Natchez almost exploded after Metcalfe bombing at Armstrong in 1965
by Stanley Nelson - posted Thursday, July 31st, 2008 @ 8:39 am
NATIONAL GUARD TROOPS, KLAN, DEACONS MOVED IN TOWN; FBI DIRECTOR GAVE PRESIDENT UPDATES
George Metcalfe's car -- a 1955 Chevrolet six-cylinder sedan -- had a latch under the front edge of the hood that could easily be opened at any time.
At some point before Metcalfe completed a 12-hour shift on Aug. 27, 1965, which included four hours overtime, someone planted a bomb inside his car in the parking lot of Armstrong Tire & Rubber Plant in Natchez. When Metcalfe got off work at noon, he clocked out of the plant, walked to his car and when he turned the ignition it exploded.
Before the day was over, President Lyndon Baines Johnson was getting updates from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on the situation in Natchez. Violence between the Ku Klux Klan and the Deacons for Defense and Justice was feared a short time later.
Retired FBI agent Billy Bob Williams said the 1955 Chevrolet sedan Metcalfe drove "was one of the easiest cars ever made for a mechanic to work on. Most men and many women of the era had a working knowledge of auto mechanics, knew their way around an auto and what made it go. This was especially true of people who lived in rural areas and small towns."
The bomb planted beneath Metcalfe's car was also simply made, say Williams, requiring "only three parts -- an explosive, a blasting cap and an electrical impulse. The explosive in the Metcalfe case was a milk carton packed with primer cord, which is highly explosive and looks much like cotton rope."
Williams said a "blasting cap is a small metal cylinder about the size of a soda straw and about three inches long. Two insulated wires protrude from one end and the cap is inserted into the explosive. When an electrical impulse is induced to the cap through the wires the cap explodes and detonates the explosive material."
The Armstrong tire plant was filled with scores of vehicles of employees on the day of the bombing. Metcalfe, 55, had recently taken the position of president of the newly-organized Natchez NAACP and had been active in registering blacks to vote. Some Ku Klux Klan members at the plant had made it their business to harass many black workers, especially Metcalfe and Wharlest Jackson, who was also involved in the newly-organized NAACP.
Williams said planting the bomb in Metcalfe's vehicle was a relatively easy process.
"A person approaching the car, lifting the hood and placing the bomb would have attracted little attention," said Williams. "The perpetrator could easily have placed the bomb on the engine and attached one wire to a spark plug wire and the other to the car frame."
This would take only about 30 seconds, said Williams. When Metcalfe turned the switch key "the electrical circuit between the spark plug, the cap and the ground would have been completed and the bomb would explode. The need for a second person to assist the perpetrator would have been minimal."
Williams, who lived in Natchez while working as an agent for 18 months beginning in July 1964, recalled the hours after the bombing.
"A Natchez police officer was assigned to guard the wreckage during the night as we awaited the arrival of an evidence team from the FBI Laboratory," said Williams.
On the morning of August 28, the FBI evidence team arrived.
Before its arrival, Williams contacted a Klansman he was handling as an informant.
"My friend in the White Knights came up with no information on who was responsible for the crime," said Williams. "Numerous additional agents were sent to Natchez to begin the investigation. They headquartered at the Holiday Inn and were still there two weeks later."
Williams said no one was ever arrested for the bombing, which Metcalfe survived despite life-threatening injuries.
"I don't believe that anyone was identified as a serious suspect," said Williams.
A large crowd gathered at the home of Metcalfe that evening and as Civil Rights leader Charles Evers urged everyone to return home peacefully, law enforcement personnel realized that Natchez was in danger of erupting with violence.
Over the next three days, Williams was in constant contact with Natchez Police Chief J.T. Robinson, the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol and his Klan informant.
"Everyone knew that the situation was a powder keg and only needed the right incident to set it off," said Williams. "The Watts riots in Los Angeles were in progress and a major riot in Natchez was a real possibility."
By August 30, the FBI had received word that "a group of young militant blacks from New Orleans representing The Deacons for Defense and Justice, intended to come to Natchez and take a hand in the situation. This information quickly spread to the Klan."
That night, Williams met with his informant, who said "the Klans intended to gather in Natchez and move against the Deacons. The order had specifically stated that Klansmen were to bring their guns."
On August 31, Williams raced to the office burdened "by a worried mind." Shortly after his arrival he received a call from Charlie Snodgrass, a Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol (MHSP) troubleshooter for Gov. Paul Johnson.
"We talked for a minute or two about the situation and then he told me the governor wanted to talk to me," said Williams. "Governor Johnson came on the phone, introduced himself and was very complimentary and told me he felt he knew me because of briefings he had received from Snodgrass."
The governor made a point of mentioning Williams' background in the U.S. Marines. On the governor's request, Williams updated him on conditions in Natchez.
"He then asked what I thought about him sending in the National Guard," said Williams. "His request was far beyond my pay grade."
But Williams said he "swallowed hard," and said, "I think that all of the honest people here would welcome them."
Johnson said "the first units will be there by noon." Williams alerted Roy K. Moore, Special Agent in Charge of the Jackson FBI Division, who made plans to come to Natchez with additional personnel and set up headquarters at the Holiday Inn.
Williams immediately went to the police station and briefed Chief Robinson on the matter. Robinson then briefed the mayor and aldermen.
By noon, the Adjutant General of the Mississippi National Guard -- Walter Giles Johnson -- was in Natchez, met with city officials and then received a briefing from Williams "on my knowledge and appraisal of the situation."
The general invited several Klansmen and Deacons to a meeting held in a second floor room at the Adams County Courthouse.
"The general told them in no uncertain terms that Natchez would be peaceful," recalled Williams. The general called every person there to take a look from a window to the parking lot below" where an anti-aircraft/infantry gun was positioned.
"It mounted four .50 caliber machine guns on a ball turret," said Williams. "The general signaled the gun operator to demonstrate the guns mobility. He then stated that he would not hesitate to employ the gun and any other weapons to maintain the peace. He then curtly dismissed them."
By late afternoon, the troops arrived and began patrolling city streets. Williams said "sand bag emplacements were set up in the major intersections with light machine guns ready for use."
Mayor John Nosser issued a proclamation declaring a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew in town.
"Actual Martial Law was never declared," said Williams, "and Chief Robinson, with the general's support, remained the top law enforcement official in command. The MHSP moved most of their 200 troopers to the area."
The various Klans "remained largely silent and out of sight over the next two weeks," said Williams. "The Civil Rights workers under the leadership of Charles Evers held marches and rallies, but Natchez stayed peaceful."
He said President Lyndon Johnson "took a personal interest in the events and one of my responsibilities was to keep him advised on events through frequent teletypes I dispatched to FBI Headquarters."
Williams' dispatches were going directly to Hoover and then the President.
"The Mississippi National guard pulled out after two weeks," said Williams. "Things were then quiet. For a while."