Three weeks after her husband died, Annie Bell Taylor passed away, too. So relatives who had left Alabama long ago for assembly-line jobs up north drove 15 hours from Michigan and Ohio to bury the family matriarch.
She was laid to rest here on a cold, drizzly Sunday afternoon two weeks ago. Afterward friends and neighbors flocked to the Taylors' frame house on a dirt road outside town to pray and reminisce about her flaky biscuits and her habit of hugging any grandchild within arm's reach.
By morning, 11 of the mourners were in jail on charges of attempted murder, kidnaping and theft.
They were accused of trying to kill two white plainclothes police officers who burst into the house during the wake to question one of the northern visitors after an incident outside. The officers were allegedly assaulted and one shot in what police describe as a savage attack by a mob, some in choir robes, acting like "wild animals."
Ten days after they were jailed, the 11 were freed on bail. A hearing has been set for March 22.
One officer, Leslie Brown, remains in intensive care. His partner, E.B. Spivey, received 75 stitches after "his throat was slashed" that night, said Chief Charles Swindall.
The police charges are hotly disputed by local black leaders. They have banded together behind the out-of-state blacks, who include a Baptist deacon and the brother of Olympic gold medal hurdler Willie Davenport.
The incident has sparked a Justice Department investigation into charges that the blacks were beaten after being taken to jail. And it has inflamed long-simmering racial tensions in the cradle of the Confederacy.
"You can't deny creeping racial tension is coming back to our city," said Bob McKee, a white state representative from Montgomery. "But white people are afraid of demonstrations and riots . . . . They see blacks getting political power out of proportion to their numbers, the Justice Department always coming in, affirmative action programs. Blacks have advantages whites don't have anymore."
Black leaders say such attitudes fuel a siege mentality in a city with a bellicose, pistol-packing mayor, Emory Folmar. Nicknamed "The Mayoratollah," he frequently has accompanied the police on raids. He pays daily visits to the hospitalized officer but declines comment on the incident.
"Just call our city 'Fort Montgomery' and the mayor our commander-in-chief," says black city councilman Joe Reed. "What you have here are two white police who saw cars with northern tags, thought blacks were doing something wrong, charged in and met their maker."
Police say the incident began when investigators hunting a missing woman saw a "black male prowling around" a parked car. A scuffle ensued, police say, and the man tried to grab the officer's gun, then ran.
Police fired at the suspect, chasing him into the house, where the officers were "beaten and tortured" by "black subjects . . . acting in a manner of wild animals that had their prey on the ground," said Swindall. Officer Brown was shot as he fled the house.
Lawyers for the blacks give this account:
One of the visitors from up north, 21-year-old Christopher Columbus Taylor, was moving a car so an uncle could leave the wake. Two white men in street clothes were sitting in an unmarked car. One shouted, "Come here, nigger."
When Taylor approached, one man grabbed him and tried to force him into the car. He resisted and ran. The whites drew guns and fired, wounding him in the hand. Taylor ran into the house and shouted, "Mama, daddy, some white men are shooting at me."
Seconds later, one white man kicked in the door with gun drawn. The mourners subdued him, disarmed him and then took away a second gun that he drew from a pocket. When the second white man burst in, someone hit him with a fireplace poker.
Then the mourners telephoned the police twice--first to call for help and then to provide the house's location. During one call, the whites said, "We are the police"--the first time either inside or outside the house they had identified themselves as police officers. The mourners did not believe them and continued holding the two.
Police units arrived and a lieutenant used a bullhorn to order the occupants to come out. At that point, officer Brown bolted through the door and was shot.
Police say the weapon was a service revolver and note that one is still missing. But black city councilman Donald Watkins contends that police themselves could have shot Brown accidentally as he emerged from the house.
Watkins also said several suspects told him that interrogators at the jail hit them with a telephone and a flashlight and hung them by neckties until they lost consciousness.
Chief Swindall confirmed that one person phoned police to say, "Some white people are out here with guns fighting and fussing--send the police."
But no record exists of either telephone call or of radio traffic before or during the incident, Swindall says, because the police Dictaphone tape recorder had broken down a week earlier.
Eight years ago, in a widely publicized case, the tape monitor also broke down before police shot and killed a mentally retarded black man, then planted a gun. The controversial shooting led to the resignation of the men who at that time were police chief and mayor.
"This community is highly volatile, ready to ignite and explode at any minute," said the Rev. William Burden, NAACP state president. At one mass meeting after the incident, 2,000 blacks turned out, "more than when robed klansmen marched down Dexter Avenue in the '60s," said one black official.
Some black leaders are now urging a boycott of companies advertising on white-owned radio station WXVI, which fired black disc jockey Ralph Featherstone after he discussed the Taylor incident on the air. Ken Goodman, a station spokesman, said Featherstone was fired for ignoring orders to play more music and cut back on talk in advance of an upcoming ratings period.
Some whites are also beginning to question police handling of the case.
"Most whites recognize there could be possible wrongs on both sides," said Willie Peak, 50, white president of the city council. "Most are concerned about the 'we can do no wrong' attitude of the police."
None of the arrested blacks had a police record, except for traffic tickets. Six were from Pontiac, Mich.; five from Warren, Ohio. Friends and pastors describe them as pillars of their communities.
"These were middle-class black people in mourning, minding their own business," said W. Troy Massey, 34, a lawyer for the suspects.
Among those who were freed last Wednesday on bonds ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 was Willie Taylor, 47, a Baptist deacon who works as a janitor for General Motors in Pontiac. To free Taylor's family, pledges of homes and property were made by 23 Montgomery residents, including a white millionaire, Morris Dees, a lawyer who heads the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"I planned to retire in Alabama," said Taylor in an interview. "But I just don't think I want to come back here now."