Klan widow apologizes to family of Ala. victim

September 04, 1993|By Adam Nossiter | Adam Nossiter,New York Times News Service

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- It was well after midnight one chilly winter 36 years ago. Four white men and one black man stood on the Tyler Goodwin Bridge, in a deserted area near here. Fifty feet below, the Alabama River flowed briskly.

The white men were Ku Klux Klansmen. They had driven the black man through the dark countryside, terrorizing him. He had said something offensive to a white woman, they said, and he was going to pay. Now, on the bridge, one Klansman pointed his gun at the young man and said, "Hit the water."

Screaming, the black man leaped to his death. Back in town, the four white men joked that he had jumped in for a swim. Three months later, in April 1957, two fishermen found the decomposed body of Willie Edwards Jr. 10 miles west of Montgomery.

None of the men on the bridge that night were ever punished; an aggressive Alabama attorney general, Bill Baxley, stumbled onto the case in 1976, but a judge threw out charges twice. Now the widow of one of the men who was accused 17 years ago, but never tried, says her husband owned up to the crime in the months before his death last year.

The widow, Diane Alexander, is reaching out to the family of the man who died in the river long ago, trying to write the last chapter in the story of her husband, Henry Alexander, a Klansman. His remorse and her shame for his role in a murderous history illuminate a larger transformation in Alabama's tortured race relations.

Mrs. Alexander has written a sorrowful letter of apology to Mr. Edwards' widow, Sarah Jean Salter, who lives in Buffalo, N.Y. "I hope maybe one day I can meet you to tell you face to face how sorry I am," the letter said. "May God bless you and your family and I pray that this letter helps you somehow."

And today, in Montgomery, she will meet with the Edwardses' grown daughter, Melinda O'Neill, who was 3 when her father was killed. Mrs. Alexander wants to express her shame in person.

As a young man, Henry Alexander was one of the leading foot soldiers in the Montgomery Klan. But before he died of lung cancer last December at 63, he made a confession, Mrs. Alexander says.

Two days after Thanksgiving last year, Mr. Alexander walked into his wife's beauty shop. They were alone. They both knew the end was coming. He sat down in her chair.

"I got things bothering me," he said.

"What things are bothering you?" Mrs. Alexander asked.

"Well, Willie Edwards."

He told his wife that Mr. Edwards would not have died if he had not falsely identified Mr. Edwards as the one who had offended the white woman. "I'm the one that told 'em," Mr. Alexander said.

On the bridge that night, he said, he and the other Klansmen gave Mr. Edwards a choice: run or jump. "I didn't think he would jump," he said. "If he'd a run, they would never have shot him."

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