September 24, 1977, an indictment was finally issued charging him with the murder of Carol Denise McNair. Chambliss was located at his home in north Birmingham and immediately arrested. "This is all politics!" he told police on the way to jail, "They're just using politics to get me arrested and in this mess so they can make some hay of it! Baxley's behind it!"

In November 1977, the trial of Robert Chambliss opened in the Jefferson County Courthouse in downtown Birmingham. Reverend John Cross testified how he was teaching a class at the church on September 15, 1963, when "all of a sudden an explosion went off. It sounded like the whole world was shaking!" Police and fire marshals followed him to the stand and testified about the condition of the crime scene. But the star witness in the case would turn out to be Chambliss's niece, Elizabeth Cobbs.

Book cover: Long Time Coming
Book cover: Long Time Coming

She took the stand November 15. "I saw Robert staring at me as though his stern anger would enable him to intimidate me into silence as it had for so many years," she wrote in Long Time Coming. Cobbs told the jury that Chambliss had said before the bombing, "Just wait until after Sunday morning and they'll beg us to let them segregate!" After the bombing, Cobbs said she overheard Chambliss say, "It wasn't meant to hurt anybody; it didn't go off when it was supposed to."

Other witnesses testified that Chambliss had possession of dynamite during the summer of 1963 and spoke about giving those explosives to fellow Klan members. One neighbor told the court that she accidentally discovered "tied-up bundles of oversize firecrackers" when she was in the Chambliss house. Another witness, who saw a white man near the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church during the early morning hours of September 15, 1963, also identified Chambliss. It was enough for the jury. On November 19, he was found guilty of murdering Carol Denise McNair and later sentenced to life in prison.

"Judge, I swear to God I didn't bomb that church," Chambliss told the court at sentencing, "I never bombed nothing!" Sheriff deputies took him away in handcuffs. Eight years later, on October 28, 1985, Chambliss died in prison. To the very end, he denied involvement in the bombing and never implicated any other Klan member. For the next 15 years, the case would lie stagnant.

It looked as if the end of the road had finally come.

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