Elizabeth Cobbs/Petric Smith’s “Long Time Coming” is an important work because it vividly reminds us of America’s racial legacy and who the real victims of racial oppression have been.
This book is about the cruelty and savagery perpetuated by white racists on African Americans and condoned by local and federal officials. But it is also about the bravery of a few white southerners who stepped forward to challenge virulent racial oppression.
Smith’s work provides more than an insider’s account of one of the most atrocious events of the civil rights era — the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that caused the death of four children — it is a personal journey inside the world of the most extreme opponents of racial justice. It gives us a better look at the lengths some would go in order to uphold the ideology of white supremacy.
Written in a style that is accessible to general readers, this engrossing narrative exposes a world where the elite club of whiteness was reserved for native-born white Protestants. Although Jews, Catholics and other white ethnics were outsiders, not to be trusted, the special category of “menacing beast” and “danger to the white community” was reserved for people of African origins.
Acts of Terror Described The author (singular) correctly notes that this book has nothing to do with his gender reassignment from Elizabeth Cobbs to Petric Smith in 1981.
Elizabeth Cobbs became aware at an early age of her family’s intense fear of Black people, especially Black men. We not only learn of the intense hatred that Klan members had for African Americans, but the author reveals the acts of terror carried out by these defenders of Anglo-Saxon purity, which intensified when the civil rights movement emerged in Birmingham. By the 1950s, Birmingham Klan members moved from assaulting and killing individuals to attacking Black institutions and organizations, as well as Jewish temples, holding to the same political objective — the subjugation of African Americans and their “allies.”
An important aspect of the author’s story is the subservient role of women. Although young Elizabeth Cobbs did well in high school, her parents denied her the opportunity to attend college, arguing that the household was the proper arena for women. We learn that in the violent world of the Klan, men beat their wives with impunity in order to sustain white male supremacy. But the author correctly contends that because many of these women supported racist Klan activity, they should not only be seen as victims but partners in the goal of maintaining white supremacy.
Smith delineates to the reader the activities of the Klavern 13 or Cahaba Boys, a select group of vicious Klan members for which no terrorist act was too extreme — including intimidation, bombing homes, churches and businesses, castrating Black men and murdering African Americans at random. The author’s uncle, Robert Chambliss, one of the accused in the Sixteenth Street Church bombing, and the only one ever convicted for the crime, was a leader of this select group of racist killers.
Bloody Family Values
Smith makes it clear that the reason the Klan was able to exist was because of the support it received from those ordinary whites who were willing to turn over their homes to the organization for meetings, to create’ Klan wear (sheets with holes) and to filter their message of hate to children. Hence, the private and public worlds of the Klan were intertwined. Family members were aware of Chambliss and others who were responsible for the murder of the four children — Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson. But they closed ranks by remaining silent and even provided him with alibis.
The close collaboration the Klan had with law enforcement officers and public officials was by far the most important reason the racist terrorists were able to bomb and kill with impunity. Smith notes that the infamous Eugene “Bull” Connor attended Klan rallies.
Klan members would ride in squad cars with police and they had carte blanche to go after Blacks. The fact that F.B.I. undercover agent Gary Thomas Rowe not only participated in violent acts, but in some cases instigated them, and did not give “substantive information about the bombing case,” is evidence of the depth of institutional racism. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover closed the Sixteenth Street Church bombing case because he concluded that a “conviction could not be obtained at that time in the South.” Those in power who could have stopped the atrocities did nothing. Klan terror and the events leading to the church bombing takes up a large part of the narrative, but the diligent struggle carried on by civil rights participants is not lost in the story.
Thus, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the activities of the civil rights workers in Alabama are noted in the work. just as important is the bravery of (then) Elizabeth Cobbs and others who risked their lives by becoming the best source of information used by the F.B.I. — and later local prosecutors when the case was reopened in 1977. Most informants were the wives, sisters, girlfriends and nieces of Klan members. These woman, who were privy to the most intimate details of the activities of these extreme racists, risked their very lives working as informants.
Witness for the Prosecution The author informs the reader that, right after the bombing, she reluctantly cooperated with the F.B.I. The pressure from the F.B.I. and the fear of retaliation from the Klan almost drove her to suicide. She became a heavy drinker, developed health problems and was unable to hold on to a job.
However, the story of Elizabeth Cobbs is also a narrative of ascent. Determined to bounce back from a life in disarray, she eventually pursued the ministry and became a Methodist minister and later testified against her uncle in 1977 when the case was reopened by the state attorney general, Bill Baxley. The author meticulously details in dramatic style her role and her feelings as a witness for the prosecution. The price for her courage in helping convict Robert Chambliss for the murder of the four children was constant harassment, threats on her life and the inability to find employment in Birmingham because she was considered a threat. Consequently, Cobbs had to leave her hometown and take on a different identity in order to protect her life.
In the concluding chapter, the author poses a number of important questions that should be answered by people concerned about justice. Questions such as: Why did George Wallace allow racial crimes to go unpunished? What was the link between Chambliss and the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the bombing? Why did a Birmingham police officer warn people on the morning of the bombing to keep their mouths closed about the terrorist act? Why haven’t the apparent murders of informants been investigated?
Conservative talk show hosts, along with their collaborators in politics, academia, business and elsewhere may diligently work to sway white Americans to claim the mantle of true victimhood, but “Long Time Coming,” reminds us that racial hatred against Blacks is all too real and continues to plague this nation. This work provides Americans with ample evidence of the result of racial hatred. It strongly suggests to us that the best solution to our racial legacy is not to make believe it does not exist, that it was an unfortunate but minor aberration in our history or that people who speak out against it are just whining. It is to realize that racism is endemic to American society and we must make a serious attempt to come to grips with this awful legacy.
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