Bending Toward Justice

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The Reasons For “Bending Toward Justice” Now

February 7, 2019

As a nine-year-old in 1963 I knew the world was changing, but was largely oblivious to virulent opposition to racial integration in my home state of Alabama.

The hatred stoked by arch segregationists at the time fueled lethal violence including the September 15, 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four African-American girls, not much older than me.

The all-white neighborhood I lived in about ten miles west of downtown shielded me from much of the horror at the time. At some point, however, a seed was planted. The bombing, the civil rights movement and Alabama’s struggles in coming to terms with its long history segregation and racial discrimination informed my personal and professional development through high school and college.

As a law student in 1977, I skipped classes to watch former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley mesmerize a Birmingham courtroom as he did the impossible  — getting a murder conviction of former Klansman, “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss for the 1963 bombing.

We all knew Chambliss had co-conspirators, but the law didn’t move against them for a couple more decades. When I got the chance as a U.S. Attorney to pursue convictions for those men, I was inspired by Baxley and driven by my professional duty and moral compass. I also recognized an underlying desire, shared by my colleagues in the almost all-white prosecution team, for a kind of redemption—to address, in some small but curative way, what Alabamians had allowed to happen when the Jim Crow South was in its death throes.

After getting guilty verdicts against former Klansmen Tom Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for the girls’ murders, I became acutely aware of how much the case and securing justice meant to the victims’ families and Birmingham. I wanted to ensure that such a devastating piece of U.S. history would not be easily forgotten and undertook to write a book outlining what had happened and why, imparting the notion that justice delayed is, in the end, still justice.

But I also felt compelled to document my own redemptive journey, one that has taken some unexpected paths in recent years while, to my horror, we seem to be repeating some of the mistakes that helped facilitate the kind of mindset that contributed to such terrible acts in the civil rights era.

Indeed, one of the last lines of an early draft expressed a fear that racism and division were on the rise and I expressed concern that it might take another murderous terrorist act to alert us to the blossoming of the kind of bigotry we assumed we’d left behind decades ago.

As I worked on that draft around June 2015, nine African-Americans were gunned down in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, NC. White supremacist Dylann Roof told police he wanted to start a “race war” by taking the lives of others. This abhorrent crime echoed the warped motivations and actions of the Ku Klux Klansmen who planted the bomb under the stairs at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Since then we’ve seen a continued erosion of civil rights for many sections of the community with voting rights and racial tolerance are under attack and members of our American family – gays, women and various religious group being marginalized.

It has become more important than ever to learn lessons of history, so it was with a great sense of urgency and purpose, in the age of Trump, that I completed Bending Toward Justice. My parallel project was to find the most influential position I could to put some of what I note in the book into action. Blessedly, as of January 2018, that has been as a Senator representing the people of Alabama in the United States Congress.

Dr. Martin Luther King noted that the “greatest tragedy” during a time of change is not the “strident clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.” In Alabama, the South – throughout the country – we remained silent about injustice and inequality for too long. In Bending Toward Justice, I attempt to map out how destructive that failing was then and is now. It is a record of an horrific event, but it is also a plea for us not repeat those terrible mistakes; to turn and face history so we can construct a world worthy of our children.

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