Two acts of ugly terrorism occurred in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.
One act was widely abhorred. The other act ignored.
Many across America know about the 9/15/63 Birmingham murders of four little girls slain in the bombing of a black Baptist church 18-days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his stirring “I Have A Dream” speech.
However, few know about the Birmingham murder of Johnny Robinson, a 16-year-old shot in the back by a policeman hours after that church bombing.
If the deaths of those four children inside that Birmingham church catalyzed the 1960s-era Civil Rights Movement contributing to the racial progress America now praises itself for achieving, the death of Johnny Robinson represents yet another instance of the regression across America on the issue of effectively addressing lawlessness by law enforcers – lawlessness that most often evades legal accountability.
Historically, America has a history of downplaying brutal behavior by police.
Police abuses – from fatal shootings through false arrests to the gratuitous use of foul or threatening language – are dismissed as isolated acts of a ‘few bad apples’ instead of as an endemic scourge historically impacting minorities and increasing impacting non-minorities. Top policy-makers and even much of the public embrace this dismissal dynamic.
The policeman who fatally shot Johnny Robinson during disturbances that erupted in the wake of that murderous church bombing never faced criminal prosecution because all-white grand juries (state and federal) excused his shotgun slaying of the boy.
That Birmingham policeman who blasted Robinson with a shotgun, like the men who bombed that city’s Sixteen Street Baptist Church, staunchly opposed eradicating America’s system of legally sanctioned racial segregation. Officer Jack Parker, then the head of Birmingham’s police union, publicly opposed integrating that city’s police department.
“We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Dr. King declared during his iconic 1963 speech, during which he twice decried police abuses.
Today most Americans extoll the vision King articulated during that speech while continually ignoring the nightmares he detailed as injustices that drove the need for his ‘Dream.’ Police abuses remain core elements of the nightmare that too many people across America encounter daily.
A dozen years before King’s ‘Dream’ speech a black union leader criticized police brutality during his keynote address at labor convention in Cincinnati. “We are horrified to hear of the many police killings of Negroes from New York City to Birmingham, Alabama,” William R. Hood said in October 1951.
The same year as Hood linked discrimination in the workplace with racist deprivations across American society, an interracial group of Americans delivered a petition to the United Nations charging the American government with committing genocide against African-Americans.
“Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet,” that seminal yet forgotten petition asserted. “We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.”
Typical of America’s history of denial on police brutality, federal government leaders viciously attacked those behind the petition instead of the police abuse and other problems highlighted in their petition. Top federal authorities, for example, pulled the passports of petition signers who were scheduled to travel to Europe to meet with U.N. representatives and even enlisted the widow of President Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, to convince U.N. officials that charges in that petition were exaggerated.
They were not, and they still hold true.
Indeed, many of those who continue to protest the early August 2014 fatal shooting of the unarmed and surrendering Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri believe that the killing of blacks and other non-whites is accepted police policy across America.
Bracketing the slaying of Michael Brown was the police chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City and the fatal shooting of John Crawford inside a Wal-Mart store in a town north of Cincinnati.
One month before the death of Brown in Ferguson, the District Attorney of bucolic Sonoma County California announced that the policeman who fatally shot a 13-year-old Mexican-American boy months earlier would not face prosecution for that controversial slaying.
D.A. Jill Ravitch based her decision not to prosecute Deputy Erick Glehaus for the death of Andy Lopez on a report that absolved Glehaus prepared by an expert Ravitch had hired allegedly for his “independence.” In truth, that expert has a history of consistently siding with police accused of wrongful deaths. Ravitch withheld release of the expert’s report until after her reelection.
In 2000, a report prepared for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights harshly criticized the then D.A. and police officials in Sonoma County for excusing each of eight fatal police shootings from April 1995 to September 1997.
The investigative committee that prepared that 2000 report was “appalled at the number of deadly incidents.” The committee’s report urged Sonoma’s District Attorneys office to conduct reviews of fatal police shootings that were “fair and impartial.” It’s a suggestion that current DA Ravitch did not follow in the Lopez shooting, critics charge.
That 2000 report recommended the creation of a citizen review board to monitor police. Sonoma authorities never implemented that recommendation for the county located sixty miles north San Francisco known for its wines (and ‘weed’).
That report also assailed authorities for the practice of seeking “…to criminalize their victims and marginalize their critics…”
Sonoma authorities, defending Deputy Glehaus, faulted Lopez for having marijuana in his system. (Authorities in Ferguson, Missouri quickly portrayed Brown as a robber who had pilfered a few cigars shortly before his fatal shooting, only to discover later that the video allegedly showing him stealing from a retail store was actually depicting an entirely different person.)
As the 2000 report from the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted, when police commanders and officers “separate from the greater community to protect individual officers who have transgressed they also become part of the problem.”
Today, politicians, press pundits and preachers across America, portray terrorism as having a foreign face. Yet, for far too many Americans, the terrorists that they encounter daily are the police.
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.