In November 2018, 75-year-old Herbert Monts of Southfield, Mich., received an oversized envelope for which he had waited for several years. After reading its contents, he immediately placed a call to Carlotta Walls Lanier, a childhood friend now living in Englewood, Colo. The two grew up in houses less than a block apart in Little Rock. Their families knew each other and occasionally socialized. Herbert and Carlotta were even born on the same day, Dec. 18, 1942. The contents of that envelope brought a small measure of closure to the childhood friends, but it also illustrated deep ties between past and present racial injustices.
Carlotta Walls was the youngest of the Little Rock Nine, the first Black students to attend Little Rock Central High School. Their admission in 1957 was only secured when President Dwight Eisenhower deployed federal troops. The nine students endured hell that school year, and local white citizens voted overwhelmingly to close the public high schools for the 1958-59 academic year rather than have a few Black students among a student body of over 2,000.
The high schools reopened in the fall of 1959, but only five Black students attended Central that year. Carlotta Walls and Jefferson Thomas were the only two of the Little Rock Nine who returned. The others had graduated and moved on with their lives, but Walls and Thomas needed one more year. While Walls enjoyed the acclaim that came with being one of the first Black students to attend Central, her senior year was still a miserable ordeal, a veritable endurance test from day to day. The beginning of the school year was punctuated by segregationist protests and a series of bombs that exploded on Labor Day, before the first day of school. The perpetrators received light sentences, and they were commuted by Gov. Orval Faubus. The only guilty person who cooperated with the prosecution, J.D. Sims, served the longest prison term, just under two years. After exhausting all appeals, ringleader E.A. Lauderdale did not begin serving any time until February 1961.
But there was another bomb during that school year. On the evening of Feb. 9, 1960, about a year before Lauderdale began his sentence for the Labor Day bombs, an explosion rocked the house at 1500 Valentine St., where Carlotta Walls and her family lived.
The election of white moderates to the school board during the desegregation crisis — people who remained firmly committed to segregation but didn’t wave Confederate flags — helped reopen the high schools for the 1959-60 school year. But throughout the entire ordeal, terrorists had periodically targeted the home of L.C. and Daisy Bates. Bricks shattered their windows. Explosions rocked their neighborhood.
Local authorities were useless amid these attacks. In July 1959, before the schools reopened, several sticks of dynamite were hurled from a passing car at their home. The terrorists missed the house — only the yard was damaged — but the explosion “rocked dwellings for several blocks,” Daisy Bates wired in a telegram to the U.S. attorney general. She approached federal officials because she did not trust the local police. In her memoir, Bates explained, “Police brutality was rampant. Negroes were beaten unmercifully by the city police of Little Rock at the slightest provocation.”
While local authorities never arrested anyone for the numerous attacks on the Bates residence, they quickly apprehended the culprits responsible for the 1959 Labor Day bombs. Those explosions targeted white civic leaders, crossing a line that had not been breached when the Bates home was attacked.
Police brutality was even a topic of conversation on Tuesday evening, Feb. 9, 1960, when several Black teenagers, Herbert Monts among them, gathered at the washateria at 18th and Pine streets in Little Rock, in a building owned by Carlotta Walls’s father that still stands today.
Monts had spent most of that day bored at his house. A few days earlier, the 17-year-old had been suspended from the all-Black Horace Mann High School for trying to enter the cafeteria by a back door. Monts arrived at the washateria around 8:30 p.m. Friends and acquaintances were there just talking like folks did. Conversations among the teenagers that night ranged widely — basketball, girls, the usual teenage banter. Talk shifted to how local police harassed young Black men on a regular basis, but they also chuckled in recounting a story about police trying and failing to arrest a few who had been fighting. Everyone got away. These were the ways that teenagers made sense of the harassment they felt on a regular basis.
At about 10:30 p.m. the group finally began to break up. As they stepped outside to head home, Maceo Binns Jr. drove up. That day was like any other day for Binns. He reported to work early that morning with the president of a local paper company and spent the day chauffeuring his boss and performing menial tasks. Binns was not particularly ambitious. He attended Philander Smith College but did not complete his studies, received an honorable discharge from the military, spent a little time in Detroit, but eventually returned to family and friends in Little Rock, settling for a job that provided a meager but steady income. After work that day, Binns spent the late afternoon as he frequently did, enjoying a beer with friends at the washateria, only a block and a half from his residence, where he lived with his sister and an aunt. An overcast sky hid the sun as it set shortly before 6 p.m., about the time that he walked home and dozed off.
Back at his home, Binns awoke after the 10 o’clock news, and he prepared to leave around 10:30 p.m. to pick up his girlfriend, Barbara Owens, from her job as a registered nurse at the university hospital. He encountered the young men from the washateria as they left for their homes.
A few of them bummed a ride with Binns, but Monts, Marion Davis and Charles Webb headed out on foot toward their houses. The stroll home was routine and short, only about half a mile for Monts. They arrived at Webb’s house first, then turned north on Maple Street where Davis lived. Davis later recalled that the time was 10:45 p.m. when he entered his home. Monts now walked alone down 15th Street, another block and a half to his house. As he passed the Walls residence, he saw Binns come around the corner of Valentine Street, having dropped off the other young men. People in the neighborhood knew his car by sight and sound, its loud, modified muffler announcing his presence wherever he went. At the same time, Monts also noted a dark pick-up truck occupied by two white males that he tried to ignore.
Monts’s mother met him at the front door. Monts grabbed a quick snack and made a cup of instant coffee while he hung up his jacket. He wished his mother good night and went to bed.
Binns was also an acquaintance of Cartelyou and Juanita Walls, Carlotta’s parents. The Walls family enjoyed relative comfort for a Black family in Little Rock in 1960. Juanita was a clerk at the Booker Housing Project, where she collected rent payments, and Cartelyou was a brick mason by trade. He also assisted his father with several business and real estate investments, including a diner off of John Barrow Road, where Binns frequently saw him on Saturday nights. The Walls family owned their home, too, the ultimate statement of independence in a state with a long history of preying on Black poverty. They were a proud, independent Black family.
Carlotta stayed up to study that evening after her younger sisters went to bed, but she was also asleep by the time Monts walked home. Her mother was in the front bedroom, tired from a long day’s work, while her father lingered at the diner. Everyone slept peacefully until shortly after 11 p.m. when an explosion rocked their home. In an instant the bomb damaged one corner of the house, cracked interior walls and shattered windows. Juanita’s first memory was the sensation of floating above her bed. Windows in neighboring homes also shattered. The sound and impact of the blast reverberated throughout the city. Numerous people called the police department.
Words prove inadequate in describing the terror. Are the attackers still outside? Might they try again to kill us? Whom should we call? Juanita remembered leaving her bedroom and meeting Carlotta in the doorway. Whereas whites would’ve immediately called the police, Juanita first phoned a trusted neighbor, a retired teacher named A.B. Fox, who also awoke when windows in his house shattered from the impact. He immediately crossed the street to investigate. “There was glass shattered over a radio,” he later testified, “and little fragments of plaster was on the floor and that is all that I recollect, just remember that glass and stuff being on the floor and by that time the officers came in.” Juanita initially hesitated to contact the police but called them after speaking to Fox. Officers arrived within a few minutes of that call, a fact that raised suspicions that some of them anticipated the bombing.
Just up the street, Monts leapt out of bed at the sound of the explosion. A few minutes later, as neighbors ventured outside to investigate for themselves, he walked down the hill and spoke briefly with them. Police kept people away from the Walls house, and Monts soon returned home, shaken by the brazen assault. As he drifted to sleep, he kept thinking about that truck. When he saw that police were still at the Walls residence the next morning, he voluntarily went to them and shared what he remembered about walking home.
Binns heard the blast as he waited in the parking lot of the hospital for his girlfriend, whose shift ended at 11 p.m. He was there when she exited the building, as he always was. Two other people later testified to seeing him there.
He learned exactly where the explosion occurred the next day. Binns then recalled an unusual car in the vicinity of the Walls house when he drove by the previous night on his way to the hospital. He called Cartelyou Walls and visited the house after work that afternoon, Feb. 10. FBI agents and local detectives were at the scene investigating when he arrived, so he told them what he remembered about the previous evening. On his way home, he encountered another acquaintance from the neighborhood, asked if she knew anything, and learned that she had also seen a car circling by her house. Binns promptly took her back to the detectives, where she shared what she knew. He left a second time, saw another person from the previous night, and took him back to the scene as well, although officers had already departed.
One other person in the vicinity of the Walls house reported unfamiliar vehicles. Only one house and the cross street stood between the home of Earzie Cunningham and the Walls residence. Cunningham was at home when the explosion occurred, and he arrived at the Walls house a few minutes after police with a partial license plate number of a suspicious vehicle and descriptions of two cars. Fox was still there with Juanita and the girls. Fox later testified, “[A]fter going in her house I went back out on the porch and about that time an officer’s car drove up and following his car was another car that had three or four youngsters in it and they might near got there before the officers.”
Recently released FBI files offer fascinating insights into how the investigation unfolded. The whereabouts of the Labor Day bombers were quickly verified. An informant who was present at a Klan meeting that evening reported that there was no discussion of a bomb, and the FBI later determined that no active Klansmen appeared to be responsible. They also checked other known terrorists in the region, from Dallas to Nashville, Tenn. All had alibis; none became suspects. After eliminating these possibilities, the FBI processed fingerprints on an anonymous note that Jefferson Thomas had received in his locker on the day before the bombing, and they evaluated substances left by the bomb. The fingerprints could not be identified. A ballistics expert from the FBI later identified what caused the explosion: “a large amount of Black powder or a small quantity of dynamite or other high order type explosion.”
The investigation into Klan activities that night led one member to suggest that kids were probably responsible. The bombs were amateurish; the explosive load was low. The FBI took this suggestion seriously and immediately turned their attention to a group of white students at Central. The first police reports noted that there were a number of white teenagers in the vicinity of the house when the bombing occurred. Several people mentioned a dark vehicle with two or three white kids rushing away right after the bombing. Within 48 hours of the explosion, the FBI had obtained a full list of chemistry students in Junior Johnson’s chemistry class at Central, a group that included Carlotta Walls. That class had recently learned about explosives.
But something changed the focus of the investigation, and the police began to create a fictitious narrative that would help them implicate Binns, Monts and, if they could, Cartelyou Walls, whom local police now accused of arranging to bomb his own home while his family slept.
Police proceeded to find people who would help, unwittingly or not, construct a case that portrayed Binns and Monts as untrustworthy and dangerous, a strategy long employed against generations of young Black men before and since that time. For example, the most damaging character witness against Monts turned out to be his principal, Jeffrey Hawkins, a well-respected member of the Black middle class in Little Rock who, according to FBI notes, said that Monts was a “troublemaker capable of doing anything.” In a Feb. 17 memo, an FBI agent alleged that Monts was known to have experimented with explosives. Monts admitted that he occasionally played with a chemistry set, but he had neither made nor used black powder. His chemistry teacher explained that Monts was a mediocre student and incapable of making a bomb, but that account didn’t fit the police narrative. Agents also visited the few stores in Central Arkansas that sold black powder. None reported recent sales; no one recognized Binns, Monts or Cartelyou Walls.
This laser-like focus on two friends of the Walls family, neither of whom knew the other well or had any possible motive, required some justification. Local police only needed to develop a story, no matter how plausible, to close the case. They built that story with the help of Earzie Cunningham.
He had been in and out of trouble with police for most of his life, having recently spent some time in jail for selling mortgaged cattle. After the bombing he ran to the door and saw two cars passing slowly by the house. By his initial account, one contained a white woman and man, and the other contained two white women and a white man. He reported the make and model of the cars to police that evening and then left the matter alone. But 48 hours after the bombing, on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 11, he answered his home phone to hear whom he believed was a white man ask if he was Earzie Cunningham. Then the caller said, “Be careful, we’re going to kill you!” He reported this call to the police, but the threat clearly took a toll on him.
The police needed Cunningham to say that Monts or Binns made the threat; Cunningham said neither was the same voice. By this time, a young and ambitious detective, David Bentley, was assigned to the case, and the rumor around the neighborhood was that Cunningham was in trouble.
On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 18, with Monts and Binns in custody, Cunningham arrived at police headquarters to answer more questions about the bomb and to take a polygraph test. He now said he knew who bombed the house, emphasized that he didn’t do it, and began to talk about how scared he was for himself and his family. According to police reports, Cunningham talked about the two teenagers who were in the car that passed by the house before the bombing, and then were at the house seconds after the bomb went off. White teens. The initial focus of the FBI.
Many of their names have been redacted in the FBI files, but tantalizing information still appears. One was asked about the bombing by a school counselor and “from that time on began to talk quite fast, and seemed to be interested in having the conference terminated as soon as possible.” Another admitted saying at school “that he thought the bomb was placed on the wrong side of the house” and hearing others remark, “It’s too bad it didn’t kill the Negroes.” While this person admitted hearing these comments, he told detectives that he did not know who was making them.
But on the evening of Feb. 18, after spending a day at police headquarters, Cunningham changed his story. He now claimed that two Black men were responsible. Why did his story evolve as it did? Was it local police, some of whom belonged to the Citizens Council, trying to protect one of their own? Was it influential white parents protecting their kids? Was it a prosecuting attorney aiming to become the state’s next attorney general?
Cunningham was then shown a lineup of all Black men. He picked out his young neighbor, Herbert Monts, but did not identify Binns. Cunningham was a vulnerable Black man, and white supremacy had a way of eating up and destroying vulnerable Black men. Picking Monts out of a lineup made police happy, and maybe the teenager would forgive him. The teenager certainly wouldn’t dare retaliate against a grown man, Cunningham might have thought. Without further explanation, a police report about that evening’s inquisition says that Cunningham “later admitted it was Maceo Binns instead.” Police detained Cunningham into the wee hours of the morning. Exhausted and scared, he changed his story yet again. Now he claimed to see Monts and Binns in the middle of the street placing the bomb.
There was no evidence that Monts and Binns committed the crime; all evidence pointed in other directions. White kids at Central had just learned about using black powder to make explosives. Two young white men had recently checked out chemistry books from a local library about making explosives. One white teenager admitted to friends that he regularly made bombs and used them to have fun. He was overheard by Carlotta Walls. And, perhaps most shockingly, the chemistry teacher at Central admitted that his lessons dealt with explosives such as black powder, smokeless powder and nitroglycerin. The textbook he used had the formula and the percentages of each chemical one would use to make a bomb, and the chemistry lab at school contained all of the materials to make a bomb. And then he admitted to teaching a large group of white teenagers, after school, how to make explosives.
Yet Monts and Binns remained the only suspects whom local police pursued. Facts were not important; the only important thing was constructing an image of “bad” Black men. J. Edgar Hoover was so taken by these images that he wrote at the bottom of a Feb. 17 memo on the case, “Interesting the perpetrators are 2 negroes.” The false story had now advanced to the highest levels of power; possible white suspects seemingly disappeared as local police focused on the Black “perpetrators.”
As the police created their narrative, Monts and Binns were questioned for hours, sometimes under the added duress of a polygraph machine. Both consistently denied any involvement, even when they were physically abused, but the hours of questioning, the absence of any friendly face, and the immense fear took a psychological toll. Both eventually panicked, their minds undoubtedly telling them to do or say anything to get out of the situation, to protect their lives.
Eventually, Monts and Binns blamed each other. Leading questions made clear that police aimed to implicate Cartelyou Walls, so both finally said that he was also involved. In one of the more dramatic moments in the FBI records, Detective Bentley left the room where he had interrogated Binns alone. Two FBI agents entered and Binns immediately explained that the confession he had just signed was a lie; he only told the detective what he wanted to hear. When Bentley returned, the FBI agents told him what Binns had said, but with Bentley in the room, Binns was terrified and affirmed now that the statement was actually true. After their confessions, Monts and Binns were released on bail. In the safety of family, friends and legal counsel, they again denied their involvement.
The interrogation was a farce from the beginning. Neither the FBI nor the Little Rock police found a shred of evidence that implicated Cartelyou Walls in some sort of financial scam, but when we recently interviewed Detective Bentley, he still insisted that money was the motive. Walls even agreed to a polygraph test that he passed. In her memoir, Carlotta Walls recalled that her father was detained overnight and despite physical abuse, refused to sign a confession. Monts and Binns also passed their polygraphs. Both had alibis. No bomb residue was found in Binns’s car or on him. There were no bomb-making materials found at any of their homes or businesses. And yet, Monts and Binns were still prosecuted for the crime.
Binns and Monts were tried separately. Monts was tried in May, charged as an adult before an all-white jury. When the defense suggested that Monts had been physically abused and that the confession was coerced, prosecuting attorney Frank Holt responded with sworn testimony from numerous police officers who said there was no abuse. Cunningham testified against him, and Monts was quickly found guilty.
A month later, the Binns trial offered more drama. He had better representation and took the stand in his own defense. His supposed confession narrated a convoluted sequence of events that seem patently absurd.
On the second day of the trial, the defense presented nine witnesses, and Binns testified on his own behalf. Prosecutor Holt’s primary strategy was to disparage the reputations of Black people who were bold enough to testify in a courtroom, another domain of white supremacy. After Cartelyou Walls testified that he never asked anyone to bomb his own home, the prosecutor proceeded to a line of questioning that was tried and true. “Do you belong to any organization?” he asked. “Yes,” Walls replied. “Belong to the NAACP?” followed the prosecutor. “Yes, I am a member,” Walls affirmed.
Another compelling defense witness was a Black woman named Anita Ortega, who vividly recalled the moment when she heard the blast. Her shift as a nurse’s aide at the university hospital ended at 11 p.m. “Well, it was an awful noise,” she remembered, “and I was coming out of the door so it frightened me.” Ortega’s husband was sitting in their car, waiting for her in the hospital parking lot. She scanned the parking lot, found him, and walked quickly toward the car. She noticed Binns waiting nearby in another car, as he usually did. Her husband had watched him arrive about 15 minutes earlier. Ortega later learned that Binns had been arrested. “I was wondering why,” she testified, “how could he have been there and there at the same time, so I said, ‘Well, I just don’t know. Maybe it is another Maceo.’ ” The police never questioned her or her husband, Rudolph Ortega.
The trial culminated when Binns took the stand. He again offered his alibi and explained his indefinite detention, sleep deprivation and psychological torture. Police threatened to press charges against his girlfriend and told him that his pastor said he never attended church. They deprived him of sleep, waking him for more questioning if he ever dozed. Police discovered pornography in his car and promised 90 days in jail if he didn’t cooperate with their investigation of the bombing. Binns had pleaded for his release to Bentley who told him, “You can’t go any place whatever, not unless you give me a statement.” Binns asked, “Well, can I withdraw the statement?” “Yes,” Bentley replied. “Nobody is going to send you up for a first offense. … You go ahead. Everything is all right.”
Under cross examination, Binns held his ground against Holt, who undoubtedly hoped his performance would help in the upcoming election. During one tense exchange, Holt asked if Binns was mad. “I am not mad. I am not mad,” he replied. “You are just trying to place me some place I know I wasn’t. Were you there? So far as I know, you could have done it, and I am not being facetious either.”
The all-white jury still reached a guilty verdict. The only single piece of evidence linking Binns to the crime was his coerced confession. On appeal, even the state Supreme Court ruled that it was inadmissible, and Binns was never tried again. Monts was less fortunate. The state Supreme Court upheld the verdict in his case, and the 17-year-old was sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary.
For now, at least, Binns disappears from the historical record. But Monts went to prison. While historians don’t generally deal in what-ifs, it’s not difficult to imagine a few scenarios where these events — this incarceration — could have utterly ruined his life. Many people in less difficult circumstances have succumbed to hopelessness and futility. A chance meeting between his parents and a family acquaintance, a Black man who had the governor’s ear, led to his early release. Three years after the bombing, his parents met with Governor Faubus to explain the circumstances, to insist on their son’s innocence. Away from the television cameras and reporters, Faubus apparently agreed with them. He arranged for Monts to leave prison after 20 months in jail.
Once the legal proceedings were discovered, we contacted Herbert Monts to ask if we might record an interview with him and apply for a formal pardon from the state of Arkansas. He submitted the application several months before the 60th anniversary of the 1957 desegregation crisis, an appropriate time to bring his story to light. Carlotta Walls and her mother, Juanita, also gave their blessing and sent a letter in support of his request.
The state of Arkansas finally got back to him two years ago, with a document in that small envelope. In a proclamation dated Nov. 4, 2018, the governor formally pardoned Herbert Monts for the crime of “Damaging Property with Dynamite.” It was, frankly, condescending. In some respects, it echoed the both-sides-ism that Faubus mastered and that remains so prevalent today. “WHEREAS, Herbert Monts has demonstrated that he has fully rehabilitated his life in that he has no subsequent felony nor misdemeanor convictions …. ” Monts’s life was not in need of rehabilitation. Indeed, he eventually moved to Detroit, led a productive life, and retired from the UAW a few years ago. But he was pleased to open that envelope and receive some acknowledgment, any acknowledgment, that his name was cleared.
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