Friday, November 09, 2012

BPL Archives Opens Robert E. Chambliss’ Letters to the Public

Bomb damage to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, September 15, 1963.
Photo courtesy of BPL Archives.

Archives acquire new collections in different ways. Sometimes an archivist will spend months or even years researching a possible source for a collection, contacting a potential donor, and negotiating with the donor to secure the donation. Other times, archivists have collections fall into their laps. One recent windfall came from the Birmingham field office of the F.B.I. when they offered the BPL Archives the prison letters of Robert E. Chambliss.

Chambliss was the first person convicted for the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. A long-time member of the Ku Klux Klan, Chambliss was involved in several acts of racial violence and suspected in numerous Birmingham area bombings. His skill as a bomb maker earned him the nickname “Dynamite Bob.” Chambliss was tried and convicted for his role in the church bombing in 1977 and died in prison in 1985. The Archives will open these letters to the public on Wednesday, November 14, 2012, the 35th anniversary of the first day of Chambliss trial.

These letters were not available to previous historians of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing and they give us added insight into the mind of a home-grown terrorist. Readers hoping to find a confession or expressions of remorse will be disappointed. There are no smoking guns here. Instead, writing to his wife, attorney and other family members Chambliss maintains his innocence, blames others for the crime and spins conspiracy theories. But readers hoping for a deeper level of understanding into the type person who would hold Chambliss’ beliefs and act upon those beliefs, even to the extent of murdering four young girls, will find these letters illuminating and disturbing.

Readers who wish to know more about Chambliss, his crimes and the time in which he lived should see Diane McWhorter’s book Carry Me Home: The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution; Frank Sikora’s Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case, a study of the bombing investigation and trials; and Elizabeth H. Cobb’s/Petric J. Smith’s Long Time Coming: An Insider’s Story of the Birmingham Church Bombing that Rocked the World.

A guide to the letters is available on the BPL web site.

To accompany the letters BPL has digitized the transcript of Chambliss’ trial with funding from the Alabama Public Library Service. The transcript is available on the BPL web site. 

Beginning Wednesday, November 14, 2012, the Robert E. Chambliss Papers will be open to the public in the Archives Department during the Archives’ regular operating hours, Monday-Friday, 9:00-6:00. For more information contact BPL Archivist Jim Baggett at

Jim Baggett
Archives Department
Central Library

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