In that tumultuous spring and summer before the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, many Americans struggled with the merits of protest and civil disruption. Even if they were sympathetic to the growing desire to end racial segregation and work toward equality, some questioned the tactics of taking that message to the streets.
A cluster of clergymen publicly questioned civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s protest that resulted in his arrest and jailing in Birmingham, Al, over Easter, 1963. They insisted change should come through the courts and negotiations with local leaders, rather than “confrontational” action.
King, stuck behind bars with other leaders including Revs. Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, used whatever paper was at his disposal to scribble a reply to those who condemned their tactics. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” eloquently and comprehensively laid out the necessity and merits of his “non-violent protest campaign.”
King repelled charges he was an “outsider” stirring up trouble in Alabama by noting that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and he rejected the notion that it was better to wait for change as “wait has almost always meant ‘never’”.
The open letter was written on April 16, 1963. It is now a cornerstone of civil rights orthodoxy and in 2019 is as relevant, if not more so, than at any time in the last fifty-six years.
We are witnessing growing division and injustice locally, nationally and globally. It is appropriate to raise our voices to note the discord; to call for action and unity without resorting to violence or assisting the growing schisms in some parts of our community and political process.
Appropriately, in a celebration of the wonder of our Union, George Washington’s farewell address is read on the floor of the Senate annually. For me, King’s open letter from the Birmingham jail is undoubtedly part of the same grand legacy of American democracy.
So, it is with a sense of purpose, pride, and celebration that I arranged for three Democrats, including myself, and three Republican Senators to read Dr. King’s profound letter on the floor today, April 9, 2019 – less than a week after commemorating MLK’s April 4, 1968 assassination and a few days before the anniversary of the King writing the document that explained “why we can’t wait.”
His steady leadership came at one of the most fractious times in our history. We are again negotiating the perils of divisiveness, but we have history to draw on. Hopefully, we can recognize the wisdom of King and his campaign—an unwavering commitment to securing justice.
In March 2015, President Barack Obama had just completed a stirring address and the sun was shining on scores of old civil rights foot soldiers as we stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
The gathering was to commemorate fifty years since the Selma to Montgomery marches and the ugly attack by law enforcement on civil rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, March 7, 1965.
It was an inspiring moment, seeing dozens of the movement such as John Lewis, C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash decades after they staged those protests, helping forge a path to one of the most successful pieces of legislation in history, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But a cloud hung over proceedings. Aspects of the Voting Rights Act were being dismantled by some of the very politicians on hand that day, mingling with the civil rights protesters who made it possible. Designed to protect and assert the right of African-Americans and other minorities to register and vote, the legislation was being chipped away by those who had something to lose electorally by ensuring blacks had easy access to the polling booth.
It was a crucial moment, personally. The Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, September 15, 1963 which killed four African-American girls had dominated my life professionally for several decades. That incident had shaken some of the white community from their stupor about race relations and galvanized the civil rights movement in 1963. Nash, and her then husband, James Bevel, had vowed to register every eligible black voter in Alabama in response to the attack.
People such as Lewis had been beaten to pulp in the voter registration rallies and protests while some, like Jimmie Lee Jackson, had lost their lives in pursuit of the goal of simply unblocking the path to blacks being able to vote. During a peaceful protest in Marion, Alabama, on February 18, 1965, state troopers under the charge of arch segregationist Colonel Al Lingo, moved violently on demonstrators. As he tried to protect his mother and grandfather, 26-year-old Jackson was fatally shot by a trooper.
The unwitting legacy of the four girls in Birmingham and the reward for those brave foot soldiers was the 1964 Civil Rights Act followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That fact tugged hard at me as we stood on the bridge in 2015. At the least, I felt compelled to forcefully note in my book about the trials of the girls’ murderers, Bending Toward Justice, that we were repeating some of the mistakes of a half century before.
And, now with the benefit of hindsight, I realize an urgency to “do something” about it was an important part of the motivation for me to run for the Senate in 2017.
The attack on voter participation, particularly among blacks and ethnic minorities is as virulent as ever in some parts of the country. Some voter suppression tactics may have changed, but if it quacks like a duck…
In response, Democrats and some other moderates in the House have thrown their support behind the HR1 bill, also known as the “For the People Act.” It is legislation that would address some major concerns with voting, voting suppression, money in politics and redistricting. Essentially, it makes voting easier for everyone, cracks down on people being removed from rolls and reestablishes some of the core anti-discrimination features of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped in a Supreme Court action in 2013.
My Republican colleagues in the Senate might have the numbers to stop the bill in its tracks, but you never know – I believe some will want to support what is fundamentally right.
In this strange age when much of what is old is new again, including demagoguery, embracing equality and fairness may not seem to be a short-term recipe for electoral success, but it remains a guiding principle of democracy.
Every day is a good day to look back at history to ensure we’re not repeating the sins of the past. Few are better than March 7, fifty-four years after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama.
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.
Barack Obama may no longer be President, but thankfully one of his final acts before leaving office was to sign of an executive order designating the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a National Monument.
This important decree, which was signed on January 12, includes the recognition of The 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the AG Gaston Motel and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth former church, Bethel Baptist as locations of such national significance that they were added to the list of America’s greatest national treasures and included in the National Park Service. And though preserving Birmingham’s legacy and honoring its past is certainly a powerful development for this historic city, I believe it can also serve as a blueprint for how we choose to behave towards one another as citizens of a nation embarking on drastic changes.
My hope is that both the divisive and the uniting events that occurred in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era will help ease current tensions and inspire constructive conversations about what it means to accept those who are different, whether it be their race, religion or sexual orientation. And such dialogue is needed more than ever when charges of voter fraud, proclamations about building walls, the mistreatment of green card holders, and the apparent attempt to alter facts and other positions that intend to undermine American values is a daily occurrence. Incredibly, these and other assaults on numerous bedrocks of our society have been made by our newly elected President and should be deemed unacceptable.
In response, we have seen massive protests in cities across our land and abroad that are reminiscent of ones during the turbulent ’60s. Those years were very difficult times for the U.S. because they were ones of extreme anger that often boiled over impacting innocent people both physically and emotionally. Some fifty odd years later that pain endures for many, especially in the African-American community, and I fear the progress our country made to protect and serve all its citizens could erode and erode quickly.
The other side of the coin, however, are the voices that are concerned about jobs and security who argue that the President’s actions and tough talk are necessary and not as severe as they appear but are instead being criticized under the harsh spotlight of a polarized society where political opponents overreact for their own political advantage. That certainly happened to President Obama and to some extent it appears that it is happening to President Trump. But regardless, it cannot be denied that there are huge (or YUGE as President Trump would say) segments of our population that are genuinely concerned and frightened. Only time will tell if their fears are justified.
That is why remembering and honoring what happened in Birmingham is more important than it’s ever been. I know this to be true because I have seen how several of my cases provided a process for healing simply by exposing the wounds. While many in Birmingham did not want to revisit a shameful era of firehoses and dogs, no one can dispute how the convictions of Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for the bombing of The 16th Street Baptist Church became a tool to teach present and future generations about the struggles and sacrifices for equality, for respect, for freedom and for justice.
It is time for all of us to stand up and make our voices heard. To reject policies of exclusion and in some cases, delusion. The world is watching as we enter a new chapter in our American story. Everyone, whether you are on the right or left side of the political isle or smack dab in the middle of it, must make the effort to dial back the rhetoric and contribute to that narrative. Let’s rely on the legacy of Birmingham where we learn from both the struggles and the resistance as a source of material that guides us through this ever-changing landscape and what will be the new normal for at least the foreseeable future.
On December 17th we bid our last “Godspeed” to a true American hero, John Glenn, with a memorial service that took place in his home state of Ohio. He will eventually be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., among our nation’s finest.
This past December 7th was the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, which launched the U.S. into World War II. When that harrowing event occurred, a young John Herschel Glenn quit college and enlisted into the Army Air Corps to serve and defend. And for the next 75 years he never stopped serving. So it is somewhat fitting that this genuine American icon lived just long enough to see his country honor and remember this day, only to pass away the day after on December 8, 2016, at age 95.
When I was a little boy growing up in Fairfield, Alabama, during the 1950s and 60s, I was utterly fascinated by America’s space program. My heroes were all of the American astronauts beginning with the original Mercury 7, especially the young and accomplished John Glenn. And accomplished he was. By that point he had already flown as a distinguished fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War. And the accomplishments kept coming. By 1962 Glenn became our third man in space and made history by being the first American to orbit the earth three times. It was an incredible feat in those early days of spaceflight. From that moment on I never once missed a launch and dreamed of journeying into space, just like aviator Glenn and all the brave astronauts that followed. Alas, a heart murmur made my dream impossible, but I never stopped imagining what it would be like to soar among the stars. Even after becoming United States Attorney I tried to convince the folks at NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville that the only way I could adequately represent them as one of our client agencies was to learn everything about their work by going up in the Space Shuttle. I had a better chance with the heart murmur.
But I was certainly not alone in my admiration. It seems that the space program and those who were the faces of it captured the hearts and minds of everyone like nothing before or nothing since. With each launch or splashdown work and play paused, school was interrupted and folks everywhere held their breath in anticipation. And we let out a collective sigh of relief as we applauded each successful mission. At a time of serious divisions, such as civil rights and the Vietnam War, Glenn and the space program served as a unifying force. It wasn’t just a space race against the Russians, but a moment in time that showed the world the best America had to offer and everyone, in every state, seemed proud.
John Glenn began a 24 year career in public service when elected to the U. S. Senate in 1974. I had the opportunity to meet him a couple of times when I was a young lawyer fresh out of law school working in D.C. for the late Senator Howell Heflin. Glenn came through Birmingham while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for President in 1984. He had a rally in Linn Park on a bright sunny day. It was almost like central casting had created the entire scene – a beautiful day with a crowd excited to be in the presence of true greatness. Unfortunately for Glenn, and perhaps the country, that was one accomplishment that didn’t go his way, and yet, he carried on and continued to serve. In 1998, just before his retirement from the Senate, at age 77, he volunteered to be the oldest person to venture into space by hitching a ride on the space shuttle Discovery, giving scientists real-time data of how space travel impacts the elderly. And once again he captured America’s imagination. When he blasted off I was hosting a law enforcement conference in Gulf Shores with my two Alabama US Attorney colleagues. As had happened some 37 years earlier, we stopped our work, we stopped our play, just to watch the liftoff! Simply amazing!
It goes without saying that Glenn, like all of the NASA astronauts, was a patriot and his constant desire to lead us towards great adventures represented the best of what America could be. And we were united in supporting those efforts because they demonstrated to the world that one of our own had the “right stuff” to dream big, make those dreams a reality, and then celebrate as one people. Today it seems we only unite in the wake of tragedy – 9/11, the Boston Marathon Bombings and so on – but Glenn and others brought our country together by demonstrating what’s possible when we work towards common goals, no matter how big or how small. And that which moves us forward as a nation has the potential to benefit all. More than ever, America needs such heroes so we may continue to dream and complete our missions, whatever they may be.
America needs more John Glenns.
History has a way of repeating itself. And not always for the better.
For instance, recently we’ve seen a good amount of attention given to a group that refers to itself as the “alt-right.” To some, this might sound like the name suggests, an alternate faction to the right wing of the Republican Party, but to those paying close attention, it’s obvious there is a very dark underbelly to this movement that has to be challenged head on.
The “alt-right” is a throwback to another time. It’s made up of white supremacists that are brazenly open about their desire for the United States to be a separatist nation – a white separatist nation – and have come out from the shadows, clearly feeling a sense of empowerment due to the election of Donald Trump.
And there’s no doubt this is because of the kind of rhetoric that candidate Donald Trump used throughout the 2016 campaign when discussing Mexicans, Muslims, women, and the LGBTQ community.
It was a populist appeal based on fear that obviously worked. But rhetoric that fuels the fire often empowers folks to do bad things.
We saw this occur time and time again during the 1950s and 60s where the hateful sentiments of George Wallace, Bull Connor and other racist politicians enabled the Ku Klux Klan to commit acts of violence with free reign knowing they’d never be held accountable. We know the most heinous – the murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church among so many others. But it is the thousands acts of random assaults that created the fear in the black community and divided a nation.
It now seems that President-elect Trump has decided to double down on his campaign rhetoric as reflected in a few of the appointments assigned to cabinet positions in his upcoming administration. Two in particular stand out: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General and Steve Bannon, founder of the Breitbart news website, as his Chief White House Strategist. Both of these men have controversial backgrounds steeped in what many consider racist positions. Trump has told The New York Times that he would not have selected Bannon had he known of any ties to the “Alt-Right” but Bannon himself is on record as describing Breitbart as a “platform for the alt-right” to Mother Jones. In 1986 Sessions was denied a federal judgeship by a Republican Senate based on allegations of racism which he vociferously denied. It is no wonder that since there have been numerous reports from across the country of verbal and physical assaults against Latinos, Muslims and women. As I write this NBC is reporting that dozens of Muslim mosques received letters stating that Trump was going to do to them what Hitler did to the Jews. As we lawyers say in Court, “I rest my case.”
Frankly, I don’t think Trump is truly a racist, just a Wallace like politician who will say anything to get elected. And I have known Jeff Sessions for 35 years and have never seen any evidence of the kind of racism or even racial insensitivity that he has been accused of. But between the Donald’s campaign rhetoric and his recent appointments it’s not surprising to see how hate groups, including David Duke and a resurgent Klan, view these decisions as a signal of support for their intolerant agendas.
Recently Trump has tried to dial it back. While being interviewed on 60 Minutes, he looked directly into the camera and said “Stop it” meant as a strong message to those involved in acts of hate. But is that enough? Not in my book. The President-elect and his appointees, and especially Attorney General designee Sessions, need to repeatedly denounce such people and forcefully say that racial and religious intolerance is not the new norm and will not be condoned or tolerated by a Trump administration. In the words of Barney Fife just “nip it in the bud” right now.
We are divided country in need of some serious healing. As someone who has defended the rights of those targeted by hate, I can attest that healing can only begin when the protection for all to live in freedom is assured.
Only Donald Trump can prove his critics wrong and he needs to do so as soon as possible, even before Inauguration Day, if he ever hopes to bring the country together.
As many of you know, this past September 15th marked Let’s work together to ensure this proposal passes and soon. 53rd anniversary of the heinous bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama, which took the lives of four young African-American girls back in 1963. Senseless deaths, the result of ignorance and hatred, all due to an inability to accept others for who they are. Although the Civil Rights Movement was national in scope, Birmingham has long been considered “Ground Zero.” From the early work of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, so many bombings that the city became known as “Bombingham,” the beating of the Freedom Riders, Bull Connor’s firehoses and dogs and the church bombing, what happened in Birmingham in the 50s and 60s changed the country.
Recently, a bill was introduced in Congress by Rep. Terri Sewell and back by the entire Alabama delegation to designate the Civil Rights District of Birmingham as a National Park. A town hall meeting to receive community comments on the proposal was held at the 16th Street Baptist Church on October 27th and I and several other community leaders were invited by Mayor William Bell to speak in order to do our part in making the case for designation as either a national park or national monument. And I was grateful and honored for the opportunity to do so.
In addition to the Mayor, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, the Director of the National Park Service Jonathan Jarvis and Congresswoman Sewell also attended. I made my remarks from the stand point of the prosecutor of the church bombing cases and as the newly installed chair of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
I briefly did my best to raise awareness and support for the vital importance of preserving history so that we never forget moments like this, no matter how difficult to recall, because such actions impact our lives and negatively effect the kind of nation we strive to live in for ourselves and future generations. I shared my experiences traveling from state to state and how people residing outside of Birmingham want to learn all they can about what happened that fateful day. I talked about the process of connecting the dots of history to amass enough evidence to prosecute and convict Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, the men responsible for the bombings, years after the crime occurred.
Birmingham’s story is one of the pivotal moments from the Civil Rights era that can change hearts and minds. The destination of the 16th Street Baptist Church has long been a beacon of hope for those seeking justice and equality and in my opinion should remain so. By designating it as a National Park or Monument, we would increase the brightness of that beacon 100 fold to reach more and more people throughout this country – and God knows we need it.
Even though there is a bill pending in Congress pushing for this request to be approved, we all know how long such a thing can take. So now there is a concerted effort to bring the request directly to President Obama so that he may make this proposal a reality by using his authority under the Antiquities Act. And you can help, by simply signing on to the petition at https://www.change.org/p/help-create-a-civil-rights-national-park-in-birmingham-2.
Let’s work together to ensure this proposal passes and soon.
I hope that my friends, including my more conservative friends who are always giving Joe Biden hell, will take a few minutes to read this article. The article captures the character of the man that I first met over 30 years ago when he was a featured speaker at Cumberland School of Law, the Senator who I watched from the back of the room during committee hearings when I was an idealistic young lawyer working on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the candidate I campaigned for time and time again, the Vice Presidential nominee who gave me the stoutest man hug I have ever received after his acceptance speech in Denver and my friend the Vice President who took the time to call my parents from his cell phone to wish them a happy 62nd anniversary. He is in short a remarkable man whose 40 plus years in public service are marked by integrity and sincerity far more than the slips of the tongue he has become noted for. Beau was obviously his father’s son, a rising star on the political stage with the ability to alter the political climate from partisanship to consensus.
Perhaps everyone, on both sides of the political aisle, will use this moment in time to hit the political reset button to move from monologues to dialogues, from talking about political opponents to talking to them and remember that holding public office is about the people they serve (as opposed to the people who voted for them), not the other way around. My family’s thoughts and prayers are with the Bidens during this time of tremendous loss. I hope yours are too.