HUTCHINSON: More Prosecutions for the Racial Sins of Fathers

In the recent cable TV movie, Sins of the Father, Tom Cherry comes to the shocking realization that his father, ex-Klansmen Bobby Frank Cherry, may have taken part in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. The blast killed four black girls. It was the most grotesque murder of the civil rights era, and gave impetus to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights bill.

The same week the movie aired, Alabama circuit court Judge James Garrett ruled that Cherry is competent to stand trial for the murders. Last May, Thomas E. Blanton. Jr. was convicted of first-degree murder in the church bombing and slapped with a life sentence. If Cherry is convicted, prosecutors see this as a giant step toward closing the book on the wave of racial murders that rocked the South during the civil rights protest era in the 1960s.

State prosecutors in Mississippi convicted Byron de la Beckwith in 1994 for the 1963 murder of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, and former Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers in 1998 for the 1965-firebomb murder of Mississippi NAACP official Vernon Dahmer. For years the murdered men's relatives pressed prosecutors to bring charges against the killers.

But since there is no statute of limitation on murder, state and federal prosecutors should also prosecute other cases of racial murder that are still on the books. According to FBI reports, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a para-military terror squad in Mississippi, committed nine murders, seventy-five church burnings, and at least three hundred bombings and assaults between 1960 and 1965. The victims were not solely victims of Klan terrorists, hostile local sheriffs, and state officials, but also of a racially 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 the three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, army major Lemeul Penn in Georgia in 1964, and civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965. But these were murders that triggered national outrage, and state officials were defiant in their refusal to take action. 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 this 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 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 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. 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 tosses an ugly glare 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. These cases also demand closure. State and federal prosecutors should see that they are closed.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).


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