An Alabama judge’s ruling that an ex-Klansman is competent to stand trial for the murder of four black girls in a church bombing 39 years ago is an important step toward closing the books on the wave of murders that rocked the South during the civil rights era.
But a conviction in the case would leave open nine other murder cases and at least 300 bombings and assaults between 1960 and 1965. These victims were not solely victims of Klan terrorists or hostile local and state officials. They also fell victim to a racially indifferent federal government. Alabama circuit court Judge James Garrett ruled on Jan. 3 that Bobby Frank Cherry – whose age is listed as both 71 and 72 in court records – was mentally competent to stand trial for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the most grotesque murder of the civil rights era. The same week of the ruling, the cable TV movie “The Sins of the Father” portrayed Cherry’s son coming to the realization that his father may have taken part in the bombing.
Last May, Thomas E. Blanton Jr., 62, was convicted of first-degree murder in the case, and was slapped with a life sentence. Another former clansman had been convicted of murder in the bombing in 1977.
In recent years, several civil rights-era murderers have been brought to justice. State prosecutors in Mississippi convicted Byron de la Beckwith in 1994 for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, 76, was convicted in 1998 for the 1965 firebomb murder of Vernon Dahmer, a Mississippi NAACP official. Beckwith died at age 80 in prison.
But for years the murdered men’s relatives had pressed prosecutors to bring charges against the killers.
Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson reluctantly pushed the FBI to make arrests and the Justice Department to bring indictments in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi and Army Major Lemeul Penn in Georgia, and civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965. But these murders triggered national outrage. When pressed for more prosecutions, federal officials claimed that the states were solely responsible for prosecuting these crimes and if they wouldn’t, there was little they could do about it. This was blatant legal evasion.
Two federal statutes gave the Justice Department the power to prosecute public officials and law enforcement officers who committed or conspired with others to commit acts of racial violence. The statutes were enacted by Congress immediately after the Civil War and were aimed at specifically punishing racial attacks against blacks.
In many of the racial killings, local sheriffs and police officers directly participated in the attacks or aided and abetted the killers. Federal officials also could have prosecuted many of the killers under the Lindberg Act, passed in 1934, which made kidnapping a federal offense.
Many of the victims of the Klan hit squads were abducted at gunpoint and later killed. Some of the assailants were known, and some even openly boasted of their acts. Blanton’s case was a textbook example of legal indifference. Within days after the church bombing, the FBI, through wiretaps and informants, had identified Blanton as well as other probable church bombers, but blocked state action for a decade.
The Birmingham church bombing case is not the only example of an unsolved or unprosecuted case in which law enforcement or state officials were complicit in the murders of blacks, or the victims were kidnapped and transported across state lines, and the FBI and state officials knew or had strong suspicion who the killers were.
• 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, his 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. No state or federal 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, Alabama. Eyewitnesses insisted that Jackson was unarmed and did not threaten the officer. No state or federal charges were ever brought.
• In 1961, Herbert Lee, an NAACP worker, was murdered by a white Mississippi state representative on an open highway during a traffic dispute. He was unarmed. No state or federal charges were ever brought.
The conviction of Blanton and the possible conviction of Cherry, again magnifies an ugly reflection on the period in the South when blacks were beaten, murdered, and their churches burned and bombed with the tacit approval of Southern state officials and the blind-eye of the federal government. It’s time for state and federal prosecutors to close these cases.
PNS contributor Earl Ofari Hutchinson, (email@example.com) is an author and nationally syndicated columnist.