|JUSTICE IN ALABAMA|
May 2, 2001
A former Klansman is convicted of murder in the 1963 bombing of a black church.
JIM LEHRER: Some further thoughts now on Birmingham and Alabama, from, Bryan Fair, a law professor at the University of Alabama; and Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: the Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution." She grew up in Birmingham, and is now a contributor to the New York Times and USA Today.
Diane McWhorter, on the verdict, was there ever any serious doubt that this verdict could and would be delivered by this jury in Birmingham?
DIANE McWHORTER: I predicted a conviction, but the early press reports on the trial were very skeptical partly because we were not allowed to hear the, to see transcripts of the crucial kitchen tape, which contained the statements of Blanton about meeting to plan the bomb, making the bomb. So I think there was a sense that they didn't have the goods on him until we saw the closing arguments and the transcript was projected on a video screen and you could read the words. I thought they were very compelling. So I at that point I really was pretty sure there was going to be a conviction.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Fair, what was your attitude going in about whether or not this verdict was going to be returned?
BRYAN FAIR: Jim, I was skeptical that there would be a conviction, too. It's very difficult to try a case 38 years later and to persuade a jury that you have the right person. But like Diane, I think that the tapes were very compelling and ultimately probably persuaded this jury.
|What took so long?|
JIM LEHRER: What is your view, Professor Fair, as to why it took 38 years to get this trial on the road?
BRYAN FAIR: Well, it's fairly clear that 38 years ago the segregationists controlled Alabama and controlled the courts, controlled access to justice. They don't control it today. And that's probably the key change. In your earlier piece on Birmingham, people who come to Birmingham or to Tuscaloosa and other places can see real change. The central change is that we don't have a governor who blocks African-Americans from coming to the universities; we don't have an all-white state police force that brutalizes black people. Those things are different now.
JIM LEHRER: Diane McWhorter, what's your reading of that? Is it literally true that this trial just could not have been held before?
DIANE McWHORTER: Oh, yeah, I mean the investigation was flawed initially. The Birmingham police had a longstanding tradition of collaboration, active collaboration with the Ku Klux Klan -- including the klavern that produced the church bombers. The big problem was that the evidence has always been weak because nobody involved in the case has talked about it. There was a Klan code of silence known as the kiss of death that said that if you ratted out your brothers, your families would suffer reprisals. And I think that's ultimately the most frustrating thing about this case, that even though there's justice, we may never really get at the truth. We may really never know what happened in the hours leading up to the bombing.
JIM LEHRER: Difficult question, Ms. McWhorter, what was your feeling about the public opinion both in the white community and the black community about the need to have this trial and get a verdict and get it behind him?
DIANE McWHORTER: Well, I was sort of surprised by the apathy on both sides. Initially the trial looked like a media event. It was just a huge press gallery and the family and victims... family and friends of the victims. And then word got out in the papers, that nobody was attending the trial and I think Birmingham then became worried that, oh, no we're going to get a bad name for not caring about the trial. On the white side there's been this enormous urge to try to put this behind us, sweep it under the rug without really understanding it or confronting it. On the black side, I believe there is a feeling that possibly this was a white person's guilt trip, that they were spending a lot of money to go after a man who had lived most of his life free, that the money could be better spent on concrete things like education or better bus service. So perhaps they were reserving judgment because of, you know, lack of faith in the system until the verdict came back. And I think that the mood was described in the local newspapers today as something like quiet satisfaction. That's what... that would seem to sum it up to me.
JIM LEHRER: Quiet satisfaction, Professor Fair? Would you use the same words?
BRYAN FAIR: I wouldn't use those words. I think both relief on the one hand that this trial has concluded with the guilty verdict -- but also great anger that the federal government did not stand taller in 1963, 1964, 1965, that the FBI did not proceed with its investigation and offer a fuller explanation of why this trial. I wasn't suggesting earlier that the trial should not have taken place but rather that the environment, the legal environment, has changed substantially since then.
JIM LEHRER: What drove it, Professor Fair? Why was this trial, why was it finally held? Who was... Who or what group of who's were behind it?
BRYAN FAIR: Several things drove it. One FBI agent, upon returning to Alabama and wanting to embrace Birmingham-- both blacks and whites in Birmingham-- began to sponsor some meetings with black leaders. And this was the central issue for many of those leaders that why didn't the FBI ever take this case more seriously and treat it more fully? He undertook his own investigation as I understand the reports and was able to persuade Doug Jones, the U.S. Attorney, the state district attorney and others that there was sufficient evidence to put this puzzle together.
JIM LEHRER: Do you know that agent's name?
BRYAN FAIR: My recollection is it's Charles Langford.
JIM LEHRER: Does that ring right with you, Diane McWhorter?
DIANE McWHORTER: It was Rob Langford.
JIM LEHRER: Rob Langford. Do you agree that he's the one who got this started?
DIANE McWHORTER: Oh, yeah, I do. I disagree with the notion that the FBI was slacked on this investigation. I've looked at al the available documents. Boy, they investigated this case to the max.
JIM LEHRER: You mean back in the 1960s they did?
DIANE McWHORTER: Oh, yeah, they interviewed... The only suspicious thing I found was that they had an informant inside the Klan named Gary Thomas Rowe whom they had shielded from prosecution for crimes he had committed in the line of duty in the previous two years. I'm sure that they had suspicions that he might have been involved in the bombing. There was never evidence that he was ultimately. But I think it probably affected the initial investigation. They, for example, didn't show his picture to any potential witnesses or a picture of his car. And if Hoover had any truly any nefarious reasons for shelving the investigation-- and I would never say that he was trying to shield church bombers because it would have been a huge feather in his cap to get a conviction in a case like this-- it was probably because he was worried about what might come out about the informant.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let's look ahead now beginning with you, Professor Fair. What is the result of this likely to be in Birmingham and Alabama, either good or bad?
BRYAN FAIR: Well, again, for some who knew the four victims, the surviving parents, and I think for the city itself, this does allow some closure. I think it also raises a number of questions about where Birmingham is, where Alabama is, where the nation is on race questions generally. I don't think that this case will resolve the larger questions about racial equity in the United States, about educational opportunity for all. I think it does provide some relief for the persons most closely involved. But with racial profiling, with police officers allegedly shooting unarmed African-Americans, we have many other problems happening here and elsewhere that must also be addressed by the leading law enforcement organizations.
JIM LEHRER: So in some interesting way, it's possible that this verdict might open some new wounds? Is that what you're saying -- Or in a good way or in a negative way?
BRYAN FAIR: Well, I think it is a step toward redemption but I think we are a long, long way from reconstruction.
JIM LEHRER: Diane McWhorter, what's your reading of the likely impact of this, if any?
DIANE McWHORTER: Well, I think that there's a certain amount of nostalgia around the country for old race crimes like this or a very simple black-and-white racial issues where the villains carry dynamite and the heroes are Sunday school girls because there's maybe something reassuring or comforting that somehow these wrongs can be righted, that we can, you know, we can go back and refight these battles -because... And I think you saw this in the Mississippi flag case too where there was this urge to go down back to the South to see if the racists had repented yet and there's a sense that maybe if they do down there, then the country can reach the racial millennium. When, you know, it's really, it's a very simplistic way of approaching the problem. The problem of economic justice is much more intractable and challenging than that.
JIM LEHRER: Before we go, let me ask you this, Diane McWhorter, your hometown is Birmingham. Is it likely to be a different place because of what that jury did yesterday?
DIANE McWHORTER: Well, I almost feel like it's part of the cellular, you know, structure of the city, this bombing. I hope that maybe, you know, there is a sort of New Yorkers don't go to the Statue of Liberty feeling about the case, about the trial that this is our monument, this bombed church is a monument that we haven't always wanted to own. And I think, you know, what I hope is that the city will own it and try to understand why it happened here, that it happened here for a reason, that it wasn't inflicted upon us, that there was a sort of lone gunman theory that is popular that these guys were lunatic fringe who had nothing to do with the rest of us. I think that's not true. I hope the city will accept that.
JIM LEHRER: Diane McWhorter, Professor Fair, thank you both very were.
DIANE McWHORTER: Thank you.