Tommy Lee Hines and the Cullman Saga
By Bob Dart
Vol. 1, No. 3, 1978, pp. 12-15
Squatting in the marbled hallways, the wrinkled hangers-on, found in any country courthouse, chewed and digested the carryings-on that had descended upon their town.
“We’ve never had enough niggers in this county to amount to nothing anyway,” allowed one oldtimer. “And what we had, stayed in their place. Now this thing will get them stirred up and it won’t ever be the same here.”
In the paneled courtroom upstairs, a Black man with an IQ of 39 – the guile and wisdom of a six-year-old child – stood accused of raping a White woman. Up Highway 31 a piece, the Ku Klux Klan and Black civil rights marchers – both awakened by the case – had been eyeball to eyeball at the town’s city limits a few days earlier.
Now in the courthouse, the weathered old men in faded bib overalls and narrow lapeled suits sensed that no matter what the trial’s outcome, things would never be the same in Cullman. Southern justice was on trial here; an old and a new South were clashing once again.
But the winds of change never stirred a small, silent man upstairs. Tommy Lee Hines slumped in his chair as strangers dissected his life, debated his fate, and all the while looked beyond the textbook law case they were writing. The 26-year-old retarded Black man understood little of what was happening to him, his family and friends said. For what is history to a man who can’t remember the days of the week?
“He was seven before he ever talked,” his daddy recalled. “But he was always a good boy. Always minded. Anything you’d tell him to do, he’d try to do it. He never sassed me or his mama. I never heard him say a cuss word.”
Tommy has always been special, his family and neighbors recalled. “I always knew he was different from the rest of my children. I had nine boys and three girls, you know,” explained Richard Hines. “But he ain’t crazy. I’ll tell you that. He’s retarded; just different.”
Tommy Hines never attended public school as a boy, his neighbors said. There were no facilities for a “special” Black boy growing up in Decatur, Ala.
“Everybody knew Tommy,” said James Guster, a neighbor of the Hines family in the northwest side of town – the Black section. “When we’d see him, he’d always be with relatives. We never saw him by himself.”
So Tommy Hines grew up insulated from the outside world by a protective family. “You know, that boy has never been to a picture show in his life.. he don’t know a
nickel from a quarter,” his father said. “I never let him out to play much. Bigger boys would try to hurt him. He got knocked down once trying to play football. I couldn’t let him get hurt.”
Tommy Hines was past 20 when he started to school. The Cherry Street School – a center f or retarded persons – opened in Decatur and he was enrolled. After a battery of tests, the center declared that Tommy Hines is trainable, with a moderate retardation level. He could learn to do some tasks but could never function in society by himself.
“The thing I remember about Tommy is his big smile when he told me ‘I go to the Newcomb Street Church of Christ and I was baptized by Brother Alphonso Robinson,’ said Joel Loftin, a state official who tested Hines. He said he was moved that the two of them – worlds apart in intellect – had been touched by the same faith.
Officials at the Cherry Street School testified that Hines attended regularly and caused no trouble. Rosemary Wright, the White secretary at the school, said she sometimes went alone with Tommy to pick up school lunches.
“He was always well-mannered and very quiet … well behaved. He was a gentleman.”
But in the courtroom, a White man and a White woman painted a different picture of Tommy Lee Hines.
Decatur Police Detective Doyle Ward testified that Hines had been picked up for questioning after being spotted in a neighborhood where he was a stranger. The official said he thought the young Black man matched the description a rape victim had given of her attacker.
Under gentle questioning, Ward said, Hines had confessed to three rapes and had led police to the scenes of the crimes.
“I went by the train station, and I saw a girl I knew who worked there … When she went to her car, I grabbed her, and she tried to get away . . .” Hines allegedly told the police. He reportedly supplied details of the sexual assault on a 21-year-old clerk at the railway station.
The victim in the case said her attacker had worn a plastic garbage bag over his head, like a bonnet, but had left his face uncovered. In court, she pointed out Tommy Lee Hines as that attacker.
A bevy of defense witnesses attacked these stories. His teachers and testers said Tommy Hines was incapable of relating the confession that Ward testified the retarded Black man had told in his own words. The language of the confession is much too sophisticated for Hines, the school officials said.
Others who knew him said Hines was frightened of “authority figures” and would likely admit to anything he thought they wanted to hear, just to please them.
Asked the question, “How many women did you rape, two or three?” Hines would pick one answer, just guessing to try to be right, a defense witness said.. He told the police “three.”
A trusty at the Decatur jail testified that Tommy Hines was crying and praying loudly the day he allegedly confessed, the day police said he talked calmly and lucidly to them.
Richard Hines testified the police “wouldn’t let me see my boy (after his arrest). They shut the door in my face …told me he (a policeman) didn’t have time to talk to me.”
But the prosecution stood unshaken; the woman said Tommy Hines raped her and a policeman had a confession he said Tommy Hines dictated and signed.
The verdict would come from an all-White jury, nine men and three women picked from the populace of Cullman County, Ala.
Most of Cullman County’s 52,000 residents would just as soon have had the Tommy Lee Hines trial stay in Morgan County, where the rape occurred on Feb. 16,1978. But a change of venue – a legal quirk -brought the case and an unsought notoriety to the rolling farmlands and sleepy county seat of Cullman.
“Folks in Cullman ain’t mad at Hines,” said a state trooper assigned to guard the courthouse. “They’re mad at that judge in Morgan County who sent his trial over here.”
Less than one percent of Cullman County’s population is Black, and most of them live in an area outside of town known as The Colony. It’s a church-going county – not a legal drink to be brought within 50 miles – with a faded row of single-story storefronts lining Highway 31, the town’s main drag.
Cullman is a good place to live, its residents claim, and there had been little racial tension before the Hines trial arrived. “We have our coloreds in The Colony down there,” said one resident. “They’re treated as good as any Whites. They just stick to their business and we stick to ours. Their kids go to school with ours.”
“I’ve sold cars to the niggers around here for years, said another man. “They pay on time just like the White folks.” The White residents blamed a Black protest movement that took place in Decatur after Hines arrest for the move of the trial.
“They (Blacks) never had any organization in Decatur before this,” a state trooper said. “But they seized on the case and used strong-arm tactics to organize. Then the Klan recruited for the first time in years. Tommy Hines is a scapegoat, caught between two radical factions. It’s really kind of pathetic.”
The “outside agitator” that northern Alabama Whites blamed for arousing the local Blacks is the Rev. Richard B. Cottonreader, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference project coordinator in the Hines case.
“I got involved when some local people put in a call to the national office,” Cottonreader recalled. “They wanted help so I was sent over here (from Gadsden, Ala.). I tried to arouse the community as best I know how.
“I don’t consider myself an outside agitator. I consider myself one of the best things that could have happened to Decatur at the time.” Cottonreader organized a long, hot summer of protests and confrontations with the KKK that thrust the Hines case into the national spotlight.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish sometimes,” said Cottonreader, a slim man of 47 given to wearing denim outfits and a silver cross. “SCLC was needed here. We opened the eyes of the nation to the Tommy Lee Hines case. If we hadn’t been here, he would have been just one more Black on trial for rape.”
Indeed, the protests also awakened the long-slumbering Klan of northern Alabama. Once again burning crosses lit pastures and white-robed and hooded men spit out words of racial hatred.
Klan membership “skyrocketed” in Alabama, said KKK Kleagle Bill McGlocklin. “I look upon this as a rebirth of the Klan,” the Decatur service station owner said. He became an open Klan leader, he said, after reading that a Black organizer had said, “We’re going to get a piece of the pie in Decatur or there isn’t going to be any pie.”
The “Invisible Empire” of the KKK has changed, McGlocklin said. “It’s not like the old Klan. We don’t do any nightriding or burn churches. We’re into politics now. You can’t get anywhere with violence any more.”
“In four years,” he continued, “we want to grow so much that no one in Alabama politics – no county commissioner, state representative or governor – can be elected without the Klan’s endorsement.”
Blacks have organizations to represent them, McGlocklin countered, so Whites need one, too – the KKK. But he said most Klansmen carry guns and are still ready to act as vigilantes if they deem it necessary.” It’s like the T-shirt says. “If you want my gun, come take it.”
The Hines case produced a series of confrontations between the Klan and Black protesters: meetings that produced no violence but a lot of publicity. The confrontations climaxed on the opening day of Hines trial when robed Klansmen and other Whites met a group of Black marchers walking from Decatur at the Cullman city limits. Several of the Black marchers ended in jail.
Behind the protesters came a rash of rumors; tales the Klansmen and their sympathizers seized upon and embellished. “I know for a fact the Black Panthers are ready to come in,” a self-styled “Concerned Citizen” said outside the Cullman courthouse. “They’re staying at motels all over north Alabama, came from Atlanta, New York and Detroit. They get $32 a day expenses.”
The White men gathered each day under a pecan tree outside the courthouse and discussed how to handle the invasion of Black radicals they believed was coming. If
Hines were convicted, they said, the Black groups had vowed to burn Cullman to the ground.
“The first one that strikes a match, his head comes off,” said one Cullmanite. “This is not Detroit. This is Cullman, Alabama.”
Across the courthouse parking lot from the tight knot of White men, young Black men and women from Decatur ate their lunch each day during a break in the trial of Hines, their neighbor. They, too, had heard rumors – of Klansmen ready to perform their own brand of justice on the young Black man. Two young Black men drove Hines to and from trial each day and stayed near him, calling themselves his bodyguards.
“We ain’t the same folk the Klan scared 20 years ago,” a woman in an Afro observed. “They’re dealing with a new Black man and woman.”
In northern Alabama, the Tommy Lee Hines case had awakened a racial confrontation that many felt had been put to sleep forever in the violent 60s. A veteran of 16 years with “the Movement,” Cottonreader said “Alabama appears to have changed a bit on the surface, but only on the surface. Racism,” he explained, “has gone underground.”
He said that once he moved in to work on the Hines case, he found other changes that were needed. “Alabama’s changing, but Decatur is more behind than the average town,” he said. “Tommy Hines was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I believe that Tommy Hines is a special person chosen by God to bear a cross for the Black people of Decatur.”
Sitting silently in the courtroom in a tan leisure suit, Tommy Lee Hines slumped uncomfortably, his dark eyes darted around toward the unfamiliar faces. Friends said he was unaware of what was going on; unknowing of the racial and legal turmoil his situation had caused.
“Hell, sometimes he doesn’t even know who I am,” said Harry Mims, one of Hines’ attorneys. He said his client hadn’t been able to help his defense at all.
The courtroom drama winds slowly down. The trial takes two weeks and the expected violent Black-White confrontation never comes.
The case boils down to whom the jury believes. A White woman says Tommy Lee Hines raped her. A White policeman says the young Black man confessed to the crime. Hines’ teachers, family, friends and state psychologists say he is retarded, incapable of committing such a crime. Tommy Hines himself says nothing.
Prosecutor Mike Moebes says Hines’ mental abilities are not the issue. “Retardation is not a defense,” he said.
The all-White jury deliberates for three hours before returning a verdict: Guilty.
Judge Jack Riley sentences Tommy Lee Hines to 30 years in prison and congratulates Moebes for doing a “tremendous job.”
Hines’ attorneys vow to appeal. Newsmen are ready to file their final story on the Hines case, eager to get on with the next assignment. Then judge Riley asks Hines if be has anything to say.
No, sir,” mumbles the small man. No one knows for sure what Tommy Lee Hines thought then, as state troopers led him to a car and jail. The “special” boy his family had sought to protect, the man with the mind of a six-year-old child, the man “with a cross to bear,” the convicted rapist – simply gazed mindlessly ahead.
Bob Dart is a staff writer for the Atlanta Constitution.