Why the FBI refused to pursue justice for over a decade after four black girls were bombed in a Church

November 05, 2019 at 09:00 am | History, Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Staff Writer

November 05, 2019 at 09:00 am | History, Opinions & Features

A memorial plaque for the four little girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963. Photo Credit: Inquirer.com

For the purposes of spite and defence of some superiority of the white race, the law and its officers whose public trust is the mission to carry out justice in the United States have long-delayed and denied what is due African-Americans.

The history of the US is dotted with abundant examples of black people kicking and scratching in pleas for their dignity. And these were even after the country had gone to war over whether slavery was necessary.

As political essayist, Chauncey Devega noted for Salon.com, power relations in America has always been the negotiations racial minorities have had to make with white people. Blacks especially, have been negotiating for their dignity for three or so centuries.

The civil rights era was a profound point in this series of negotiations. And what we can say looking back now is that white America was predictably not going to easily cede or share power.

And so on September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was the target of anti-black racists who brought down the community church with 15 sticks of dynamite.

Four men, needless to name, had planned and planted the dynamite under the steps of the church. It was close to the basement.

As a sadist would, one of them phoned the church, a call answered by 14-year-old Carolyn Mauli. The caller only uttered “3 minutes” and hung up; a cryptic message that undoubtedly confounded the teenager.

A minute or so later after the call, the rest was tragic history.

A few little girls had been in the basement for a pre-service Sunday school. They were also changing into robes for the choir ministration for the day.

Four of the girls died in the blast: Addie Mae Collins (14); Cynthia Wesley (14); Carole Robertson (14) and Denise McNair (11). A survivor of the bombing would later recount that the bodies of the girls in the basement shook “like rag dolls”.

This was an act of terror whose intent was to silence a people shouting so loud for their rights. But it was also an opportunity for justice to be meted out in a way that said, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists. We will wipe you out.”

The onus to lead Americans on the path of justice fell on J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s boss and a known curmudgeon. This was the most unfortunate happening because Hoover was not a man enthused by black people demanding fairness and equality.

Under Hoover, the FBI clandestinely investigated black civil rights leaders and in some cases, even threatened them. Way before Martin Luther King Jr. became Hoover’s boogeyman, there was Theodore Roosevelt Howard, who Hoover described as “irresponsible” for asking for proper investigations into the death of Emmett Till and others.

Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers all had files opened on them under Hoover’s FBI. Hoover was actually an equal opportunity offender who looked into white people too for their contributions to the civil rights movement.

The Beatles’ John Lennon was investigated by the FBI because of his open support for civil rights.

Hoover toyed with and tortured MLK. There were the tapes sent to MLK’s wife, Coretta Scott, alleging MLK’s infidelities. There were the cars with shifty men who followed MLK wherever he went.

And there was that letter anonymously sent by the FBI in 1964 urging MLK to commit suicide.

Hoover called MLK “the most notorious liar in the country“. MLK and his civil rights crew were part of the communist scare Americans had to be aware of, thought Hoover.

In this vein, the 1963 church bombing by suspected Klan members was not a case that made for interesting investigations if you were Hoover. Necessarily because the bombing was proof that MLK was not a noisemaker without cause.

In the same month as the attack on the church, only one of the four men was charged with a crime. But it was in relation to illegally purchasing and transporting dynamite, not the bombing.

By 1965, FBI investigators working with local police in Birmingham were certain of the identities of the four men associated with the bombing. However, witnesses refused to give out information to authorities.

Witnesses refusing to talk is not an incident that usually bars US law officers. Hoover, however, blocked further investigations and then finally in 1968, ordered for the case to be closed.

In recent times, America’s discussions on the feet-dragging perpetrated by Hoover has been interesting, for lack of a better word. A majority of the country venerate him in spite of animosity towards the civil rights struggle.

In this light, Hoover takes a similar place as President Ronald Reagan, for instance. A man who was motivated to divide and conquer along racial lines, it is actually rare to hear popular discussions on Reagan’s racial animus.

Perhaps, it is because Reagan and Hoover were not caught saying the N-word or something along those lines. In the case of the former, until recently.

But again, that is how scary the situation is. The national psyche on white backlash in the United States has people expecting the phenomenon to come out as violent and bloody.

It is easier for people to point to the bombers and say they are vile racists who hated the progress and self-determination for black people. But Hoover was a “complicated man”, we are often told.

Of course, the argument is not to lump both the bombers and Hoover together; sins come in degrees. But the refusal to educate ourselves in the nuances of racial politics is not blissful.

Hoover died in 1972. In 1977, the state of Alabama reopened the case against the suspected four with the help of the FBI. Some of the men faced justice while some awaited their penal fates till they died.

It is said that the title of the sermon on September 15, 1963, that was never heard was “A Love That Forgives“.

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