That Birmingham Trial and the Second Reconstruction: Power, not Justice
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Is Thomas Blanton, convicted last week of first-degree murder in the infamous Birmingham church bombing of 1963, really guilty? Who knows? So politicized have trials involving racial issues become in this country—the murder trial of O.J. Simpson is the archetype—that jury verdicts mean almost nothing today. In the Blanton case, even the chief prosecutor, U.S. attorney Doug Jones, admitted that "this was not an overwhelming case."

Tried 37 years after the crime, before a jury that contained not a single white male and from which the prosecutors carefully excluded as many whites as possible, Blanton was never once connected to the actual crime. Usually in murder trials the prosecutors try to show such a connection—two or more witnesses, fingerprints, DNA, a confession, something that, beyond a reasonable doubt, will convince the jurors that the defendant is guilty. In the Blanton trial there was none of the above.

No witness placed Blanton at the scene of the bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. No witness or other evidence showed that he made or placed the bomb. Instead, an old girl friend testified that Blanton had boasted to her of the blacks he planned to kill, and a barely audible FBI tape recording had Blanton saying they'd never catch him "when I bomb my next church." Nobody doubts that Blanton, a Ku Klux Klan member, hated black people, that he bragged of hating them and bragged also about killing them and wanting to kill them. But no one claimed either that he ever admitted bombing this particular church or actually killing anybody. In short, it appears that Thomas Blanton was convicted of murder mainly because of what he thinks and says.

Blanton's defense lawyer argued in his summation that "the case is somehow linked with the image of this city," and no doubt the New South's obsessive rejection of its past played a role. So did the zealotry of the Clinton administration, which planned to bring the case to trial, and, not least, so did the racial resentment that drives many blacks to grind the entire past of the white South into the dirt.

"Somehow," intoned Shelley Stewart, a black Birmingham talk show host told The Washington Post last week, (April 29, 2001; Page A03), "African Americans here have been persuaded—in my view out of fear—that you get along with white people by forgetting. You must forget slavery, you must forget sitting at the back of the bus, you must forget segregation, you must forget the Sixteenth Street Church bombing—and when you forget all that, then we'll get along."

Disregarding Mr. Stewart's paranoid invocation of "fear," what else do he and his fellow black zealots demand of white Southerners but that they forget their own heritage by removing Confederate flags, statues, plaques and songs simply because they are "offensive" to blacks? In the South today, as in most of the rest of the nation, it is whites, not blacks, who are forced to forget, deny, distort, and denounce their own past and to celebrate the mythologized past of others. And it is whites, not blacks, who do so out of fear.

Whoever bombed the Sixteenth Street Church committed an atrocity. He or they knew the church would be filled and intended that men, women and children die. But if the bombing was an act of homicidal brutality, it was also an act of war, an act of resistance to the concerted onslaught against the white South launched by the civil rights movement, the federal government (including the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and the federal judiciary), the organized left, the mainstream churches, universities, and the national media. You don't have to be Thomas Blanton or a Ku Kluxer to believe that the South had as much moral and legal right to preserve its way of life as any other society and culture, and if it did have that right, then it had the right to resist the war that the powers of the earth were waging against it.

The problem with that resistance was that only people like Thomas Blanton were very serious about it. Then as now, most white business and political leaders sought a quick and easy settlement, so their profits wouldn't be hurt or their careers disrupted. Only characters like Blanton, who seldom saw profits and had no careers, fought back, and they fought the only way and for the only reasons they could imagine.

What the Blanton trial shows is not that justice has finally triumphed in the South but that the South lost the war that some white Southerners tried to fight. The trial and its outcome are important symbols of who won and who lost the war and the power that war determines, but let no one imagine that they represent justice.


May 08, 2001

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