50 years ago: Klansmen acquitted in federal racial bombing case

  • By Max Marbut
  • | 12:00 p.m. November 24, 2014
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A federal court jury returned not guilty verdicts for four members of the Ku Klux Klan charged with intimidating a black child to force him to withdraw from an all-white school.

The verdict freed Robert Gentry, Barton Griffin, Willie Eugene Wilson and Donald Spegal. The four, with another defendant, Jackie Hardin, were tried in July for the same offense.

The case stemmed from the Feb. 16 bombing of the Gilmore Street home of Donald Godfrey, who had enrolled in the previously all-white Lackawanna Elementary School.

No one was injured in the bombing, but the home was severely damaged.

At the first trial, Hardin was acquitted; Gentry was acquitted of the second count of a two-count indictment, but had a mistrial on the first count; and the jury was unable to reach verdicts on the other defendants.

The principal witness in the July trial was William Rosencrans Jr., a mechanic from Indiana who arrived in Jacksonville in September 1963.

He was called back to testify in the retrial, but invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer any questions. His testimony from the first trial was read to the jury in the second trial, however.

Rosencrans in April pleaded guilty to the intimidation indictment and received a seven-year prison sentence.

When he entered his plea, he admitted he placed a dynamite bomb beneath the Godfrey home. During the July trial, Rosencrans implicated others in the plot to bomb the home and in the theft of dynamite from Merrill Dynamite Co. on Harts Road.

The testimony from Rosencrans and his girlfriend, Barbara Bush Whitfield, were the most damaging against the defendants.

But the defense discounted their testimony, pointing out that Rosencrans was a convicted felon and a former patient of a psychiatric hospital. Whitfield, the defense attorneys charged, was an admitted shoplifter, an alcoholic, was pregnant when still unwed and was treated by a psychiatrist soon after the bombing.

J.B. Stoner, who directed the defense during the eight-day trial that resulted in acquittal, said after the verdict that he was “jubilant,” but that he was most impressed by the fact that one of the jurors was a Catholic.

“It is significant, I think, that both Catholics and Protestants were not biased in their deliberations by the fact that the defendants were Klansmen,” he said.

It was noted there was nothing barring prosecutors from bringing Rosencrans and the other defendants to trial on charges of bombing the Godfrey home.

The bombing was not charged in the conspiracy indictment, so double jeopardy would not apply.

• A last-ditch effort to obtain a $66 per month basic pay raise for Jacksonville police officers to put them on a par with Duval County Patrol officers was made before the City Council during its first hearing on the proposed 1965 budget.

The proposed $94.9 million budget included no general pay increases for city employees and very little in the way of capital improvements.

Pleas were made by business owners and by Patrolman E.M. Sikes, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“A city is no better than its police department,” Sikes said, adding that a survey team from the International Association of Police Chiefs determined that salaries for local police officers were not adequate.

Other speakers included business owners O.H. Hill, Robert Murphy and John McLeod, the Rev. Charles McGee of the Unitarian Universal Church of Jacksonville and attorney Daniel Naughton.

Murphy said an average patrolman’s salary was $91.58 per week and with payroll deductions, take-home pay was $76.15. Describing average family expenses, Murphy said at the end of the week, the officer would have $17.95 for food — about 20 cents per meal for a family of four.

“City prisoners are allowed 25 cents per meal,” said Murphy.

Naughton cited figures showing mechanics in the building trades earned $621 to $728 per month, while the average police salary was just more than $400 per month.

McLeod said the annual difference between a first-year city police officer’s salary and that of a county patrolman was $575, and after two years, the county officer would make $821 more than the city officer.

• Jacksonville’s economy was boosted by more than $11 million in 1964 because of its convention business, according to the Jacksonville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

George Tobi, executive vice president and general manager of the bureau, said 117,000 people attended 298 meetings.

“This is by far the best year we’ve had and the picture for 1965 looks even better,” he said. “We have 175 meetings booked already.”

In his report delivered at the bureau’s annual meeting at the George Washington Hotel, Tobi said bookings on cruise ships leaving Jacksonville were encouraging, despite hurricanes. He pleaded for help in obtaining Downtown docking facilities for the ships to add a “resort atmosphere” to the departures.

Also on the agenda was election of officers. Frank Gay, district manager for J.C. Penney Co., was named president to succeed John P. Ingle Jr. for a two-year term.

Harold Martin, vice president of Barnett National Bank, was named vice president, and Roland Meyer and Frank W. Norris were re-elected as secretary and treasurer, respectively.

Harold Cohn, Jesse Cripe, Henry Kramer and W. Ash Verlander were elected to the board of directors. The new board’s first order of business was to re-appoint Tobi general manager and executive vice president.

• On the motion of Commissioner Bob Harris, the Board of County Commissioners asked the sheriff’s office to study and make recommendations on safety measures for horses being ridden on subdivision streets.

• After studying conditions for more than a year, the state Board of Health reported Cedar Creek was polluted to the extent that recreational activities such as swimming and water skiing should not be permitted.

The September 1963 first phase of the study covered the upper reaches of the drainage area from the Beaver Street and Edgewood Avenue sections to the bridge at Ramona Boulevard. The second phase, conducted in June 1964, covered the area from the bridge south to the Ortega River.

Two major conclusions were detailed in the report.

The first was that “industrial and domestic waste sources are placing a greater pollution load on the stream than can be assimilated without damage.”

The report also concluded “the areas surveyed do not meet the bacteriological standards for bathing and water recreation areas established by the state Board of Health.”

In addition to recommending that signs be posted to warn residents of the possibly dangerous conditions, the report said, “The City of Jacksonville should provide a sanitary sewer collection system with adequate treatment for all areas within the city limits.”

• The City Commission approved an agreement with the Jacksonville Port Authority to provide primary electric power, transformers and other equipment on Blount Island in exchange for transmission line easements across the island.

The agreement also provided for the city to sell power wholesale to the authority, which in turn would sell power at retail to the port’s industrial customers on Blount Island.



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