Wounds that won't heal
The 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing reminds us of other atrocities left unpunished
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 09/18/2013
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four African-American girls 50 years ago this week was no isolated racial horror. At the time, the bombing was just another in the decade-long series of racist terror attacks that included ambushes, beatings, shootings and mob attacks.
Dozens were killed in these incidents, all of which had two things in common: Victims were targeted for their civil rights work, or solely out of racial hate, and killers in nearly every case were never prosecuted. In most cases, perpetrators were not even arrested, though their identities were often well known.
The Birmingham bombing was a good example of how officials turned a blind eye toward these types of murders. The man who actually planted the Birmingham bomb, Robert Chambliss, was quickly identified. However, he was arrested not on murder charges, but for illegal possession of dynamite. He got a paltry fine and a six-month jail sentence. His three accomplices, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, were also soon identified, but they were not even arrested. It would take nearly two decades before Chambliss was finally tried and received a life sentence for the bombing. Cash died, but Blanton and Cherry eventually received life sentences.
These convictions closed the legal book on this horror. And in a few other cases, federal and state prosecutors in the South were determined to nail the perpetrators of these old racial crimes. They scored some notable victories. State prosecutors in Mississippi, for instance, convicted Byron de la Beckwith in 1994 for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers was convicted in 1998 for the 1965 firebomb murder of Mississippi NAACP official Vernon Dahmer.
While these prosecutions are commendable, the legal book on these types of shocking racial atrocities, some of which were well known, still remains wide open.
* In 1959, Mack Charles Parker was seized from a Mississippi jail by a group of armed white men. Parker was accused of raping a white woman. Ten days later Parker’s mutilated body was fished out of a river in Louisiana. Within three weeks of the killing, FBI agents identified his killers. They had solid evidence that the murderers had crossed state lines and that law enforcement officers had conspired with the killers. However, no state or federal charges were ever brought.
* In 1961, a white Mississippi state representative murdered Herbert Lee, a worker with the NAACP, during a traffic dispute. Lee was unarmed. No charges were ever brought.
* In 1965, Jimmy Lee Jackson, a black church deacon, was gunned down by an Alabama state trooper following a voting rights protest march and rally in Marion, Ala. Eyewitnesses insisted that Jackson was unarmed and did not threaten the officer. No charges were ever brought.
* According to FBI reports, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary terror squad in Mississippi, committed nine murders between 1960 and 1965. In nearly all cases, FBI agents quickly learned the identities of the suspected killers through Klan informants or through boasts of the men involved. There was only a token effort made to bring them to justice.
Federal prosecutors have always had the legal weapons to indict these suspected killers. Two federal statutes have long been on the books that give the US Justice Department the power to prosecute public officials and law enforcement officers who commit or conspire with others to commit acts of racial violence.
The four children massacred in the 16th Street Baptist Church a half-century ago, and the other cold case victims, were not solely victims of Klan terrorists, hostile local sheriffs and state officials, but at times of an indifferent federal government. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson cautiously and reluctantly pushed the FBI to make arrests and the Justice Department to bring indictments in the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, Army Major Lemuel Penn in Georgia in 1964 and civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965. Even then it took mass outrage and pressure to mount legal action against the killers.
The 50th anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing is a reminder of how far the nation has come from its ugly and violent racial past. But at the same time, it casts a terrible glare on the period in the South when blacks were murdered with the tacit approval of state officials and the cold indifference of the federal government. The commemoration of the bombing presents yet another opportunity for federal and state prosecutors to permanently close the book on all of the nation’s old unsolved racial murders. Without that, the ghosts of this atrocious past will continue haunting America. n
Author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an associate editor of New America Media. He also hosts the Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles, streamed on ktym.com, podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com. His latest ebook is, “‘47 Percent Negro’: A Chronicle of the Wackiest Racial Assaults on President Obama,” now available on Amazon. Follow Earl at http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.