"Get on the Ground and We Will Kick Your Head In": A Reporter Tells of Terrorism in Alabama
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“Get on the Ground and We Will Kick Your Head In”: A Reporter Tells of Terrorism in Alabama

Between 1882 and 1964, nearly five thousand people died from lynching, the majority African-American. The 1890s witnessed the worst period of lynching in U.S. history. The grim statistical record almost certainly understates the story. Many lynchings were not recorded outside their immediate locality, and pure numbers do not convey the brutality of lynching. Lynchings, often witnessed by large crowds of white onlookers, were the most extreme form of Southern white control over the African-American population, regularly meted out against African Americans who had been falsely charged with crimes but in fact were achieving a level of political or economic autonomy that whites found unacceptable. Lynching was especially prevalent in areas of low population density, recent increase in black population, and high rates of transiency, where strangers feared one another and whites judged legitimate law enforcement weak. As the following testimony by a Birmingham, Alabama, newspaper reporter to a 1949 House subcommittee shows, acts of violence by vigilante groups in the South were directed not only toward blacks. The virulently anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-foreigner Ku Klux Klan of the 20th century violently attempted to impose its code of morality on men, women, and children who violated their beliefs of community norms.

STATEMENT OF CLANCY E. LAKE, BIRMINGHAM, ALA. Mr. LAKE. Saturday, 2 weeks ago, I had a tip that two men had been beaten in Dora. I went to Dora . . . which is a small mining hamlet. The population is listed as about 1,000. The photographer and I moseyed around; we did not want to ask too many questions and as a result we got nothing. I went back Saturday afternoon. I got hold of my contact again and he told me to look up a man named L. M. Beard, who lived in a place called Palos. There is no community there, it is just a section, in the northwest section of Jefferson County.

I went to see Mr. Beard and his was the only name I had. He told me that on the night of June 3, while he was traveling through Dora in a truck, he noticed a group of cars on the side of the Dora road, and other cars parked on the side of the road. As he went past the line of cars he said the lead car swung out in front of him, blocking his way. Two hooded men jumped up to the side of his truck and snatched him out of the truck. He said they were armed with pistols and rifles. He look around and saw between 100 and 150 heavily armed men all wearing hoods.

He said they hauled him into the woods a short way, put a pistol to his head and broke out a letter and shined a flashlight on it and made him read it. He said the letter was written in three different styles of handwriting, and accused him of nonsupport of his family, gambling, bootlegging, and so forth. He said they warned him it had better stop or they would be back again. Then they turned him loose. There was no violence attached to that particular case.

Mr. KEATING. No violence except holding a pistol to his head?

Mr. LAKE. What I mean is, he was not whipped or beaten; I mean physical violence. . . I asked Mr. Beard if he had heard of any other incidents. He was a railroadman and I thought perhaps that was one of the men I had been informed had been beaten. He told me about Troy Morrison. I went to Troy Morrison’s home and he did not want to talk about it. I tried to sell him a bill of goods, that these things had to be made public or else we could not do anything about it. He still did not want to talk about it. He said, “You know, there is another fellow involved; his name is Bill Lowry.”

“Well,” I said, “let us go see him.” So, with Troy Morrison I went to where Bill Lowry works. Troy Morrison lived in Dora and so does Bill Lowry. We went over to see Bill Lowry. Bill did not want to talk about it, either. I kept up my sales talk about the fact that we have got to break this, we have got to make this story public and at that point I found out there were three women involved.

Mr. KEATING. One of these men told you that?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir; they told me there was one woman involved and that her name was Mrs. Irene Burton. She was a 38-year-old widow with five children. With Troy Morrison I went to Mrs. Burton’s home and there I found out her two daughters were involved, Sally, 16 years old and Billie Fay, 18, and also another man named Willie Koogler. He is 39. He lives in Cordova, Ala.

Well, I got Mrs. Burton and Troy Morrison and Sally Burton together and the story they told me—I talked with five of the seven persons who were involved that night—and this is the story they told me: That at about 11 o’clock Mrs. Burton, her two daughters, Willie Koogler, Troy Morrison and Bill Lowry were sitting in Mrs. Burton’s home in Dora. It was some time about 11 o’clock. There was a knock at the door. I do not recall which one answered the knock. But there were hooded men at the door. Someone had lit two railroad fusees in the front yard. Those hooded men came in. They were carrying rifles.

Mr. JENNINGS. A fusee is something that burns at the end of a pointed piece of iron, which railroadmen stick in a cross-tie when they want to flag down a train, is that right?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir; that is right.

Mr. BYRNE. And throws a red glare?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir. The men came in. Four of them were assigned to Billy Lowry. He is a 186-pound fellow and is pretty rugged. Four of them hustled him out of the front door. They blindfolded him.

Two other persons, hooded persons, were assigned to each of the other persons in the house, Troy Morrison and Billy Lowry being the only ones who were blindfolded.

Mrs. Burton told me that when she went out, she noticed that the house was surrounded. They were taken out of the house. There is a small dirt road that runs in front of the house. They were taken along that road to a corner and near the railroad trestle and there was a line of cars parked on a small dirt road which led up into the woods.

Mr. KEATING. Just one of them was blindfolded?

Mr. LAKE. Two men were blindfolded. Sally Burton told me that she counted the cars. She was put in the second car and she counted 23 cars by the time she got into it. She and her mother were put in one car. She said the men kept making filthy remarks to her.

Mr. JENNINGS. They did what?

Mr. LAKE. They kept making filthy remarks to her.

Mr. JENNINGS. Insulting remarks?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir.

Mr. KEATING. That is, these hooded men?

Mr. LANE. Yes, sir. They drove on up this dirt road. It is a very narrow dirt road; it is winding, with trees hanging over it, and is just wide enough for one car . . . When they got about 3 1/2 to 4 miles from their home on that dirt road they stopped at a small clearing where the road forked to the right and to the left and another dirt road continued almost straight ahead in a slight offset to the right.

They took Mrs. Burton, Sally Burton, and Billie Fay Burton out of the car at that point, and took them about 25 yards down the road. They then brought Troy Morrison out of the car. They put a noose around his neck and towed him along to where the woman was standing, threw one end of the line over the tree, and pulled them up to tiptoe. . . They said, from what they told me, “Well, we won’t hang them; we will just whip them.” They made them get down in the manner that Mr. Stallworth has described, and they lashed them five times . . . Now, I may get this a little out of chronological order, but I believe the next order of business was a prayer. They held quite a long prayer for Billy Lowry.

Mr. JENNINGS. Was he praying to the Lord or to the Devil?

Mr. LAKE. He was just praying.

Mr. JENNINGS. Just praying.

Mr. LAKE. He led them all in prayer for Billy Lowry and then they brought Billy with a noose around his neck, and Mrs. Burton and Troy Morrison told me that when they brought Billy out of the car, they yanked on the rope and pulled him to his knees; and then they brought him about 20 yards out to this point where the rest were, and threw the rope over the tree and threatened to hang him. They hauled him up to tiptoe and then they said, “Well, we will just lash him,” and they lashed him six times. He told me that he was cut very severely; that the blood was flowing down his legs even when he got home.

Mr. BYRNE. Did he say that more than one man lashed him, or just one?

Mr. LAKE. Just one man lashed him. I believe that at that point they had another prayer for all six of the persons who were out there.

Mr. KEATING. What kind of a prayer? Did they tell you what they said at the prayer?

Mr. LAKE. I would imagine it was a church-meeting prayer. That is what they indicated.

Mr. KEATING. They were praying for—

Mr. LAKE. For the salvation of these persons' souls.

Mr. KEATING. For their souls, so that they would be better people in the future?

Mr. LAKE. Better citizens; yes, sir.

Mr. KEATING. Better citizens?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir. Then they took Mrs. Burton and they made her bend over a man—they had a man down on the ground—and made her bend over him and they hit her three licks with this belt.

Mr. JENNINGS. That was the mother of these girls?

Mr. LAKE. That is correct. And they accused her of running an indecent place. That is what she told me.

Mr. KEATING. They did make that accusation at that time?

Mr. LAKE. She told me that is what they accused her of and she denied it to them at the time. Next in order, they brought Willie Koogler out. Willie Koogler is a cripple; one of his legs, I believe, is shorter than the other. This is what the others told me. Willie told them he was a cripple and could not bend and they said, “That is all right; get on the ground and we will kick your head in.”

Mr. JENNINGS. What did they say?

Mr. LAKE. “Get on the ground and we will kick your head in.” But they did not actually carry any of that out. They put a noose around his neck three different times . . . They closed the ceremony with another prayer and put the persons back in the cars and took them to their homes. They told Mrs. Burton she would have to leave. Mrs. Burton told me that she had already made arrangements to move out and she did move out of Dora the next day, moved to Sumiton, Ala.

Mr. KEATING. How far away is that?

Mr. LAKE. About 5 miles, I believe, would be a good guess.

Mr. LANE. Will you tell me now whether or not in the course of your investigation you reported this other incident that has been mentioned about the bombing of the Negro minister’s home, or his residence?

Mr. LAKE. That was on the night of or early in the morning of March 25, I believe. I just missed covering that story. I went out the next day, but we had two other men working on it. I was sent back to city hall. I did go out there the next morning and I saw three houses that had been dynamited. . . early that morning. I believe the reporter who went right to the scene told me about 10 o’clock in the morning; I may be wrong. There were three blasts about 1 minute apart. The sides of the houses were caved in. They were unfit for further use. . . They were located in the city of Birmingham in an area known as North Smithfield.

Mr. LANE. And in one of these homes lived a minister of the African Methodist Church?

Mr. LAKE. Two of the homes were purchased by him. They were in process of being remodeled so that he could move in. . .

Mr. KEATING. Were the homes occupied?

Mr. LAKE. None were occupied.

Mr. KEATING. Two were owned by the bishop of the African Methodist Church?

Mr. LAKE. That is my understanding.

Mr. KEATING. Was the other owned by a Negro?

Mr. LAKE. Yes.

Mr. LANE. Is that a white section of the city?

Mr. LAKE. The city of Birmingham has a zone law which sets aside a certain section for whites and Negroes. That particular section was zones for whites.

Mr. DENTON. That bombing took place on the 25th of March?

Mr. LAKE. Yes.

Mr. DENTON. Has anybody been indicted for that yet?

Mr. LAKE. No, sir.

Mr. DENTON. Was their complaint that this colored preacher was moving into a zone for whites?

Mr. LAKE. That is the inference that I draw. . . .

[questioning on another incident] in another place called Brookside not far from Westwood in Jefferson County, and about 16 carloads of men drove up to a small café called the Brookside Café.

Mr. DENTON. Let me ask you something about that. Is that a white or colored café?

Mr. LAKE. It is like many southern places. They had a partition through the center, Negroes drinking on one side and whites drinking on the other. They served food that way.

Mr. DENTON. Was it a tavern?

Mr. LAKE. I would call it a tavern. He called it a café.

Mr. DENTON. Was it operated by a white or colored person?

Mr. LAKE. By a white person named Steve Marshalar.

Mr. DENTON. What took place there?

Mr. LAKE. Hooded men came to them and said they wanted to talk to him in the back. They passed through the store with him and went out the back way. They burned a cross there while these hooded men were taking Mr. Marshalar to the back. A cross was burning in front of the place. I have the exact words here of what they told Mr. Marshalar. I would just as soon read them.

Mr. KEATING. These words were given to you by Mr. Marshalar?

Mr. LAKE. Yes. These are the notes that I took on them. He said, “They told me you have got to keep those niggers down.” That was told to him by one man, and another hooded man said, “we are tired of the Catholics running this town.”

Mr. KEATING. This town?

Mr. LAKE. This town, yes. Mr. Marshalar is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, and there are quite a few members of the church in that community.

Mr. DENTON. What did they do to him?

Mr. LAKE. They did nothing to him. There was no physical violence to him at all.

Mr. DENTON. Were there any prayers there?

Mr. LAKE. Not that I recall. He said that the trip was made as a warning to him.

Mr. KEATING. Were any weapons brandished there?

Mr. LAKE. It was the same gang. There were some pistols. He said the men had pistols. . . .

Mr. KEATING. Mr. Lake, you have been very careful in your answers to say that none of these incidents you investigated since June 1 involved racial questions or Negroes.

Have you investigated questions prior to June 1 which did involve cases of violence or property damage to Negroes?

Mr. LAKE. Just one case involving a threat.

Mr. KEATING. Was that apart from the bombing of the houses?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir. It happened across the street from the house. It happened about 8 weeks ago.

Mr. KEATING. Did that involve a Negro?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir. That involved a Negro. . . It is a question of zoning. This area called North Smithfield is zoned for white persons. There is a street called Center Street which runs through the center of the area.

At a recent city commission meeting the commission voted to establish all the territory west of that street to be set aside for white persons. On the east side there would be a 50-foot buffer strip established and it would be zoned for commercial purposes. No one could move into it except for commercial purposes. The area east of that would be zoned for Negroes.

However, a few months ago a Negro moved into one of the houses out there. His name was William German. He moved in on a Saturday afternoon and, a short while after he moved in, a man appeared and told him his name was Robert E. Chambless, said he was an officer, and a member of the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and he had better be out by midnight.

Mr. KEATING. This man was hooded?

Mr. LAKE. No, sir; he was not hooded.

Mr. KEATING. Did the Negro tell you that this man is in fact the man he said he was?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir. I saw the Negro. I saw Robert Chambless, and I saw a city detective who came up on the case.

Mr. KEATING. Chambless admitted he had been there and said that?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir; Chambless admitted he was there. He told me a few days later. He came in with a sworn statement made up by the Cyclops of the Robert E. Lee Klan.

Mr. KEATING. What is the Cyclops, the head of this outfit?

Mr. LAKE. The Cyclops is the head of this chapter, of the Robert E. Lee Chapter. . . The Cyclops came in and saw me at the city hall about 2 days later and told me this man Chambless was not a member of the Robert E. Lee Klan. Chambless also told me that he had been trying to get the fellow out of there, that he was not a member of the Klan.

Mr. KEATING. Did the fellow move out?

Mr. LAKE. He moved out that afternoon. Our city building inspector went out there and explained the zoning laws to him, and the Negro moved out.

Mr. FRAZIER. Did he move out because the building inspector told him he was violating the laws of the city?

Mr. LAKE. I asked him; yes, sir; and he told me that was the reason, that the building inspector had instructed him to move out.

Shortly thereafter another Negro moved into the house and he is living there. There already was a Negro minister living in the house next door, and just a short while ago another Negro minister moved in the house that German moved out of.

Mr. KEATING. Do these officers of the Ku Klux Klan down there in Alabama admit they are officers; in fact, boast of it?

Mr. LAKE. Yes. After all, the Ku Klux Klan has a charter. It was organized, I believe, in June of 1946. They are duly chartered.

Of course, there is a fight on on two fronts to revoke that charter. The State attorney general has his men pushing as hard as they can for a court test on that charter.

At the same time there is a move on for a joint resolution of the State legislature to revoke the charter. They found a small paragraph in the State constitution which permits the revocation of any charter of an organization which in the opinion of the legislators is harmful to the State, so there is a move on two fronts to get rid of the charter, to revoke the charter.

Mr. KEATING. Well, generally speaking, do members of the Klan down there admit such membership?

Mr. LAKE. No sir; except for the board of directors, the president of the corporation, Dr. Pruitt, and William U. Morrison, and a few others.

A Klansman, when he takes an oath of office, has to swear he will lie about membership. In other words, if you walked up to a Klansman and said, “Are you a member of the Klan?” he is sworn to lie and tell you he is not a member of the Klan.

Mr. KEATING. Just like the Communists?

Mr. LAKE. Yes, sir; that is right. . . .

Source: Antilyching and Protection of Civil Rights, Hearings before Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 81st Congress, 1st and 2d Sessions, June 1949; January 1950. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950.