Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson: Families want history to remember teen boys, too
by Jon Reed
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Johnny Robinson Jr. was waiting for his sister to bring him a plate of Sunday dinner. Virgil Ware was riding on the handlebars of his older brother’s bike.
While the names of the four little girls killed at church the morning of Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, are etched in the nation’s memory, the names of two boys from the area killed that day in racial violence are often absent from history books. On that bloody day the death toll included two black teen boys who were nowhere near the church.
Robinson, 16, was killed by a police officer’s shotgun in North Birmingham that afternoon. An hour or so later, Ware, 13, was gunned down by a white teenager on a road in Jefferson County.
“They was always talking about the four little girls,” said Leon Robinson, Johnny Robinson’s younger brother, “but they never talked about the two little boys.”
If Leon Robinson had been with his older brother on 26th Street North that Sunday afternoon in 1963, he doesn’t think he’d be alive today.
Leon, now 63, looked up to his brother, and his brother looked out for him. So Leon believes he would’ve been at his brother’s side when a Birmingham police officer sitting in a police cruiser fired at a crowd of young black boys and killed Johnny Robinson.
“When they had shot him,” Leon Robinson said, “they would have had to shoot me too.”
Johnny was with a group of boys near a gas station in the 800 block of 26th Street that afternoon around 3 p.m., and everyone on the street was on edge after the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Carloads of young white people were driving by, taunting the young black people on the street with chants like “two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate,” said James Jemison, 65, a friend of Johnny’s who was playing football nearby.
Some boys in the group started throwing rocks at the white teenagers, police told The Birmingham News at the time, and when a police car arrived, the black boys started running down 8th Alley North. The car blocked the alley and Jack Parker, the officer in the backseat, pointed a shotgun from the window.
Police told The News that day that Parker fired a warning shot at the boys who were running away. Later, officers who were with Parker in the car said the driver had slammed on the brakes or the car had hit a bump, causing the gun to fire.
Johnny Robinson was hit, with buckshot in his back and wrists. When he got to University Hospital, he was dead.
Diane Robinson Samuels, now 65, was taking Johnny, her brother, some dinner. He had called earlier and asked her to bring some of their usual Sunday dinner to him, so she walked over with a plate. When she got to the scene, she was told her mother had gone to the hospital. Samuels dropped the plate and ran to the hospital.
Her mother was coming out of the hospital, she said, beating on the police officers there with her fists. When Samuels arrived, her mother told her the news: “She was saying ‘Your brother dead. Your brother dead.'”
Johnny’s death would hit the Robinson family hard. The Robinsons had lost their father just a few years before after Johnny Robinson Sr. told a neighborhood man to stay away from his sister and the man came back with a gun and shot him. Johnny’s death and the silence they got from police about what actually happened troubled their mother, and she spent time in a mental hospital.
As for Leon and Diane Robinson, they said they had to keep all of their pain inside. They went to live with relatives in Rochester, N.Y., during the summers in an effort to keep them out of trouble.
“It was devastating,” Leon Robinson said. “It really was devastating because we had to get up the next morning to go to school.”
The Robinson family would know little about what happened to their brother until 2009, when the FBI reopened the investigation into the shooting.
Dana Gillis, who was responsible for the bureau’s civil rights program in Birmingham at the time, delivered the letter to the Robinson family telling them that the bureau could not indict anyone in the case. Jack Parker had died in 1977.
“This was the first time that either of them had received any information concerning specifically what happened and who was responsible for their brother’s death,” Gillis said.
Gillis, who retired from the FBI in 2011 and now serves as the director of athletic compliance at Alabama A&M University, said part of the purpose of the program, which looked into more than 100 cold cases from the civil rights era, was to help families find closure.
But while the Robinsons now know more about what happened to their brother, they still aren’t satisfied.
“We didn’t get no closure,” Samuels said. “We ain’t got nothing but heartaches.”
Mourners packed St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church Wednesday to remember James Ware Sr., 90, who lived across the street from the church on a little hill in Pratt City. In his eulogy for the man known as “Daddy Ware,” the Rev. Guyrinthian Harris talked about how Ware found peace with God and learned to forgive others.
Ware, who died Sept. 5, had a very difficult thing to forgive. For nearly fifty years, he had mourned the death of his 13-year-old son, Virgil, at the hands of two white boys on Sandusky-Docena Road.
Jefferson County sheriff’s Detective Dan Jordan, now 84, was planning on visiting his two daughters on Sept. 15, 1963, but those plans changed when the dynamite exploded at the church.
Jordan, who retired as a captain in the sheriff’s office, drove past the church and saw people searching for evidence. He saw people throwing rocks and a downtown building that had been set on fire.
“I thought, ‘My God, what’s happened here?'” he said.
Around 10:30 p.m., he got a call from a dispatcher telling him about a homicide he was to investigate. Virgil Lamar Ware, 13, had been shot and killed around 5:05 p.m. while riding on the handlebars of a bike while his 16-year-old brother, James Jr., pedaled.
The next morning, Jordan and his partner, Detective J.A. McAlpine, set out to track down the two white boys who had been riding on a red motor bike who shot Virgil.
A Mountain Brook police officer told the detectives that next morning that he had seen two white teenagers on a red motor bike in Fultondale and noticed a pistol bulging in the pocket of one of the boys. The Mountain Brook officer noted the tag — M-5403 — and that led the detectives to the home of 16-year-old Michael Farley, who said he wasn’t out riding the motor bike on Sandusky-Docena Road that Sunday and knew nothing about what had happened.
Later that day, a tip from a man they met at a local grocery store led them to another boy who was out on the road that afternoon. The boy told them he and a friend had seen the two Ware boys on the road. When they ran into Farley and another boy, Larry Joe Sims, 16, they said the black boys had thrown rocks at them. The boy told detectives Farley pulled a pistol out of his pocket and handed it to Sims, saying, “We’ll see about that.”
When they talked to Sims, he confessed in tears, Jordan said, saying he had his eyes closed when he fired the shots that killed Virgil and hadn’t intended to kill him.
That night, Sept. 16, 1963, Jordan and McAlpine arrested both Farley and Sims, and the boys were charged with first-degree murder. Months later, Sims was convicted by a jury of second-degree manslaughter, and Farley pleaded guilty to the same charge. Both were given a suspended sentence of seven months, but served probation. They were released from supervision in June 1965, Jordan said.
“They got off light,” Jordan said.
Eventually the Ware family was able to accept the boys’ apologies, but Virgil’s death was always overshadowed by the deaths of the four little girls. At James Ware Sr.’s funeral, the Rev. Harris talked about how, after being able to see his son remembered by the city when he was inducted into Birmingham’s Gallery of Distinguished Citizens in August, perhaps he was able to finally have peace.
“I’m not saying we should take the focus off the little girls,” Harris said. “But if we’re going to tell it, let’s tell it all.”
Birmingham City Council President Roderick Royal presented a resolution from the council at James Ware Sr.’s funeral, and said he was glad Virgil’s father was able to see his son remembered.
“I’m so happy that Daddy Ware was still alive when we were able to honor his son,” he said.
While Wednesday’s service was for the father, a devoted churchgoer and loved member of the community, what happened to Virgil Ware should also be noted, Royal said.
“We must also remember,” he said, “the sacrifice of an innocent child shot from the handlebars of a bicycle.”