Time Capsule: J. B. Stoner Convicted in 1958 Bombing of Bethel Baptist Church

J. B. Stoner, an unapologetic racist whose extreme views were once denounced by segregationist Lester G. Maddox, was convicted for conspiring in the 1958 bombing of the predominantly-black Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on this day in 1980.

Stoner, who was suspected by prosecutors in as many as a dozen other bombings and had once been regarded by the FBI as a suspect in the slaying of Martin Luther King, Jr., had a long and varied history in right-wing fringe politics, beginning with his founding of a short-lived anti-Semitic party in 1946, a minor party whose goal was to “out-Hitler Hitler” by proposing to make Judaism a legal offense punishable by death.

Stoner, who had contracted polio when he was two years old and walked with a limp the rest of his life, was a longtime admirer of Mississippi’s Theodore G. Bilbo.  He was born in Tennessee, the son of a prosperous family.  His father owned and operated a sightseeing company on Lookout Mountain, the famous Civil War battle site overlooking Chattanooga.

Having avoided military service in World War II because of his noticeable limp, Stoner re-chartered a dormant chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Chattanooga when he was barely eighteen.

Along with Edward R. Fields, a young chiropractor who had been active in the nascent neo-Nazi movement as a teenager in Atlanta, Stoner later founded the National States Rights Party (NSRP) in 1958.  The NSRP, which attacked Jews with the same ferocity and hatred as it did integration, quickly absorbed a number of smaller entities on the far right, including John Kasper’s Seaboard White Citizen’s Council, Dewey Taft’s Conservative Party in Tampa, Florida, and several local Klan organizations.

Within two years of its founding, the virulently racist party was headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, “ground zero” in the civil rights struggle.

“Even within the context of the zany bestiary of racist right-wing politics that characterized much of Alabama’s political culture, this Dixie version of the Hitlerjugend careened over the edge,” observed Southern historian Dan Carter.

The National States Rights Party ran Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas for president in 1960, pairing the reluctant segregationist governor with Admiral John G. Crommelin — a one-time leader of the famed “Blue Angels” stunt-flying squadron and one of the party’s most fervent supporters — as his vice-presidential running mate.  Faubus declined the party’s presidential nomination, but his name remained on the ballot in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware and Tennessee.

In addition to serving as the party’s longtime national chairman and publisher of the party’s newsletter, The Thunderbolt — a volatile mixture of Nazi-inspired anti-Semitism and white supremacy which was widely read by Klansmen and neo-Nazis alike — Stoner also served as the party’s nominee for vice president in 1964.

John Kasper, a longtime devotee of Ezra Pound, the controversial American expatriate poet who embraced fascism after moving to Italy in the early 1920s, headed the party’s ticket that year.  Once a symbol of defiance, Kasper, a surprisingly cultured individual who owned an automobile repair shop in Nashville, had twice been jailed for urging citizens in Clinton, Tennessee, to resist school integration in 1956.

Having forsaken an Ivy League education in philosophy and English, Kasper later sold his bookstores in New York and Washington to expose what he described as “the iron hand in the velvet glove which the federal government wielded for the first time in Clinton, Tennessee.”  Claiming no personal animosity toward African-Americans, he insisted that his fight against racial integration was really a struggle for adherence to the Constitution.

Like Orval Faubus four years earlier, the 35-year-old Kasper had serious misgivings about his own candidacy.  He didn’t actively campaign and hadn’t even bothered to attend the party’s national convention in Louisville in early March.  His heart, he explained in an October interview, was with Barry Goldwater.

“If I didn’t think it would have a detrimental effect,” he said, “I would go out and make talks for Goldwater.”

Stoner, on the other hand, displayed no such reluctance and barnstormed the country looking for votes for his tiny National States Rights Party.  In the end, the Kasper-Stoner duo netted a negligible 6,953 votes in Arkansas, Kentucky and Montana.

In later years, the unreconstructed racist frequently ran for office as a Democrat, garnering more than 40,000 votes for the U.S. Senate in Georgia’s 1972 Democratic primary and 74,000 votes — or 10 percent — in an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor of the Peach State two years later.

Stoner, who eventually served three and a half years of a ten-year sentence for his role in the 1958 Birmingham bombing, was released from prison in 1986.  The rabble-rousing foe of integration waged his last political campaign in 1990 — four years after being paroled — when he garnered 3 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.

While conceding defeat in his lifelong struggle against integration, Stoner remained defiant until the end, never apologizing for his racist and anti-Semitic views.  “Society has changed.  It was changed by defeat — defeat of the white people against race-mixing,” maintained the gaunt, partially-paralyzed and bedridden white supremacist a few months before his death on April 23, 2005.

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