On Saturday night, May 11, 1963, at around 11:05, Roosevelt Tatum decided to leave the checkers game he was watching outside Foster's Delicatessen. Birmingham Police Car 22 had just driven up at Foster's and he was worried the officers would take him in for being out past 11:00. Tatum walked a few steps up Avenue I to the corner of 12th Street and turned left on 12th, heading towards Avenue H. Other African-Americans walking in the same Ensley neighborhood as Tatum reported more police cars in the area than usual. Some of the area's Black residents said officers in a police car stopped them from entering the neighborhood. (RT, 14-15, 48)
At 820 12th Street, Tatum found Eva Mae Miller on her darkened front porch. She was barely visible, sitting to the side of the wedge of light from her open front door. Tatum greeted her and asked for a match as he came up on the porch. Miller called inside for her daughter to bring out the box of matches. Tatum sat down on the front step, lit up and talked with Miller for a while. (RT, 15; AGM1, 17-19)
From where he sat on the steps, Tatum could see Birmingham Police Car 49 coming down Avenue H from 13th Street towards 12th Street. The patrol car turned left onto 12th Street, cut its headlights and rolled to a stop across the street at 721 12th Street Ensley, the residence of A. D. and Naomi King. From where she sat, behind one of the porch posts, Miller couldn't see the car pull up. Tatum whispered not to move or speak. To the officers he was invisible on the shadowy steps. (RT, 15-16, 24-25; AGM1, 17-19, 20)
From the passenger side, a police officer got out from Car 49, walked around the back of the car and across the Kings' lawn. He seemed to be tossing something near the porch. The officer ran back to the passenger door and got back into Car 49. As the car pulled away the driver tossed something out of his window and onto the Kings' lawn. The officers weren't yet three houses away, when the first bomb exploded. (RTD, 3; RT, 15-16, 24-25)
Tatum bolted upright and ran towards the King residence. Eva Mae Miller fled inside her house. (AGM1, 17-18; RT, 15, 25) Charles Harper, one of the men over at Foster's Delicatessen, came running to the bombing scene and saw a police car driving along the 800 block of 12th Street, though he couldn't say which police car it was. Eva Mae Miller kneeled at her bed in her front room and started praying. After only a few words of prayer, a second explosion. Crossing the intersection of 12th Street and Avenue H, Tatum had just reached the Kings' front lawn. He was blown backwards and landed in the middle of Avenue H. Charles Harper reached the intersection at about the same moment as Tatum and was blown back against the fire plug on the southeast corner of the intersection. He saw Tatum picking himself up off the pavement. (RT, 17-18; AGM1, 20, 17-18, 20)
The smoke and trash in the air made it impossible to see the King residence. People were yelling and running towards the Kings' home. Across the street at Eva Mae Miller's a curtain fell in the room where she was kneeling. A window pane broke in her second room. (AGM1, 22, 27, 17-18)
Before the smoke and dust had settled, Tatum was back on his feet and rushing with renewed urgency towards the King residence. He ran across the lawn to the back of the house. There, at the Kings' back fence, Tatum found A. D. and Naomi King, with their children, trying to get over. Tatum lifted one of the children over the fence and then helped Naomi King climb over. (RT, 16)
Naomi King had been sitting in the living room. A. D. King and their children had been in bed. The second bomb "uprooted a shrub, blew the brick veneer off the house, collapsed the ceiling, and blasted the front door back into the kitchen. It seemed like a miracle that no one was hurt." (DM, 427)
Within five or ten minutes, Car 49 was back on the scene. As before, it came down Avenue H from 13th Street towards 12th Street, turned left onto 12th Street, and pulled up in front of the King residence. Two officers with soft-peaked caps got out and went over to talk with A. D. King. A few minutes later some more police cars arrived, as well as some motorcycle policemen and a paddy wagon. Police Lieutenant Maurice House pulled up, got out of his car and took charge of the situation. He had been assigned to the new civil rights detail about one month earlier. He had a little more credibility with African-Americans in Birmingham, though he still had clear ties to Bull Connor. (RT, 17; DM, 427)
A throng of Ensley's African-Americans were gathered around the bomb scene. Some were saying the police had gotten there awfully quickly and maybe they had something to do with the explosion. Some were throwing bricks, rocks, and bottles. Wyatt Walker arrived on the scene and went outside with A. D. King to calm the crowd. Some of the assembled were singing "We Shall Overcome." King yelled out through a police bullhorn, "Why must you rise up to hurt our cause? You are hurting us, you are not helping." (RT, 53, 17; DM, 427)
The crowd kept getting angry and wanted to fight the police or anybody they could. At one point a county sheriff's car pulled up with four men inside. One got out and was hit on the side of the head with an object. He got back inside the sheriffs car and all four men left the scene. (RT, 17)
Tatum stayed on Avenue H opposite the Kings' house. While Tatum was standing there on Avenue H, he heard another explosion—what turned out to be the bomb at the A. G. Gaston Motel intended for his brother, Martin, who, fortunately, had left Birmingham. Tatum ran over to his house at 1109 Avenue J to see if the St. James Baptist Church, across the street from his address had been bombed. When he saw there hadn't been a bomb there, he went back to the bombing scene at the King residence. (RT, 17-18)
Around 3:30 a.m., after things had quieted down and people weren't throwing things anymore, Tatum went over to Charles Harper's house, in the same block of 12th Street as Eva Mae Miller. Tatum and Harper and his mother and his sister and his brother-in-law all sat on the front porch and talked. Tatum saw Car 49 parked across the street until about 4:00 a.m. It's tires, along with those of several other patrol cars, had been cut. At about daybreak, Tatum returned home and ate. (RT, 18)
Afraid the police would beat or kill him if he said anything about what he saw, Tatum nevertheless felt compelled to return to the bombing scene after he ate. He was at 824 12th Street Ensley, the home of his wife's aunt, Rosie Johnson, at around noon when the FBI came around house to house to interview witnesses. When the agents questioned Tatum, he gave them his account of being the first person on the scene of the bombing. He said that beforehand he'd seen a dark Corvair which others had also mentioned. Tatum said that he saw the Corvair, heading east on 12th Street Ensley, toward Avenue F, pass very near to him and that he had assumed the Corvair passed in front of the King residence. (RT18, RTD, 3)
On that Sunday, Mother's Day, May 12, 1963, the day after A. D. and Naomi King's house was bombed, Tatum had had some urge to tell the FBI agents what he'd really seen. But his wife Lilly Mae Tatum was in the doorway to the house and the street was full of people. It was all too clear that anything he said right then was likely to get back to the police department. (RT, 27)
AGM1: A. G. Gaston Motel. No FBI file number. Witness testimonies in report of SA Robert P. Womak, Birmingham Office, 16 July 1963.
DM: Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.
RT: Roosevelt Tatum. FBI HQ-0460048526. Prosecutive Summary Report, Names And Addresses Of Witnesses And Testimony Of Each.
RTD: Roosevelt Tatum, Deposition. June 27, 1963. Estate of Paul Greenberg.
1. The Kings: A. D., Naomi, Al, Darlene, Alveda, Derek
2. The bombed out residence of A. D. and Naomi King, 721 12th Street Ensley, Birmingham, Alabama
Both images from: The A. D. King Foundation