War Criminals And Desegregation

War Criminals And Desegregation

May 17 was the 47th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court finding in Brown vs. Board of Education. That finding was, of course, more than a simple court ruling. It was a finding that the court said should be implemented “with all deliberate speed,” as if words like deliberate and speed should be used in the same sentence. In other words, the court was saying, “Take your sweet time.” School systems all over the South did just that, with some schools in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana taking until as late as 1969 to integrate their schools.
The war criminals who opposed integration have been apprehended with the same deliberate speed with which the Brown order was implemented. In other words, during the same week of the 47th anniversary of Brown, and 37 years after a bomb in Birmingham, Ala., killed four little girls, injured 20 other people, and destroyed the 16th Street Baptist Church, two former Ku Klux Klansmen were arrested on murder charges.
Thomas Blanton Jr., 61, and Bobby Frank Cherry, 69, surrendered and were jailed without bail. If convicted, they could get life in prison without possibility of parole. Some will cheer that justice delayed is not justice denied, but others point out that these men have had the opportunity to live out the prime of their lives while their victims had not yet reached their prime when they were killed.
Further, while it has taken focused government action to bring these men to justice, government obfuscation was responsible for allowing them to maintain their freedom for the past 37 years. Talk about “all deliberate speed.”
Here are the facts. On Sept. 15, 1963, a  bomb exploded outside Sunday services at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four little girls — 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins — were killed. The bombing horrified our nation and galvanized the civil rights movement, but no one was immediately arrested for the crime. It was understood that members of the Ku Klux Klan were responsible. A May 1965 memorandum to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover concluded, “The bombing was the handiwork of former Klansmen Robert E. Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton Jr.”
Still, in 1968, the FBI closed its investigation of the bombing and awful murders without filing charges against anyone. The case was reopened in 1971, and one of the presumed perpetrators, Robert Chambliss, was convicted in 1977. He died in jail in 1985. Herman Cash died in 1994. In 1980, the Justice Department concluded that J. Edgar Hoover blocked prosecution of the Klansmen in 1965.
Still, it has taken 20 more years to bring the remaining Klansmen to justice.
Blanton and Cherry aren’t the only war criminals out there. There are other Klansmen who bombed schools and churches, who killed or maimed Freedom Fighters and civil rights workers. But there has been little national zeal for tracking down these war criminals in the same way that Holocaust war criminals have been tracked down.
Indeed, there are those who see the Birmingham bombings simply as a chapter of our past that we need to get over. I don’t know how many news outlets have had the temerity to quote sympathetic Whites who have said that Blanton and Cherry are old men and Birmingham is part of our past. Give me a break!  They have age, a privilege that four little girls didn’t get.
Times have changed in 37 years, but there are wounds that a community suffered because of the Birmingham bombings and because of the feeling that justice was denied. In an effort to cope, too many in the African American community have attempted to forget the pain, to get past it. They rub shoulders with the war criminals in their communities because, after all, the war criminals and their relatives are the ones with the power.
The 37-year freedom of Bobby Cherry and Thomas Blanton was an affirmation of Klan power. It may explain why things change so slowly and why so few are prepared to take on Klan power, whether it occurs in a small Alabama town or in the United States Senate. Too many African Americans accept discrimination. Some don’t want to rock the boat or make a fuss so they swallow the inequality that is imposed on them. That’s why discrimination lawsuits, while recurrent (the U.S. Marshals are the latest government agency in which discrimination allegations have surfaced), are few and far between.
That’s why many agree to settle discrimination cases instead of fighting injustice.
Too many, while outraged, accept the status quo. Experience has taught them that the wheels of justice grind “with all deliberate speed.”
Attorney General Janet Reno said, “No one should stop until the people who are responsible are brought to justice.” Blanton and Cherry aren’t the first old White men to be held responsible for the crimes of their past.
Byron de la Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers in 1994. Klan leader Samuel Bowers was found guilty of the 1966 firebombing death of Mississippi civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in 1998. In the face of these convictions, there are some who would let sleeping dogs lie, who feel it stirs up old stuff to exhume the ugliness of our nation’s racist past.
Yet even as we commemorate the Brown decision, we must be motivated to expose the war criminals who did what they could to stop its implementation.           



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