RINGGOLD, Ga. (CN) — It was a scene all too common in the South six decades ago: Another bomb had struck, seemingly at random. Someone had placed explosives underneath the bedroom of Jethro and Mattie Green, a black couple in Ringgold, Georgia, a small town about a dozen miles southeast of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
During World War II, Jethro served as a construction foreman in the Army in the India-Burma campaign. After the war, he worked as an auto mechanic and also cleaned a drug store. Mattie worked as a housekeeper. Together, they had six children.
Around 1 a.m. on May 19, 1960, just as a train rolled through the small town, the bomb rent the house, blowing laundry that Mattie had been doing earlier that evening up into nearby trees and wires.
The blast injured Jethro and the couple’s 17-month-old son. But the house crumpled on Mattie. She died in the ambulance on the way to a hospital 15 minutes away.
A police officer from the Ringgold Police Department came to guard the scene until daylight.
In the darkness, the questions lingered, as they continue to today: Who did it, and why?
Even as the smell of explosives hung in the air, some suspected the bombing was racially motivated.
Four hours after the bomb went off, according to an FBI memo, the FBI’s Civil Rights Division thought that if the bombing was found to be a civil rights matter, then whoever set off the bomb could be prosecuted under the Civil Rights Act of 1960 — which had taken effect days before.
But in the following days, several rumors started to grow. Was Mattie Green’s death the result of a love triangle gone bad? Maybe the Greens’ house was targeted by mistake. Newspapers declared there were no clear clues that the bombing was racially motivated.
The governor of Georgia, Ernest Vandiver, posted a $500 reward for information leading to the solving of the case. Almost 1,000 miles away, The New York Times published a short bulletin about the bombing.
With few leads, the FBI looked at Jethro Green as the possible murderer of his wife, but ruled him out. Eventually, the FBI quit the case. Catoosa County Sheriff J.D. Stewart did not ask for its assistance. And there was no proof that the bomber moved explosives across the Georgia-Tennessee state line, only a few miles away.
The FBI wrote its final memo July 22, 1960. The case — from the FBI’s perspective for the time being — was closed.
In 2009, the FBI reopened the case. Mattie Green’s death was one of 103 cold cases the FBI re-examined as part of a mandate under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, to take another look at whether people who committed murders during the civil rights struggle could be prosecuted decades later.
From the beginning, then-FBI Special Agent Marc Veazey faced the challenges of investigating a long-cold case.
“I had no physical evidence,” Veazey told Courthouse News. “I had no living witnesses. I had no one that gave me any firsthand knowledge of anything.”
The FBI destroyed its original case file in 2005. It recovered a redacted version of the file for its investigation because the Southern Poverty Law Center submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in 2003.
Veazey talked with more than 20 people for his investigation, people who lived and continue to live in Ringgold. After hearing three theories of what had happened, being unable to find any living suspects and identifying no clear prosecutable violations, the FBI closed the case again in 2010.
“Back in the civil rights era, what usually happened is that you would have a black male be accused of either having an affair with, whistling at, doing something inappropriate to a white female,” Veazey said. “You saw that all the time. … You didn’t have anything like that (with this case). I mean, I could not uncover motive one. And in a homicide case, you try to start with a motive. I didn’t have anything.”
Now, another FBI intelligence report acquired by Courthouse News Service through a records request to the National Archives and Records Administration shows that a leader of the Klan in Chattanooga was talking about the bombing that killed Mattie Green at a meeting in Atlanta three days after the attack.
The weekend after the Thursday death of Mattie Green, Jack William Brown traveled to Atlanta for a Klan meeting. While the FBI office out of Atlanta was investigating the bombing, the FBI office out of Knoxville was keeping an eye on Brown because he led the Dixie Klan, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan out of Chattanooga.
A 1967 report on the Klan by the House Committee on Un-American Activities noted the larger Klan organization kicked out Brown’s group in 1957. Klan leader Eldon Edwards, the report said, could not control its propensity towards violence.
It was a reputation the Dixie Klan still had years later, the House report said, as “Committee investigation disclosed that in its earlier years, the Dixie Klan was repeatedly involved in bombings and other acts of violence.”
Over the years, the FBI collected tens of thousands of pages on the Dixie Klan, which had cells in Georgia, Chattanooga and Anniston, Alabama.
Klan members met at the Henry Grady Hotel the weekend after the bombing to coordinate a joint operation. The night before the meeting, Saturday, May 21, 1960, Brown was one of the Klan members that met in the hotel to drink and talk.
And “Confidential Informant Knoxville T-4” was listening.
As Brown spoke with W.A. Somersett, a member of a Klan group in Florida, the Mattie Green bombing — which was covered by many newspapers — came up.
It was a “good job” Brown said. There was enough dynamite under the house to “blow them both to kingdom to come.”
According to the FBI’s intelligence report, Brown was “very boastful of this fact.”
Until this point, the newspapers had not declared whether the bombing was racially motivated, though there were suspicions. Somersett pointed that out.
“Brown related that they will not say that any more, as the authorities now know that this Negro was a stooge for Martin Luther King and the NAACP,” the report said.
According to the FBI case file on the Mattie Green bombing, one informant told the FBI on May 20, 1960 that Green was “possibly a Ringgold organizer for the NAACP.”
On May 22, at the Klan meeting, according to the FBI report, “a discussion was held concerning the school situation and all were in agreement that more drastic steps must be taken to stop any further school integration and it was further agreed that the best way to stop integration in schools is to ‘knock off’ the leaders, be they white or colored.”
Meanwhile, around the time of the bombing, Chattanooga was going through the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. The March from Selma to Montgomery and Edmund Pettus Bridge were years away. Martin Luther King Jr. had yet to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declare he had a dream. But Chattanooga was a city simmering with tension.
Earlier that year, black youths sat down at white lunch counters downtown and asked to be served. Police flooded the city to try to head off a race riot.
In April 1960, the Chattanooga NAACP made one of its big moves. It sued Chattanooga’s Board of Education in federal court. It was six years after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and the NAACP said the city’s educational leaders were dragging their feet in desegregating the schools.
A news report of the bombing by the Associated Negro Press noted that sit-ins in Chattanooga had been occurring that week.
One week after the bombing, on May 26, the Catoosa County News — the weekly paper in Ringgold — published a story describing hundreds of people attending Mattie Green’s funeral. “No Race Tension Here, Dynamiting a Mystery,” the headline proclaimed.
On May 24, the Chattanooga Times had reported that Jethro Green had no idea why he and his wife were targeted.
It is unclear whether Jethro Green was involved with the NAACP. The finding aid for all of the documents the NAACP donated to the Library of Congress from the Civil Rights era does not list documents relating to a NAACP chapter in Ringgold or in Catoosa County.
According to Green’s obituary in 1994, he was once a president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which advocates for civil rights and labor causes.
But in 1960, “He worked all the time,” said Jo Pearl Adams, 84, who still lives in Ringgold.
Adams, who married Mattie Green’s brother, said Jethro Green held two jobs and had six children. The Chattanooga Times reported he was part of a religious singing group that played over a Chattanooga radio station.
During that time, the Klan was active in Ringgold, where the black community lived on a few parallel streets near the high school.
“I know they [the Klan] used to walk, drive through here” with their hoods on during Friday and Saturday evenings, Adams said. “They weren’t hiding nothing.”
As the FBI summarized the case in July 1960, it mentioned that the sheriff of Catoosa County investigated the rumors that Green was involved with the NAACP.
“He heard that XXXXX and a group of negro males were meeting regularly at each others homes and some people thought that perhaps a NAACP organization was being formed,” a memo in the 1960 case file states. “Stewart advised that he learned that XXXX and others were members of a singing group that practiced at each other’s homes.”
Veazey said that while the document in the FBI intelligence file suggests a motivation for the bombing, there are limitations to it, too. It does not identify any potential witnesses. It does not uncover any suspects. And it is unclear how reliable “Confidential Informant Knoxville T-4” was as a source.
So, many questions remain. “So if it’s just a rumor that he’s trying to start a chapter of the NAACP, and we really don’t have a lot of documentation or witnesses to talk about that at this time, is that enough for them to blow someone’s house up? I don’t know,” Veazey said. “It may have been to them.”