On July 3, 1963, Roosevelt Tatum was interviewed another time by FBI Agents in Birmingham, Alabama. In this meeting Tatum signed a statement recanting his previous allegations regarding the role of the Birmingham Police in the bombing of A. D. and Naomi King's home. Here is an excerpt from Tatum's retraction:
I did not see any suspicious persons or suspicious cars that night and I have no knowledge whatever as to who may have been responsible for the explosions at Rev. King's home. . . .
Later, after the explosions, I saw Police Squad Car #49 parked at the King residence. I remember thinking that Car #49 got to the scene mighty soon after the explosion and I also knew Car #49 does not patrol that area. There was some talk later among the people who gathered at the scene that the police sure got there quick and I thought maybe the police had something to do with the explosion. However, I did not see any police car around the King residence before the explosion and I have no knowledge that anyone connected with the Police Dept. was involved in any way.
Some five or six weeks later I got drunk one Saturday, and went to Rev. King's house and told him and some white fellow named Greenberg that I actually saw two police men in Car 49 place something on Rev. King's property just before the explosion. After I told my story, Rev. King or somebody called the FBI, and I told the F.B.I. [sic] the same bunch of lies. The plain truth is I don't know anything whatever as to who may have caused this explosion. I saw no suspicious persons or cars that night and there is absolutely no other information which I can furnish. (Roosevelt Tatum. FBI HQ-0460048526. Prosecutive Summary Report, Names And Addresses Of Witnesses And Testimony Of Each. 52- 53.)
On August 26, 1963, the details concerning Tatum's admitted false testimony were brought before a Federal Grand Jury. Two days later, the Grand Jury returned an indictment, charging that Roosevelt Tatum
did, in a matter within the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Justice of the United States of America, knowingly, willfully [sic], and unlawfully make a false statement to a representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in that . . . the defendant stated that on the night of May 11, 1963, Birmingham Police Car Number 49, occupied by two police officers placed an explosive charge in front of the residence of A. D. W. King in Birmingham, Alabama; and that one of the police officers placed an explosive charge in front of said residence, when in truth and fact, as the defendant then and there well knew, the aforesaid statement was false. (6)
September 23, 1963. Tatum's lawyer, Orzell Billingsley, filed a motion to quash the indictment.
September 25, 1963. Tatum entered a plea of not guilty to the charge against him.
November 18, 1963. Tatum's trial at the US District Court, at Birmingham, Alabama. Tatum changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced under Section 4208B, Title 18, US Code. Before sentencing him, the court placed Tatum in the custody of the Attorney General for a 90 day period of observation and study.
March 31, 1964. Roosevelt Tatum appeared for sentencing in US District Court, Birmingham, Alabama. His sentence: one year and one day imprisonment from the date of his original commitment, November 18, 1963.
It turns out that Roosevelt Tatum was charged with false testimony because US Attorney Macon L. Weaver was looking to charge someone with false testimony. A memo dated July 16, 1963, from FBI Special Agent In Charge (SAC) in Birmingham to the FBI Director, reveals that
U. S. Attorney Macon L. Weaver, at Birmingham, has evidenced considerable interest in receiving reports of any individuals in this Division who furnish false information to the Governmentand [sic] is, of course, very much interested in rendering prosecutive opinions in any case where there is a violation of Section 1001, Title 18, U. S. Code. He has specifically requested copies of any reports in connection with the bombing investigation which indicate that witnesses have furnished false information. (Roosevelt Tatum. FBI HQ-0460048526.)
Either Weaver requested documents from the FBI because he was hoping to find someone to prosecute, or he knew about the Tatum story and wanted the evidence he needed to bring a case against him. The FBI complied with Weaver's request, but the Justice Dept. also took away his prosecutive authority in "cases of of this type involving a racial situation." In a July 26 memo from Special Agent In Charge, Birmingham to the FBI Director regarding Weaver's request for reports on individuals who furnished false information, the SAC reported that, despite the Department's prohibition, Weaver felt compelled to make known to them his view that Roosevelt Tatum should be prosecuted by the Department.
On August 19, 1963, Justice Clarence W. Allgood, of the US District Court, Northern District of Alabama, approved the Birmingham Board of Education's desegregation plan. The next day, on August 20, at 9:26 p.m., there was another bombing in Birmingham. This time the target was Arthur Shores, an African American civil rights attorney, who lived there. Diane McWhorter describes the scene after the bombing:
When the Reverend Nelson "Fireball" Smith arrived, A. D. King and Charles Billups were already on the top of a police car making pleas for peace. "If you are going to kill someone, kill me," A. D. King shouted at the crowd. "The police are mad; now y'all go on." Detective Maurice House said, "A. D., don't say we're mad, you'll get us all killed." Some officers, expecting as much, had been issued submachine guns. "They stand here with pistols and other magic power," King persisted. "We can't beat them tonight. We are going to win this town regardless of what they do. Stand if you must—stand in love, not violence." A barrage of rocks answered him. A policeman positioned between two parked cars was felled by a flying rock, and Smith's leg was hit. He and King went into Shores's house to attend to a chip fracture on Smith's shinbone, leaving the mob to its momentum. (Carry Me Home, 482)
The next day, on August 21, US Attorney Macon L. Weaver issued a press release:
THE EVENTS OF LAST EVENING, FOLLOWING THE BOMBING OF ATTORNEY ARTHUR SHORES HOME WHEREIN BIRMINGHAM POLICE OFFICERS WERE STONED BY NEGRO MEMBERS OF THE NEGRO COMMUNITY MAKE IT NECESSARY TO MAKE THIS UNPRECEDENTED STATEMENT CONCERNING A CASE UNDER INVESTIGATION.
ON JUNE TWENTYTWO, SIXTYTHREE [sic] A NEGRO MALE WHO RESIDES IN THE VICINITY OF REV. A. D. W. KING/S [SIC] RESIDENCE CONTACTED REV. KING AND JACK GREENBERG, ATTORNEY FOR THE SCLCU [sic], AND GAVE A STATEMENT IN WHICH HE ALLEGES THAT HE SAW TWO OFFICERS OF THE BIRMINGHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT IN A SPECIFIED NUMBERED CAR BOMB THE RESIDENCE OF A. D. W. KING. REV. KING CONTACTED THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION AND ON THE SAME DATE THIS SAME PERSON GAVE A STATEMENT TO THE FBI OF SUBSTANTIALLY THE SAME FACTS. HE WAS LATER FLOWN TO WASHINGTON BY THE REV. KING WHERE HE WAS INTERVIEWED IN THE OFFICE OF A PROMINENT NEW YORK CONGRESSMAN. HE WAS INTERVIEWED AT THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE AND ALSO BY TWO TOP AGENTS OF THE FBI IN WASHINGTON. DURING ALL OF THESE INTERVIEWS HE GAVE SUBSTANTIALLY THE SAME STATEMENT THAT HE SAW TWO BIRMINGHAM POLICE OFFICERS BOMB THE RESIDENCE OF REV. KING. ON JULY THREE, SIXTYTHREE [sic], THE SUBJECT WAS GIVEN A POLYGRAPH EXAMINATION BY A SPECIALLY TRAINED AGENT OF THE FBI AT THE FBI OFFICE IN BIRMINGHAM, ALA., AND AT THE THIRD QUESTION BY THE POLYGRAPH EXAMINER THE SUBJECT ADMITTED THAT HE WAS LYING AND THAT THE ENTIRE STORY WAS SOMETHING THAT HE MADE UP, AND HE GAVE A WRITTEN STATEMENT TO THAT EFFECT. HE WAS ACCOMPANIED BY CLARENCE B. JONES, AN ATTORNEY FROM NEW YORK CITY, AT THE TIME HE TOOK THE POLYGRAPH EXAMINATION. THE STORY THAT WAS ORIGINALLY GIVEN BY THIS PERSON HAS BECOME WELL KNOWN IN THE NEGRO COMMUNITY, BUT THE STATEMENT THAT HE WAS LYING IS NOT KNOWN AT ALL, AND, FOR THAT REASON IT IS FELT THAT THESE FACTS SHOULD BE MADE KNOWN, AND I CALL UPON THE RESPONSIBLE NEGRO LEADERS OF THIS COMMUNITY TO HELP INFORM THE NEGRO CITIZENS THAT THERE IS NO TRUTH IN THE STORY AS ORIGINALLY GIVEN. I FEEL THAT THE ROCKING AND STONING OF THE POLICE DEPARTMENT LAST NIGHT WAS A DIRECT RESULT OF THIS FALSEHOOD THAT IS BEING CIRCULATED IN THE NEGRO COMMUNITY.
THE IRRESPONSIBLE ACT OF A PERSON OR PERSONS UNKNOWN IN THE BOMBING OF ATTORNEY ARTHUR SHORES [SIC] HOME LAST EVENING CONSTITUTES AN UNPROVOKED ATTACK ON THE PEACE AND TRANQUILITY OF THIS COMMUNITY, AN ACT CALCULATED TO CAUSE FURTHER RACIAL UNREST.
THE FBI IS WORKING, AS ALWAYS, CLOSELY WITH THE LOCAL POLICE DEPARTMENT TO BRING TO THE BAR OF JUSTICE THE PERPETRATORS OF THIS CRIME AGAINST SOCIETY. OF MORE IMMEDIATE CONCERN HOWEVER IS THE ANIMOSITY THAT EXEMPLIFIED ITSELF LAST NIGHT WHEN POLICE OFFICERS WERE STONED AS THEY ARRIVED TO INVESTIGATE THE BOMBING. (Roosevelt Tatum. FBI HQ-0460048526. Teletype from SAC, Birmingham to Director, FBI, August 28, 1963. All-caps in original.)
Weaver's audacity in this press release is appalling. Weaver chose to publicize investigative information for a case that was then currently under investigation. His information appears to be based on some of the same documents that I have, which are now declassified but were not then, in 1963. Seems his main information came from Tatum's own statements to the FBI, such as when Tatum referred to my father as a "white man named Greenberg" in his June 22 statement to the Birmingham FBI (see Part 3). Weaver mistook Paul Greenberg for Jack Greenberg, since Jack is the famous Greenberg in the Civil Rights Movement.
The biggest irony in Weaver's statement is that the rock and brick throwing by African-Americans that followed the August 20 bombing of Arthur Shores' home was mild in comparison to the rioting that followed the May 11 bombings of the A. G. Gaston Motel and A. D. and Naomi King's home:
The arrival of the white squad cars [at the Gaston Motel] sent the crowd into a rage. Now the former bystanders hurled bricks and bottles at the officers. Members of the mob shouted "Kill 'em! Kill 'em!" at the policemen, who, waiting for reinforcements, moved back. They did little for nearly an hour. Violent protesters ransacked the twenty-eight block area around the motel. Smashing the windows of patrol cars and fire trucks, the mob vented its pent-up frustration. Innocent travelers caught in the area attracted rocks thrown from the crowd and suffered most of the white injuries. One police officer received several stab wounds. Captain James Lay, a black civil defense worker, saved the life of a white cabbie, W. A. Bowman, who inadvertently drove into the riot and was knifed by black men. They torched his taxi after turning it over. The flickering orange and red flames of the gasoline brightly contrasted with the thick black clouds that billowed above the car. Several Italian-owned grocery stores went up in smoke as rioters attempted to burn all white-owned property in the neighborhood. But the sparks knew no race and quickly spread the fire to black-owned houses. Soon the hot night sky blazed with the intensity of a blast furnace. In addition to the exploitative ghetto groceries, the African Americans looted liquor stores and other businesses. At the height of the riot, some 2,500 black people participated in the violence. (Glenn T. Eskew, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle, 301)
The well-founded perception that members of the Birmingham Police were allied with with the Ku Klux Klan and were involved in terrorism against African-Americans was not a new idea propagated by Roosevelt Tatum. What was new was the violent response of African-Americans to a bombing in Birmingham. Since 1947, more than fifty racial bombings had occurred. Even without clear evidence of Klan involvement, the police corruption was clear: the first person ever convicted in connection with the Birmingham bombings was Roosevelt Tatum.
After the August 20 bombing of the Shores residence, when an African-American crowd once again turned out with bricks and stones to hurl at the police, the time was ripe for Macon Weaver to "render[ ] prosecutive opinions," as he was "very much interested" in doing. It was already old hat for racist whites to assert that African-Americans were the perpetrators of bombings against their own community members. It may be that the racists' aim of undermining the moral authority of non-violent resistance by provoking violence from the African American community may have unleashed something more than was intended. McWhorter quotes vice president of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), Abraham Woods, who said in an oral history that
What I saw at Sixteenth Street, what I saw at the motel, was the forerunner of what happened . . . Later it was "burn, baby, burn." . . . That came later and I saw it coming. I saw it coming. (McWhorter, 437n)
Violent expressions of anger, long stifled by brutish, institutionalized intimidation and Jim Crow, may have made racists fearful in a new way—fearful of violent resistance and of possible outside perceptions that such violence was at worst an even response to what African-Americans had suffered. In a curious way, the national viewing of images of non-violent children and adults being attacked by dogs and blown down with fire hoses may have led to wider identification with the anger expressed in the rioting. Or at least Macon Weaver may have feared that this would be the case. Though the national media published virtually no photographs of the May, 1963 Birmingham riots (McWhorter, 437), Weaver may still have sought to deligitimate African American grievances in order to ease the city back into the status quo that had existed before the civil rights demonstrations.
Project C had come to an anti-climactic end. At the national level, the situation in Birmingham was central in leading John F. Kennedy to draft the civil rights bill which was passed in 1964. The perceived success of the SCLC's work with the ACMHR brought the SCLC new national prominence and prestige and an enormous spike in financial contributions. "Within a month of the ambiguous resolution [of the Birmingham campaign], the SCLC took in more money than it had seen in the previous calendar year" (Eskew, 314). At the local level, however,
[i]n the aftermath of the demonstrations, the police department attempted to return to the status quo of race relations. Police chief Jamie Moore responded to the civil disorders by purchasing "100 riot type (military) 12 gauge pump shotguns" . . . During June and July of 1963, officers reexerted their control over the black community. Yet the brutal response to the protest marches compromised the authority of the police. Through force, policemen kept the poor and desperate elements of the community in line. For black people in Birmingham this force often meant "justifiable homicide." On June 28, a policeman killed Blaine Gordon Jr., a seventeen-year-old black male. On July 6, a detective shot, but did not kill, thirty-three-year-old Johnny Patterson, also black. On August 4, an officer killed James Scott Jr., age thirty-five, another black male. The ease with which policemen shot and killed black men reflected a pathology within Birmingham's law enforcement that contributed to future racial crises. (313-14)
If you read much of Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home, you see that the ongoing, deadly Police violence against African-Americans in Birmingham was something more than a pathological expression of racism. McWhorter depicts in great detail a sickening web of alliances among police, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Birmingham FBI. "Return to the status quo of race relations" meant a return to a shabby facade of civility that was maintained by the constant threat of violence. Tatum's original allegation, effectively that the Police and the KKK were one, was not the only of its kind. The FBI interviewed, but never investigated the testimony of, a witness who saw the Gaston Motel bombers receive police escort away from the scene of the crime. (McWhorter, 436) There was also another witness, in addition to Tatum, who implicated the police in the bombing of the King residence.
Macon Weaver wanted to use Roosevelt Tatum as an example of what would happen to anyone else who tried to speak truth about the deep corruption of the Birmingham Police. But the timing of Weaver's press release suggests further that he wanted to use the authority of the law to give an air of legitimacy to the most absurd of racist doublespeak. As McWhorter puts it:
The [FBI] was selectively pursuing a cipher who was only alleging a police-Klan conspiracy that its own star informant [Klansman Gary Thomas Rowe Jr.] had already uncovered, and for a crime that the FBI, if it had wanted to establish federal jurisdiction over the Klan, could have slapped on virtually every Klansman it had ever interviewed. (483)
It was a favorite racist assertion that violent crimes against African Americans, such as bombings, were perpetrated by African Americans themselves. Now Weaver was ramping such assertions up a notch by attempting to establish that the race riots were caused not by racist oppression but by lies and rumors spread by an unreliable African American.
Though Weaver could not prosecute the case himself, he got his wish, nonetheless, through his publicity tactics. On August 23, the FBI Director received a memo from SAC, Birmingham, stating that
Ausa [Assistant US Attorney] R. Macey Taylor advised that in view of the public interest in instant case, U. S. District Judge C. W. Allgood will probably present instant case early Monday, next. Federal Grand Jury is meeting in Birmingham on that date. (Roosevelt Tatum. FBI HQ-0460048526.)
That same weekend, A. D. King and Roosevelt Tatum held a press conference to counter Weaver's statements. Page 1 of the August 24 edition of The Birmingham News reported that
Tatum said the FBI polygraph experts instructed him to say "no" to every question they asked him. He said they never asked him about what he saw the night of the bombing but only quizzed him concerning his children and unrelated matters.
"The said they were going to show me how the lie detector operated," Tatum said. "I had never seen one before."
The Negro said they asked if he had a baby named "Bronco."
"I started to say yes," the Negro said, "but they had told me to say no, so I did."
Tatum said the two agents questioned him at length, then told him he had lied and that they were going to prosecute him. He said that they told him he would be sentenced to five years in federal prison.
The Negro said he signed a statement admitting he had lied about police bombing King's home because of threats of the FBI.
Tatum said he now wants to take another lie detector test and welcomes a federal grand jury investigation into the matter.
King said there was another Negro named "Skeets" who also saw a police car near his (King's) home the night it was bombed. The Negro preacher said Attorney Clarence Jones of New York, who is now working on the march on Washington, will confer with Birmingham Negro leaders about what to do next within a few days.
On August 26, as stated above, the Federal Grand Jury convened and returned its charges against Roosevelt Tatum.
Roosevelt Tatum's trial was on November 18, 1963. Mark Lane writes
The record reveals that Tatum appeared in Judge Allgood's court [in] the morning . . . His lawyer was excused so that he could try another case that morning with the understanding that he would return to try the Tatum case at 2 o'clock that afternoon. Yet the afternoon session began with Billingsley entering the plea of guilty while Tatum stood silently by.
The lawyer was not present on the day of the sentence and Roosevelt Tatum, standing alone, was sentenced by Judge Allgood to a penitentiary for one year and one day. (Murder in Memphis, 40)
After Tatum made his mysterious change of plea from not guilty to guilty, Judge Allgood addressed him from the bench, saying Tatum's crime "could have resulted in the loss of life and may have . . . " (Birmingham Post Herald, November 19, 1963)
Allgood was probably referring to the death of John Coley on September 4, 1963, the night Arthur Shores' house was bombed a second time, sparking another riot.
Twenty-year-old John Coley, who had hopped a ride to the riot scene with his close friend Eddie Coleman, happened into a barrage of gunfire and collapsed facedown on the ground. Coleman called his friend's name. Coley raised his head and tried to say something but couldn't. . . .
Coley had . . . been hit in the head, though it was the #0 buckshot lodged in his liver that would account for his being dead on arrival at University Hospital. Several officers stationed in Coley's vicinity had been using that size pellet, and for the time being the police were so confident of their right to fire on the rioters that they told the [Birmingham] News's Tom Lankford that they shot Coley when he "burst from a house firing a gun," as if they had not been surrounded by hundreds of eyewitnesses who could contradict them. . . .
What the blacks who had gathered around Coley's corpse noticed was his dead-on resemblance, despite a twenty or so-year age difference, to Fred Shuttlesworth. They had no doubt that Coley was a victim of mistaken identity, that his murder had been another assassination attempt. The police would have to settle for merely kicking Shuttlesworth as he lost his footing and fell. (McWhorter, 499-500)
Towards the end of 1964 Roosevelt Tatum was released from prison. He left Birmingham, where he could not find a job, to look for work in New York City. Before leaving his friends and his family he said that he had told the truth about the bombing of A. D. King's house. His friends say that he insisted that he would keep on telling the truth, whatever the cost.
He died in 1970, at the age of 46. (Lane and Greggory, Murder in Memphis, 40-41)
photo by Charles Moore
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