Just after 10 a.m., a dynamite bomb planted by four members of the Ku Klux Klan exploded outside Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson were killed in the blast, and 22 others were injured.
News of the bombing shook Birmingham. A commotion erupted downtown. In the early afternoon, Birmingham police shot a 16-year-old black man named Johnny Robinson in the back for throwing stones, making him the fifth young person killed in Birmingham that day.
Jordan, then 34-years-old, had recently become a detective in the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department.
"I got a call from the sheriff's office," Jordan remembers. "'A church has been bombed, four girls have been killed and Sheriff Bailey wants everyone, including you, to report immediately.'"
But the church bombing isn't necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when Jordan thinks back to that September Sunday in 1963. Instead, Jordan thinks of Virgil Ware, the 13-year-old boy who was riding on the handlebars of his brother James' bicycle when he became the sixth and final child killed that day in Birmingham.
Sometimes parts of our past are obscured and nearly lost amidst the backdrop of history's major happenings. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is deservedly infamous among the many tragedies of Birmingham's Civil Rights struggle. But Ware's story is much too potent to be altogether lost.
Virgil Ware, 13, and his 16-year-old brother James, spent that day miles from the chaos in Birmingham. They were at their uncle's scrap yard in Docena, hoping to find a bike for Virgil, who had just secured a job delivering newspapers. This was not Virgil's first job, nor was it the limit of the eighth grader's aspirations. In a September 2003 Time magazine article by Tim Padgett and former Birmingham News reporter Frank Sikora, Virgil's brother Melvin Ware stated that Virgil wanted to be a lawyer: "When we'd watch Perry Mason, Virgil'd always be the one who guessed who did it," Melvin said.
News of the bombing had not yet made it to the Ware brothers, but it did not escape Michael Lee Farley and Larry Joe Sims, both 16. The two white teenagers had attended a segregationist rally that Sunday, and were well aware of the calamity and, presumably, the sort of reaction it might stir up. Farley was carrying a pistol he'd recently purchased from a friend for $15, and he was looking for trouble.
Unable to find a suitable bicycle, Virgil and his brother James left the scrapyard and set out for home late that afternoon. They were traveling on a rural stretch of Sandusky Road, which Jordan describes as "a long, lonely, narrow two-lane road, nothing out there, hardly - bushes, weeds, it's a desolate place." Virgil was riding on the handlebars of his brother's bike, his legs dangling on either side of the front wheel, while James peddled. A car containing two other white boys, Ronnie Clark and Clark Robbins, approached the Wares and slowed as they passed.
Although Sims and Farley were both Eagle Scouts, the two boys had little else in common. "Farley's personality convinced me that he was the leader, and the tougher of the two," Jordan recalls. Sims was regarded as a good student. "His appearance was that of an average, healthy young man," Jordan says. "In no way did he look like a killer. But he was the one who pulled the trigger."
According the 2003 Time article, Sims' parents sympathized with the Civil Rights Movement. Their preacher, Rev. Ralph Jernigan told Time that "Larry Joe Sims and his family were not racist. That's why what happened was so amazing to all of us."
Sims and Farley were also riding down Sandusky Road - on Farley's red motorbike, a Confederate flag flapping in the wind behind them. They, too, came across Robbins and Clark. In a statement made later to Detective Jordan and his colleagues, Clark and Robbins said,"We stopped and told the two white boys that there were two Negro boys down there on Sandusky Road throwing rocks." (James Ware denies that to this day.) Farley opened his coat, revealed his pistol and said to the two boys in the car, "We will take care of that."
At about 4:45 p.m., Farley and Sims came upon the Ware brothers on Sandusky Road. Farley handed his pistol to back to Sims, who was riding on the back of the motorbike. Sims had never fired a gun before.
"The motorbike was almost to us when the boy on the back pointed something black at us," James Ware would later tell the police. "I heard two sounds close together. Virgil fell off the bike. He said 'Ware, I'm shot.' I said, 'Naw, you ain't shot. Stop trembling.' He didn't say nothing else."
Virgil was struck twice, in the chest and cheek. He died on Sandusky Road in his brother's arms.
A sheriff's deputy looks back
There are many who recall Ware's death, but - aside from Virgil Ware's family - few have a more detailed recollection than Dan Jordan. And Jordan, now 80, wants to make sure the story gets told.
"After Dr. King died, I started looking back on this stuff and figured I should write a bit about it," he says. When he retired from the Sheriff's Department in 1994, Jordan enrolled in creative writing classes at UAB, "because the only thing I'd ever written was police reports and stuff like that."
And write he did. During our interview at his home in Bessemer (the city where Jordan was born, coincidentally, on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday), Jordan sometimes read from a large three-ring binder full of stories from his life. That Jordan wrote police reports for several decades was evident in his writing and storytelling. His record of the Virgil Ware story was highly detailed-there were full names, ranks and titles, addresses, and even license plate numbers. Jordan is a relatively tall man, and he carries himself with the straight-backed posture of a lifelong law enforcement officer.
He sat up straight in a chair by a sun-drenched window and talked freely to me for an hour. Sometimes he spoke spontaneously, other times he glanced at the typed pages in his binder to confirm a fact, date or name, and still other times he read for a significant period. Whatever the method, the story he told was worth the telling.
Detective Jordan was assigned to the investigate Virgil Ware's death with his partner, J.A. McAlpine, at about 10:30 p.m. on Sunday night. It was very dark when they arrived at the scene and Jordan says they were worried that "we'd mess up the crime scene if we did too much." The two men left it untouched until the morning.
The next day, the two detectives learned that the evidence from the scene had been collected early Sunday evening. The coroner had found a .22 caliber cartridge, and they knew from James Ware that they were looking for two white kids on a red motorbike.
"Right at that time, we didn't have much to go on," Jordan says.
But the first of two serendipitous breaks in the case was about to fall in the detectives' laps.
On Sunday, a Mountain Brook police officer named Paul Couch was off-duty when he heard about the events in Birmingham on the radio and decided to ride out and take a look around.
"He happened to get behind a red motorbike, and he saw two boys riding on it," Jordan says. "He knew what he was looking for, and they looked like suspects. He looked a little closer and he thought he saw a pistol in the pocket of the kid sitting on the back. So he memorized the tag number."
The tag belonged to Farley's father. That morning, Jordan and his partner headed to the address registered to the tag, where they met 16-year-old Michael Lee Farley, who had stayed home from school that day.
Jordan questioned the teenager: "'I said 'Do you own a motorbike with the tag number M5403,' and he said 'Yes, I do.' I said 'I know you were riding your bike the other day with another boy, what is his name?' He said 'I was not riding my bike with anyone yesterday. I didn't ride it, either.'"
"I knew he was lying," Jordan says, but there wasn't enough evidence to arrest him. Jordan and McAlpine left Farley's house and went to go grab a snack at a convenience store in nearby Pratt City.
"It was divine providence that we stopped there," Jordan says. The only other customer in the store, a white-haired gentleman, asked the two detectives, "Are you men looking for the two white boys who killed Virgil Ware?"
"That's what I meant by divine providence," Jordan says, smiling. "We were in plain clothes but he made us. Some people can smell a police officer." The man, who refused to identify himself, somewhat mysteriously suggested that Jordan and McAlpine find the Ware family's "insurance man," and question his daughter's boyfriend.
Though it seemed like a long shot, the detectives drove to Virgil Ware's home. "It turned out that everything the old man said was exactly right," Jordan says. Even 45 years later he still seems a bit surprised. Virgil's mother Lorene Ware confirmed that she did indeed have an insurance man. Jordan called and spoke to that man's wife, who provided the name of her daughter's boyfriend: Clark Robbins.
Robbins and his friend Ronnie Clark told the deputies they encountered the two black boys and Farley and Sims on Sandusky Road on Sunday, and saw Farley's pistol.
Jordan and McAlpine went to the Sims' house first, and met with Larry Joe and his parents. At first, Sims feigned ignorance, but soon confessed to firing the pistol.
"I didn't mean to kill anyone," Sims told the detectives. "I closed my eyes when I shot. I tried to shoot over their heads."
Jordan still doubts that Sims shot with his eyes closed. "It would have taken a pretty good shooter to put two fatal shots that close into Virgil Ware's body while bouncing along on the back of a motor scooter," he says.
Farley and Sims were charged with first-degree murder. An all-white jury convicted Sims of manslaughter in the second degree; Farley pleaded guilty to the same charge. A white judge released the boys with two years' probation.
In death, a living legacy
In the decades after Virgil Ware's death, Sims has been overtly remorseful. In 2003, he told Time that his experience drove him to become active in the Civil Rights Movement and voluntarily sign up for the Vietnam War. Farley has made fewer public statements. When he spoke briefly to Time reporters, Farley said, "No one seems to care about what I've suffered for 40 years!"
The meager sentences doled out to her son's killers greatly pained Virgil's mother, Lorene, and her three other children. Despite witnessing the tragedy, James Ware seems to have managed the pain the best.
"I was impressed when someone asked him - a reporter or something - someone asked him how he felt about those two boys, Sims and Farley," Jordan says. "How do you feel about them - they killed your brother?' And he said 'I don't hate them for that. I don't hate anyone. They'll suffer for that the rest of their lives.'"
"He's just that way, a gentle person. The whole family, they're good people."
The story in Time stirred up some interest in Ware. By May 2004, enough money had been raised to move Virgil Ware's body from a makeshift resting place and treat him to a proper cemetery reburial. In a cover story on that event in the May 20, 2004 issue of this publication, Birmingham Weekly contributor Mark Kelly wrote:
"These 200 folks are out here on the first Thursday in May to attend the recommittal of the body of a 13-year-old boy named Virgil Ware, and in so doing, bear witness to the correction of a 40-year oversight."
The 1.5 million people who attended the inauguration of America's first black president last month bore witness to another milestone in our country's history. Compounding the gravity of that moment was the fact that President Barack Obama's inauguration fell on the day after the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. On that Monday, radio stations and TV networks across America played recordings of King's speeches and sermons, including his final sermon, "I've Been to the Mountaintop." That well-known speech ends with this sentence:
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
The line comes from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," an abolitionist song written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861, just seven months after the first shots of the Civil War. For Union soldiers, the song served as an accompaniment to marches. For King, in 1968, it was an inspirational rallying cry, at once a remembrance of progress made and a look forward to the future.
King was always cognizant of the power of the past to resonate in the present. Without the sacrifices of those that came before him, he and his contemporaries would have found it even more difficult to accomplish what they did. And it is due to King's fight and the tragic sacrifices of those like Virgil Ware that Barack Obama could become the 44th president of the United States.
The 200 people that showed up for Virgil Ware's reburial in 2004 are a strong signal of the strength of Virgil Ware's story, and the power of history to unite this city. It also makes clear the value of those who, like Dan Jordan, record their experiences for posterity.
Last month, on the day after the presidential inauguration, Jordan told the Virgil Ware story to a mid-day audience at a Birmingham Public Library Brown Bag Lunch event. A big crowd, about 80 people, gathered to hear it.
James L. Baggett, the library's head of the Department of Archives and Manuscripts, met Jordan several years ago when Jordan and his wife were researching biographical information on Jefferson County sheriffs (the couple later donated their findings to the library).
"Just in the course of talking to him about that," Baggett says, "he told me, one day, the story about Virgil Ware, and I thought that would make an interesting talk here.
"It's a very moving and very sad story," Baggett says. "I think it's very indicative of those times."
As the Civil Rights generation ages, chances to hear the stories and learn the lessons of that era are fast slipping away from us. Recording and retelling those stories helps our city acknowledge its history, heal and, one hopes, avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
"I interviewed a number of retired Birmingham cops from that era," Baggett says. "Some are what we have said - some of them were Klansmen, and they were racist, and they'd use their authority to abuse and mistreat African-Americans. But you also had some - and I think this is true of Dan Jordan -whatever their personal feelings, they were professionals. They wanted to do their job correctly and in a professional manner. And in this case a crime had been committed and they wanted to do their jobs and solve that.
"Birmingham cops from that era have a bad reputation, and some of them deserve it," Baggett says, "But some of them were good cops and I think we need to remember that, too."
Madison Underwood is an intern for Birmingham Weekly and a frequent contributor to the Mixed Media blog, online at www.bhamweekly.com/blog.
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