45 Years Later, Troubling Questions Remain About a Racially Motivated Murder
Forty-five years ago today, a man named Thad Christian died of a shotgun blast to the stomach on a rural stretch of road south of Jacksonville.
The headline in the Anniston Star the following day – “Shot Kills Negro; White Man Jailed” – embodied the defining issue of the time.
Earlier that year, civil rights workers and others had been killed in Perry, Dallas and Lowndes counties. Only a few weeks earlier, Willie Brewster, a foundry worker, had been shot and killed by night-riders outside Anniston.
The summer of 1965, the height of the civil rights movement, was a time of intense racial tension.
Yet, the death of Thad Christian did not garner the notice of the other killings that summer. It was covered in the press but quickly faded from the front pages even though the circumstances, according to news reports, were disturbing.
Stories in the Star and the New York Times said Robert E. Haynes, 41, was charged with murder for shooting Christian with a 16-gauge shotgun. Calhoun County Sheriff Roy Snead said at the time “apparently Christian and a companion were fishing in a creek, and this fellow went down to run them off.”
Perhaps one reason the case drifted out of history is that Haynes pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sent to a work farm near Fort Payne. Though he escaped, he was recaptured by the FBI and, according to family members, finished serving his time in Kilby Prison in Montgomery.
In legal terms, the case of Thad Christian seems to have been quietly adjudicated.
Yet questions about his killing remain 45 years later because the case is, in the eyes of the Department of Justice, still open.
And that is, the families of both men agree, somewhat curious. Robert Haynes, the only person charged in Christian’s death, served time and died in an automobile accident in 1968.
The Christian family members say the FBI contacted them more than a year ago with a handful of questions, but they have not heard anything from investigators since.
Thad Christian’s case is one of dozens listed in a Justice Department report submitted to Congress this summer. The case is part of the department’s Cold Case Initiative, an effort begun in 2007 that aims to identify and possibly prosecute suspects in racially motivated killings from the civil rights era.
The report contains 122 individual cases. Of those, 60 have been closed, while 62 remain open. There are a total of 17 from Alabama. Eleven of those remain open, while six have been closed.
Thad Christian’s killing caused great heartache not only for his family, but also for Haynes’ family. It was, as members of both families put it, devastating then and now.
Memories of a Saturday long ago
In a modest home in west Anniston, a brother and sister sit among an array of black-and-white photos as a cascade of memories pours out in conversation.
The Christian family, Walter Christian will tell you, was well-respected in the black and white communities in the mid-1960s. In this part of town most call the Thankful Community, they were looked to for leadership, were seen as solidly middle-class and, with seven children living under the roof, orderly, caring, resourceful and, above all, loving.
The glue to it all though, says Walter’s sister, Brenda Tyus, was their momma Roena, as strong a woman as they come, and her daddy, Thad, the hard-working provider.
“I was a daddy’s girl,” said Tyus. “If I wasn’t in school, I was with him, every second of the day. I loved him very much, and I miss him every day.”
So it is with some emotion that Tyus and her brother tell the story of the Saturday their father went fishing and never returned 45 years ago today.
In a slow and deliberate way, Walter Christian, 63, told The Star of how his father and a friend named Shelley Kirby were loading up their fishing poles in their car on Holland Finley Road when Robert Haynes drove up to them on a late Saturday afternoon in August.
Christian says that Kirby, who died in 2001, told him that Haynes pulled up to the two men and said, “You niggers get out from down here.”
He then went down the road, turned around, came back and shot the elder Christian, Kirby told him.
The Haynes family disputes this, saying there were many people there, that a fight had broken out among a number of black men. Haynes’ family also says that Thad Christian was armed, though none in the Haynes family witnessed the shooting.
Lucille Edmondson White, a 64-year-old Saks resident, says that was not the situation she encountered on the afternoon of Aug. 28, 1965.
“My husband and I were driving, and we came to this car in the middle of the road,” she said by phone from her home this week.
"Mr. Christian was sitting on the back bumper of the car and he had been shot in the stomach,” she said. “Mr. Shelley Kirby was there, too, and he was yelling at us, ‘Y’all got to help us,’ he was saying. He was frantic. It was about then when this white man came from around the car with a shotgun under his arm. We were scared to death. He looked at us, and we backed up and got out of there. We didn’t know what he might do, so we had to leave.
“There were only three people there,” she continued. “Mr. Christian, Mr. Kirby and this man with the gun.”
She did not know the white man, but she knew Kirby and Christian.
She also said Christian didn’t have a gun and that, as far as she could tell, the two black men hadn’t been drinking.
After White and her husband left, they went to a nearby ball field off Holland Finley Road between Weaver and Jacksonville, where a baseball game was under way. After they told people what had happened, and a group of men left to help Christian. She said she then phoned Christian’s wife to tell her what had happened.
Pain on the other side
On the front porch of a modest house in Chulafinnee in Cleburne County, two brothers of Robert Haynes grapple with memories of the same incident.
First, they want to forcefully point out that no newspaper article since 1965 has mentioned the fact that their brother, Robert Haynes, also had seven children living at home at the time and “those kids got hungry and they went without, all because their daddy was sent to prison,” said 69-year-old Aubrey Dan Haynes.
But more importantly, he says, “That was a clear-cut case of self-defense.”
Aubrey Haynes says his brother told him that Christian, accompanied by many men, also had a gun, a .22-caliber rifle, and that the argument ensued, in part because everyone was drinking.
“They were yelling and fighting and cussing, and Robert went down there to break all that up, to run them away from there,” said Aubrey Haynes. “He was up there on his porch in the cool of the day, trying to relax after working in that cussed pipe foundry all day long. He was up there drinking a six-pack of beer, and these fellows were making that racket down there by the road.
“Now, if that’s a lie, then that’s what Robert told me,” he said. “He shouldn’t have had to go to no work farm for that.”
Robert’s son, Jerry, who was 16 at the time of the shooting, did not witness the shooting either, but arrived later that evening. He also says his father shot in self-defense.
Jerry Haynes, who lives north of Birmingham, said his family lost everything after his father left for prison.
“They auctioned off our farm for $10,000 on the steps of the Calhoun County Courthouse,” he said. “We lost everything. My dad had too much to drink that night, but he didn’t go down there with the intention of hurting anyone.
“It was,” he continued, “just devastating for everyone. Nothing good ever came out of that day.”
Jerry Haynes said he is puzzled why the Department of Justice still holds the case open, pointing out that his father was the only person involved and that he died in 1968.
Why the case is still open, of course, is the big question.
FBI and Justice Department officials have been slow to release the names of the cases being investigated and are particularly averse to discussing ongoing cases. Since 2007, when the Cold Case Initiative was launched, FBI agents have refused to say which cases they were working on in Alabama or anywhere else.
However, in response to a recent question about the case, Paul Daymond, of the FBI in Birmingham, wrote in an e-mail, “In regards to the Thad Christian case, the FBI has finished its review of this case and has submitted it to the Department of Justice for their review. DOJ will make the final determination on closing the case, and it’s still in the process of their review.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in an e-mail “We have not completed our process for that matter.”
Pleading to a lesser charge
Aubrey Haynes takes great issue with the characterization of his brother as a killer. He calls recent reporting of this story in the Star — which was based on newspaper clips from the 1960s – “lies from the depths of hell.”
But if the shooting was in self-defense, why then did Robert Haynes plead guilty to manslaughter?
“It is simple,” said Travis Haynes, 72. “He pled because he was afraid he would be convicted of murder. Given the times, with all the civil rights movement going on, they would have sent him off for murder.”
Considering all the other things going on in the world today, Travis Haynes ventured, “that FBI bunch, they need to forget about this.”
For his part, Aubrey Haynes adds that the case was not racially motivated, saying, “This didn’t have anything to do with race. Had that man been titty pink, Robert would have shot him. He didn’t have a choice. It was self-defense.”
Aubrey Haynes, a Baptist preacher, is given to quoting the prophet Isaiah and from the Book of Jeremiah. He talks of the end of days, warning that “you can’t go around eating nanner pudding all the time,” and neglecting to put one’s life in order before leaving this earth.
And he is unhappy his family has had to re-live a dark chapter from so long ago because of newspaper articles and the FBI Cold Case Initiative.
“You have to understand, we’re not prejudiced, we don’t hate black people and neither did Robert. We’ve been around black people all our lives,” he said.
But he quickly adds that the incident did take place amid a backdrop of overwhelming prejudice and hatred, and that this is something that needs to be remembered.
“It was awful, it was terrible what happened,” he said. “Black people were done wrong in the past, I’ll tell you that. I wouldn’t have wanted to be black in 1965.”