Tribute to Birmingham FBI Special Agent who cut the legs out from under two evil men

Rob Langford
Rob Langford

Today’s guest columnist is T.K. Thorne.

Rob Langford is probably not a name you are familiar with. He was a quiet, thoughtful man who wanted to make things better.

When the FBI chose him to serve as Special Agent in Charge of the Birmingham, Alabama office, he came with an open mind.

And that changed everything.

Langford realized there was edgy and sometimes dangerous tension between the African American community and law enforcement. Rather than just accepting this as status quo, he wanted to open communications between them and invited several leaders from the Black community to come “talk.”

It wasn’t easy to garner enough trust for anyone even to show up at the FBI office. Finally, he found a man who acted as a mediator and made it happen. Still, it didn’t go well. One Black minister blurted out, “Why didn’t the FBI investigate the bombing of the church? The FBI never did do anything.”

The minister was referring to the 1963 bombing of a Black church in Birmingham where four young girls were killed. It had been thirty years since the tragedy, but the scars were far from healed. As a newcomer to the city, Langford did not know how to answer the question, but he made a promise.

“I will look into it.”

He could have chosen to say, “That’s been thirty years ago; we aren’t going back there.” But he didn’t.

Reopening the case was a far harder task than bringing distrusting people in to talk. Investigators spent 18 months just going through the old files. Suspects and witnesses were aging and some had already died. None wanted to talk.

But they pressed on. Because of Rob Langford, that cold case was reopened. Because of him and the team of investigators and prosecutors who worked on the case, the remaining two Ku Klux Klansmen—who had planted that bomb on a Sunday morning while young girls got ready for services—were indicted and tried, found guilty, and spent the rest of their lives in prison.

It didn’t bring those girls back, but it gave closure to their families and to the community and to the world.

The deaths of Annie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, along with the severe injuries of Sarah Collins, and the bravery of the children who marched for their freedom and rights in Birmingham that same year, pushed Congress into passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made segregation in public places illegal in America.

Thank you, Rob Langford, for what you did. It was a moment when you could have turned aside, but you didn’t.

Rest in Peace, my friend,

George ‘Rob’ Robert Langford
May 7, 1939 – February 21, 2024

T.K Thorne
T.K Thorne

T.K. Thorne is a retired Birmingham police captain, executive director of City Action Partnership (CAP)  and author of several books, including two nonfiction civil rights works: Behind the Magic Curtain: Secrets, Spies, and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Days and Last Chance for Justice, the story of the team that investigated and prosecuted the 1963 Sixteenth Street church bombing.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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8 thoughts on “Tribute to Birmingham FBI Special Agent who cut the legs out from under two evil men”

  1. WOW what a giant of a man to take on the cold case murder of these four little girls. I think two boys were also killed that day by evil men?
    Rob Langford must be remembered for being a man of high ideals to the rule of law enforcement.

    1. You are right, George.
      “Two additional homicides occurred the day of the bombing. In the aftermath of the chaos, sixteen-year-old Johnny Robinson was exchanging stones with white teens and throwing bricks and stones at police officers. He fled down an alley and was shot in the back by police when he refused to halt.
      Virgil Ware, a thirteen-year-old African American male, was riding double on a bicycle with his brother on Sandusky Road between two communities north of Birmingham. They had not participated in any of the violence but were simply headed home when two sixteen-year-old white males rode by on a red motorcycle and shot Ware with a .22 rifle. The boys were Eagle Scouts who had been to a Klan rally and purchased a confederate flag for their motorcycle.”
      Note: This is a quote from Last Chance for Justice, and the investigations of those homicides are include in the book. ~TK

  2. Rob Langford requested introductions with Black members of ONB’s Community Affairs Committee and attended meetings at 7:30 am on Monday mornings to build a relationship with the Black community. As Teresa Thorne related , he also initiated the process of bringing an element of closure to the Sixteenth Street Church bombing.

  3. There was a prosecution of the man who was apparently the ring leader in 1977, Robert Chambliss. When William Baxley was elected Attorney General in 1971, he wanted to reopen the case. By 1977 they had Chambliss on trial. One of the major witnesses against him was his niece Reverend Elizabeth Cobbs. He was convicted and died in prison in 1985. But the other conspirators evaded justice until Langford came on the scene. I don’t know if this Wikipedia page mentions Langford.

    1. You are correct, Ted. Bill Baxley (who is still with us and still working as an attorney!) is indeed a hero. The FBI refused for years to give him the files he needed, but he finally found a clever way to force their hand. Still, it put him in a time crunch in 1977 with only months to make a case before he would no longer be the attorney general of Alabama. He sent Bob Eddy, a crack investigator (who unfortunately is no longer with us) to Birmingham to dig into the files. Eddy is the one who “found” Chambliss’ niece, Elizabeth Cobbs, and a black woman from Detroit who had witnessed Chambliss on the scene in the alley behind the church the night he and others planted the bomb. That broke open the case, but only against Chambliss.

      1. Thanks for more details on that. Interesting that Baxley was under a time crunch in 1977. I’m glad Eddy was able to find the witnesses.

        Why do you think the FBI was so determined to keep the case closed at the time of Baxley’s investigation?

        I cataloged a biography of Chambliss’ niece at the UAB library. An interesting thing is she transitioned to being a male in the 80’s and sadly died in her 40’s.

        1. Ted,
          Re: Why do you think the FBI was so determined to keep the case closed at the time of Baxley’s investigation?

          I believe it was because J. Edgar Hoover (and then his successor) abhorred the thought that an upstart young state A.G. might open and solve a case the vaunted F.B.I. had failed to solve and bring to trial. The FBI was infamous, especially in those days, of getting info from other law enforcement agencies, but hoarding their own secrets. A rule Hoover created–that no interviews are to be recorded, still holds today. He was “a piece of work.”

          Re: Elizabeth Cobbs was a (female) minister when Bob Eddy found her again. She later became Petric Smith, a very early gender change in Alabama. One of the first things Rob Langford did in opening the case in the 1990s was to bring Petric Smith in to discuss the case after reading the book Smith wrote, Long Time Coming.

  4. This should never be forgotten. It is very good that you, T.K. Thorne. have brought it back for all to remember. Thank you

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