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The Death of Willie Brewster: Guns, bombs and Kenneth Adams

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The Death of Willie Brewster: Guns, bombs and Kenneth Adams

An informant told the FBI in 1965 that Kenneth Adams wanted to bomb Anniston's First Presbyterian Church, pictured here, as well as the offices of The Star. Photo: Anniston Star file

One name often mentioned in the turbulent history of the civil rights movement in this part of Alabama is Kenneth Adams.

The case of Willie Brewster, shot down by nightriders in July of 1965, is no exception.

Though Adams, who died in 1990, was not put on trial and was never connected to the murder itself, he seems to have known all of those who were.

FBI files recently obtained by The Anniston Star refer repeatedly to Adams, the owner of a local gas station chain, a notorious troublemaker and Klan head in the area.

The files also show that at the same time the investigation of the Willie Brewster murder was going on, Adams may have been planning a small bombing spree in Anniston. Allegedly his targets included The Anniston Star and First Presbyterian Church.

One FBI informant, a man named Larry Kissinger who was close to Adams, was initially suspected by FBI agents of killing Brewster. He had been charged with the assault of an Anniston high school student in July of 1965 and was honored by leaders at one of the State’s Rights rallies for that deed.

During an interview in August 1965, Kissinger told agents that Adams recently told him of a bomb plot.

“‘We have some work to do,’” Kissinger quoted Adams as saying. Adams then told Kissinger, according to the FBI file, that he planned to “‘put a bomb in The Anniston Star and in the church of Phillip Noble.’”

Adams went on, according to Kissinger’s interview, to explain that he could fix a bomb in a matter of minutes and that he used powder and an acid capsule to set off the bomb.

The author of the FBI telegram to the director of FBI went on to write that “The Anniston Star is the only daily newspaper at Anniston and has been recently carrying articles and editorials criticizing the segregationist policies of the Adams group.”

A short time later, on Aug. 20, 1965, Kenneth Adams was arrested and charged with receiving explosives stolen from Fort McClellan. He was acquitted of the charges in January 1966.

Phillip Noble was the pastor at First Presbyterian in Anniston and the co-chairman of the Human Relations Council, a bi-racial group working to head off violence in and around Anniston during the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. T.C. Donald and Star Managing Editor (now publisher) H. Brandt Ayers, along with a number of other Anniston civic and business leaders, were responsible for raising more than $20,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the killing of Brewster.

The Anniston Star ran a full-page advertisement three days after the shooting with signatures of dozens of Annistonians asking for information about Brewster’s killers .

It read in part, “We are determined to fight with the weapons of law to retain the dignity of this community and to punish those who struck down a respectable and industrious citizen. Therefore we, the undersigned, pledge the sum of $20,000 to the person who supplies information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the shooting Thursday night of Willie Brewster.”

An editorial in The Star began, “Do we start it now, Anniston? Do we stand back silently and let the whole ugly box of racial violence open up? Do we do nothing and invite into our city the unwanted and unneeded ranks of the contestants who can take over our town and make of it a nationally watched battlefield? Anniston can have it — right now, another Selma, another Bogalusa! Think about it. Think about your children. Think about your personal safety in your own home. Think about the future of your community. Do we start now?”

H. Brandt Ayers, now publisher of The Anniston Star, then the paper’s managing editor, said the FBI never contacted him about a bomb plot.

But he knew Adams, a man he has referred to in his writings as “a personable psychopath,” well. He knew of his reputation and knew of him personally.

Told of the FBI files quoting Kissinger about the alleged bomb plot, Ayers recalled talks with FBI agents, but not over a bomb plot.

“One of the agents came to me once to inform me that I was at the top of the Klan’s hit list,” Ayers said recently. “Then they later told me I had been bumped by Phil Noble. But they never told me about a bomb plot.”

Phil Noble is now retired and living in Decatur, Ga. When contacted recently, he told a reporter he was previously unaware of a possible bomb plot against his church.

“The FBI? They never told me anything,” Noble said. “They certainly should have made it known to me and to the paper. I’m telling you, absolutely not a single word from the FBI ever came to me.”

He paused a moment during a recent interview, then continued, “Now, this was a time when I was very involved in the Human Rights Council. It would have been helpful and logical for them to have talked to me.”

In short, Kenneth Adams had a reputation of not being very friendly.

FBI reports refer to him at the time as beating up innocent people for no apparent reason, including white people, and encouraging violence against blacks.

Adams’ stations, especially the one he owned on West 10th Street, were gathering places for all sorts of people, including Klan members and hangers-on. One employee was Hubert Damon Strange, the man eventually convicted of killing Willie Brewster.

Acquaintances of Strange say that he came to Anniston from near Sand Mountain and found employment and friendship with the people who hovered around Adam’s service stations.

Betty Knight, the wife of Jimmie Knight, the man who testified against Strange at trial, explained that Strange was influenced by Adams and the people around him.

And it was this influence that led to Strange taking part in Brewster’s killing Betty Knight said. Though she wasn’t privy to any of the conversations, her, now deceased, husband related some of information to her.

“He had to prove that he was worthy of being a Klan member,” she said recently in a telephone interview. “They didn’t exactly put him up to it, but they let him know that he had to do something to be a member.”

Strange was, says Betty Knight, easily influenced and impressionable.

The plot of shooting a black person was hatched, says Knight, at one of Adams’ filling stations the night before Brewster was killed on July 14, 1965.

“It wasn’t the kind of meeting you are thinking of,” said Betty Knight. “It was a bunch of them standing around talking, after the lights went out, after they turned the pumps off. That’s when they got to talking to him, telling him he had to prove himself.”