The Murder of My Father
|Me at Age 11 at the time of my father's death|
Today is the 50th anniversary of my father’s murder. I had been in a Boy Scout Parade celebrating Halloween and Veterans. The Parade ended near his home in downtown Birmingham.
It was 1 November 1968. I had contemplated visiting my father since I was so close to his home on that Friday. I wanted my father to see me in my uniform but, I was not sure how he would respond. I had just testified in court that I wanted my visitations to end on the weekends since he had been so abusive to me and my mother and siblings.
Instead, I made a life saving decision to go home. Had I made the visit, surely, I would have died in the hail of gunfire that claimed his life.
On Saturday evening, 2 November 1968, my mother came into my room and leaned against the door way. She stated calmly, “Walter, last night, someone shot and killed your daddy.”
My mind raced with pain and questions. Who shot him? What happened? Could this be real? I quickly went through the grief phases; shock, denial, sadness, anger, acceptance. This would be a pattern that I would practice all too well and many times in my life. I had already had an enormous amount of grief from my church bombing and witnessing many friends killed by white supremacists. Tears began to flow. My grandmother who hated my father asked me why I was crying. I stated, “He was not the best, but he was the only father I had.”
I was dazed, I continued watching the cowboy program that I loved to watch on Saturday evenings; Wagon Train, “Brought to you by 20 Mule Team Borax.” I can still hear the music and know the slogans by heart.
The men being shot during the show kept bringing up images of my father being shot. Although I had not seen him or been to the murder scene, my view of people being shot on TV was forever changed.
The yellow and gray television in front of me loomed in my peripheral vision as I faded between the program, my shock, my grief and my internal thoughts. My tears were hot and my head began to hurt. I was scared. Did the person who killed my father want to kill me too?
My father’s business partner had been murdered the week before, now, him. I had been Casper the Friendly Ghost on Halloween; now, my father was a real ghost. I heard noises in the night. I was scared. I never went trick or treating again.
My mother took me to the murder scene.
My father had been gunned down in one of the bedrooms down the hall from his master bedroom in an enormous house. My father’s huge white house with green trimming loomed ahead of us. It was three stories high. Gravel rocks popped under the tires of my mother’s car as we drove up the driveway. We parked near the garage near my father’s red Chevrolet work truck and his green Ford Galaxy. His pride and joy remained in the garage, a pristine Pontiac Bonneville. It was always clean. The sleek cream color blended well with the maroon top and trimming.
I looked at his ladder and equipment on the truck. It was hard to believe that he would never use it again. I processed death in my mind, as an eleven-year-old could. What was death? Why did we have to die? Would I die too?
The green screen door creaked as we entered the house. It was silent apart from police who were at the scene and talking to my mother. I overheard one saying, “It is no problem, it is just a nigger who got shot.” Recently, during a conversation with a California Highway Patrolman, he told me "Your perception of corruption and bad police are just part of a media hype." He had no idea to whom he was speaking to.
We went down the long hall way to the front of the home. I could see bullet holes in the door knob and frame surrounding the door opening to my father’s bedroom. The gold colored door knob was shot to bits and the frame had bullet hole in it too. The detective explained the scene.
Entering the bedroom, the color TV that we used to watch his favorite western Bonanza on every Sunday, was shot to bits, the cherry colored wood splintered. The glass screen on the TV was shattered and the brown antenna cracked by a bullet, the silver arms dangled on the side of the wooden TV cabinet.
The blue-green sofa remained intact along with the coffee table. I had laid on this sofa sucking my bottle as a baby while my mother cleaned beer stains and cigarette ashes off of the glass coffee table with a bottle of water and newspaper on countless occasions after my father’s drinking and smoking episodes.
His very large bed loomed to the right with woven blankets and his safes nearby in which always had money in them. The large dark cherry wood bedposts stood there as sentinel witnesses of many violent acts. His dark green filing cabinets, undisturbed in the violent incident.
The barber chair he maintained near mirrored dressers reminded me of his other profession.
My father was a contractor and a barber. The long leather razor sharpener or “strap”, as he called it hung at the side of the chair. He had used this strap to beat me and my mother viciously on numerous occasions. The black barber chair sat on a pedestal made of white marble surrounded by a chrome ring. His razors, Old Spice after shave and cologne were there with the straight razors. I sniffed them and the smell, of the Old Spice, I shall never forget.
A large brown clock with a cowboy roping at a rodeo loomed on the mantle near the heater. I remember staring at the gas flames for long periods wondering, “What is fire?” Why is it blue and orange?
Fear, sadness, uncertainty and anger rolled around inside of me in a vortex of emotions.
A policeman described how gun men fought their way into my father’s bedroom. He fought back with his considerable gun collection in a fierce gun fight. The gun men ran down the hall with my father pursuing them to the next bedroom next to a staircase. Upon entering the bedroom, my father, over confident was stabbed in the chest with a hook on the arm of a one-armed man. He dropped his gun and one of the gun men retrieved it and shot my father through the head, three times.
My father was knocked out of his shoes. His socks, I could see in the coagulated blood, all over the floor that stretched from the far-left corner of the room back to the door.
Gunshots to the head do not just appear with a little red dot on the head as we see in the movies. The real ones are very bloody and there was blood splatter on the ceiling with a puddle of blood on the floor covering the large room by 75% of the surface area.
I was shaken. During the drive to the funeral home, I felt numb and scared.
The sickening smell of all the flowers hit me along with the smell of embalming chemicals. I will never forget that smell. My father lay in a golden casket. He had on a grey suit. He was always a sharp dresser. He had on glasses. On his forehead, there was a large square patch made of his own flesh, cut from his back side. This patch covered up the gun shot wound to the head. I touched his head and he felt so cold. I quickly withdrew my hands. Could I get dead people germs or chemicals on me? His big hands were purple and hideously, his fingers were frozen in a claw like configuration. His lips were glued together and did not look the way they used to. His dark skin had a strange grey hue.
At the funeral, I remember the smell of the flowers. People commented at how strong I was in helping to carry my father’s casket. He was laid to rest near three of the girls killed when my church, 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in September 1963 by Ku Klux Klan.
We returned to my father’s home. My mother had food for a lot of relatives that looked like him that I had never seen before and have not seen since.
I thought to myself, now, all of his guns and possessions would be mine. At some signal given by my mom, the strange relatives began to loot the house, taking out pillow cases of my father’s possessions. I was furious. I asked my mom to stop them. She did not. They left with the bags and memories of my father that I would never be able to get back. My attitude about funerals forever stained by this experience. I could never pick over the belongings of the dead and never have.
I went to the front porch through the very large and heavy door. The floor of the porch was cement and painted grey. The porch was surrounded by a screen connected by wooden columns painted green. A sofa swing was suspended from the ceiling that was constructed with dark lacquered wood.
I climbed into the sofa swing and began to swing while looking out at the busy street that 8th Avenue was; just beyond the front yard. The swing groaned and creaked as I kicked my legs to make it go back and forth. The front yard was ringed by a black wrought iron fence with a gate and green hedges. A grimy Sinclair gas station was across the street with a green dinosaur on the sign. I had seen my father beat up white men that had the temerity to come to his home to rip him off with the fake insurance policies that the peddled in the black areas. He would look at me and say, “Dats whut yew dew ta dem”, in his deep lower Alabama accent. Visions of their papers flying all over the yard danced in my head with all the other images as cars swooshed by on the busy avenue.
I realized that my father had been one of my heroes as well as one of the most feared people in my life. He had defended us and the entire neighborhood by equipping the men with weapons to defend us from KKK attacks at night. The fire department was blowing our homes up and the police were shooting us. Police Chief Bull Connor had an office only four blocks away from us.
I am certain that my father’s activism is a part of why he was killed. He was a gangster at night and a business man by day. He carried Thompson machine guns in a violin case. He wore highly shined Florsheim shoes, fedoras and long coats with immaculate suits. He had class. He was violent. He was my father. Later I would realize that I had much more in common with him than I was conscious of.
In 1968 I lost my heroes: Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and, my father.