The Color Line: The Klansman Who Almost Got Away
John H. Barnhill is an independent historian in Yukon, Oklahoma.
And then there was one. Justice, delayed, cannot be denied. Even though four decades have passed, now that Bobby Frank Cherry is standing trial for the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, that sordid and painful episode will finally close.
Nineteen sixty-three seems a lifetime ago, and it is a world away. For nearly a decade since the school desegregation cases in Brown v. Topeka, federal actions had slowly begun to tear down the walls of segregation that had held the South back since the Supreme Court's enunciation of the separate but equal doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson. Civil rights advocates in government and out were forcing an acceleration of the desultory pace established by the court's decision that integration would occur"with all deliberate speed. Roused by the civil rights movement, Southerners had revitalized the Ku Klux Klan and formed White Citizens Councils, the downtown Klan. But by 1963 the tide was turning. Early in the year, Conner had used dogs and water hoses against civil rights demonstrators, but that was his last hurrah. By fall, Martin Luther King's"Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was stirring white sympathies against the segregationists.
Birmingham was moving past the era of Bull Conner and the Ku Klux Klan, the years that had earned the city the nickname"Bombingham." But the reactionaries made one last stand that, on Sunday, September 15, cost four black girls their lives. In the worst violence of the civil rights era, a dynamite bomb at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, and injured 20 others.
The FBI at the time was hostile toward civil rights. J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director, had agents in the Klan but was more inclined to have them compile dossiers on the political views and personal habits of the civil rights leadership, including King. And there is some evidence that Hoover's FBI was supplying information to Conner. When, in 1965, the FBI determined that the bombing was the work of four Klansmen, including Cherry, Hoover blocked prosecution. The FBI closed the case without action in 1968. Meanwhile the civil rights revolution and the white backlash brought more violence and death and rioting to the south and eventually, to the other sections of the United States.
Then the slow path to justice began. By fits and starts, from 1970 the state and local black leaders pursued the case, brought one of the perpetrators to justice in 1977. Another died before he could be tried, but the final two were charged in 1999. One was convicted, but a judge ruled Cherry incompetent to stand trial. Then this month the judge ruled that Cherry had been feigning illness and is competent. Cherry is standing trial.
The easy analogy between September 15, 1963, and September 11, 2001 is that in each case the perpetrators, offended by the official policy of the United States, decided to exact revenge and vigilante justice through a terrorist act that killed innocent people. There is an immeasurable gulf between the one's cost of thousands of lives and the other's four deaths, but both happened because past-looking men refused to acknowledge that the world had moved another step away from bigotry and hatred and evil.
The precise lesson of Birmingham, the one germane to those who won't rest until Osama bin Laden is brought to justice, is not that evil exists but that good exists as well. And justice will prevail.
Birmingham should serve as a caution for those who still think that the current war will bring swift retribution and justice. The wheels of justice grind ever so slow. And the system runs only through the efforts of fallible, weak, and sometimes misguided men and women.
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