Bomb Case Won't Close Book On Hate Violence

Even if Bobby Frank Cherry is convicted of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four black girls, it still won't answer the question why it took so long to bring him to trial. The Birmingham bombing was the bloodiest and most outrageous act of racial terrorism against blacks during the civil rights era. The FBI assigned more than 200 agents to the case. It had wiretaps, surveillance and a network of informants in the most violence-prone Klan groups. Within two weeks of the attack it identified the four men who had likely planted bomb. Cherry was one of them. Two others have been convicted.

But an ugly mix of race, politics and public indifference towards civil rights cases marred the case from the start like so many other civil rights outrages in the South during those years. State authorities claimed they would prosecute the men. They charged one of the suspected bombers only with illegal possession of dynamite, a misdemeanor. He was convicted, fined $100, and sentenced to 180 days in jail.

During the FBI investigation, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover seemed more obsessed with uncovering racial plots by blacks than racists. In a memo to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he blamed "Negro elements" for hampering the FBI's investigation and ordered evidence collected from the wiretaps and informants sealed from prosecutors. The Justice Department subsequently declined to prosecute them on federal civil rights charges. This guaranteed that the case would drag on for decades.

Worse, it firmly established the pattern of state obstructionism and federal stonewalling of other civil rights murders in the South. The FBI would investigate, state officials would refuse to prosecute, and the Justice Department would decline to bring civil rights charges. It took decades, and the persistent efforts of relatives and civil right leaders, before 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.

Hoover and Southern officials have gotten much of the blame for their racial jaundice toward civil rights cases, but the bitter truth is that federal officials were guilty of the same racial bias. They were trapped by the brutal history and legacy of slavery and segregation that systematically devalued black lives, no matter how young and innocent those lives.

To many whites in the South and North, the color black symbolized evil, villainy and degradation. That sentiment became an ingrained part of the political and cultural ethic that warped law and public policy deep into the twentieth century. Southern blacks knew from bitter experience that the laws would not protect them from racial violence.

Though Cherry sits in a Birmingham courtroom, the blind-eye that federal and state authorities turned in decades past to racially motivated violence continues to stymie hate crime prosecutions to this day. In its annual report on hate crimes, the FBI notes that hate crimes have shown no appreciable drop in hate crimes the past decade, more than half of the attacks were racially motivated. As has been the pattern, since the FBI began compiling hate crime figures a decade ago, blacks are still the prime victims of hate attacks. Nearly 40 percent of the attacks are against them.

Even this number is almost certainly a gross underestimate of hate violence. When Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990, it compelled the FBI to collect figures on hate violence. However, it did not compel police agencies to report them. There are still hundreds of police agencies that refuse to report hate crimes, or to label racially motivated hate crimes as hate crimes.

Many don't bother compiling them because they regard hate crimes as a politically loaded minefield that can tarnish their image and create even more racial friction. The ignoring or downplaying of hate crimes by many police agencies insures that federal officials can't accurately gauge the magnitude of hate violence. This fosters the false public impression that hate crimes have diminished or are non-existent.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1998 was aimed at closing these loopholes and increasing the types of hate crimes prosecuted, and the penalties for them. But the measure is still frozen in the Senate. And while President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly condemn hate attacks against Muslims, given their stubborn past hostility to tougher hate crimes laws, they're unlikely to prod Congress to take action on the bill.

Cherry's conviction will bring much needed closure to the families of the four girls killed at the Birmingham church four decades ago. But it won't bring closure to those who suffer from acts of racial violence today.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site thehutchinsonreport.comHe is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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