During the darkest days of the civil rights movement, 7-year-old Willie Brewster Jr. took his dying daddy’s hand in an Anniston hospital and held it tight as the reality of the darkest day of his young life came crashing down around him.
“He said to me, ‘Son, no matter what happens to me, you’re the man of the house now,’” Brewster recalled recently while staring down at his kitchen floor, a flood of memories rushing up at him as fresh as if events of 44 years ago had occurred that morning.
His father, Willie Brewster Sr., died soon after he spoke to his son, the victim of a notorious shooting at the height of the violence that gripped Alabama in the summer of 1965. Immense racial tension was reaching a crescendo in this and other parts of the state and across the South. In Anniston, at a series of so-called white-man’s rallies, speakers openly called for violence against blacks, inflaming an already-explosive situation.
It was from one of those rallies, prosecutors would later argue, that a carload of men left one July night, following the elder Willie Brewster and several co-workers headed home from a shift at an Anniston foundry. One of them, Hubert Damon Strange, would be convicted of manslaughter.
Those facts and others from the case are well-known pieces of Anniston’s civil rights-era history. But new information — events leading up to the Brewster killing and following it — is now coming to light thanks to a large FBI file on the case. After working for months, The Star obtained the several-hundred-page-long file from the National Archives and Records Administration through a request based on the Freedom of Information Act.
Among other things, the file shows that federal agents did not share crucial information with state and local investigators working on the case and may have withheld information about a possible plot to bomb an area church and The Anniston Star.
The file includes statements and interviews with informants, suspects and witnesses, including Brewster before he died on a hospital bed in Anniston.
His son still remembers that day clearly.
“He was a brave man, he knew what was probably about to happen, but he held my hand and he talked real calm to me,” he added. “I really loved my dad. He was what you would have called a real family man, a good man.”
Today, the younger Brewster, now 50, and many others in this part of east Alabama can recite the essential facts of his father’s death: He was shot in the neck while driving home to Munford with three co-workers after finishing the late shift at an Anniston foundry on the night of July 15, 1965. He died four days later.
They know of a $20,000 reward raised by local business and civic leaders that led to the arrest of three men. And they know that a few months later, Hubert Damon Strange, a 25-year-old gas jockey in the employ of a local Klan leader, was convicted of manslaughter by an all-white jury, a decision the author Taylor Branch called a “breakthrough verdict,” in his book, At Canaan’s Edge.
They can also tell you that the two others charged with killing Brewster were Johnny Ira DeFries and Clarence Lewis Blevins, and that DeFries was acquitted and charges against Blevins were dropped by the prosecution before the case went to trial.
Still, there is much the younger Brewster and his large family and the general public do not know about that night so long ago.
The FBI file makes it clear that federal agents were constantly monitoring the situation and were in regular contact with dozens of informants in the Anniston area even as the state was carrying out its own investigation.
Many of these informants identified themselves as either members of the Ku Klux Klan or the National States Rights Party. The latter was the white supremacist organization that held rallies in Anniston over three nights in July 1965, during which speakers called for violence. It was after one such rally that Brewster was shot on a lonely stretch of Alabama 202.
History in the mirror
Looking back on it today, from the comfort of his kitchen, in the loving presence of his family, Willie Brewster Jr. can embrace the idea of forgiveness and speaks in general terms about the destructive power of ignorance during times of crisis. But he speaks of justice as well.
“I just can’t see that justice has been served,” Brewster said. “Don’t get me wrong, I am deeply grateful and always have been that so many people got together back then and raised the money to put up that reward. That made the difference. But there’s still a lot of questions I have, a lot of questions still unanswered.”
Standing nearby, his daughter, Tieshia, 31, points out that, “It is a lot to ask a family to go 40-something years living with this, not knowing the full story.”
She agrees with her father that it was ignorance more than anything else that motivated the white men to carry out their random act of violence that night, but it was the words of hatred that still sting four decades on.
“What really bothers me so much was the word they used after they killed him that night,” she said before turning away.
Newspaper accounts from the time, quote a key prosecution witness as saying soon after the shooting that the accused men told him that, “we got us a nigger.”
That witness was Jimmie Glenn Knight, a man who came forward after the award was offered. The files refer repeatedly to that reward and show that it proved to be a major reason Knight decided to provide information that eventually led to Strange’s conviction that December.
Crucial information not shared
It’s clear from the file that FBI agents had become aware of Knight and his willingness to share information early on, but did not immediately share it with state investigators.
One cable marked “Urgent” and addressed to the director of the FBI, summarized a telephone conversation between a detective for the state named Harry Sims and an FBI agent named Landers.
Knight, the cable read, had told Sims to contact Landers “as Agent Landers had some information for Sims. Sims inquired as to the information and he indicated he felt sure it concerned the Brewster shooting. Sims was told that Knight had been interviewed. However, results of interview with Knight were not furnished to Sims. Sims has worked on the case since its inception and he will no doubt continue to press Knight for further information on Brewster case.”
On Aug. 14, the file shows, Knight told FBI agents he was considering providing information to Sims. Agents told him that, “if he furnished this information to another agency, more people would be aware of the information and he could not hold the FBI responsible if the information of source was revealed and his identity became known.”
Knight did provide a statement to Sims, and, based on this information, Strange, DeFries and Blevins were arrested.
The testimony came at a high cost for Knight. Before the trial commenced, Strange attacked him. In an ensuing fight, Strange shot Knight in the hand, and Knight managed to shoot Strange in the chest. Both men survived.