It is a real honor tonight to be here with you. I really appreciate all of you being here because before we were coming down, we were watching television news and they announced that the national championship trophy was going to be on display in Tuscaloosa, and you can have your picture made with it at Target.
My lovely wife Louise, who is here with me tonight, looked at me and said, “Oh Lord, nobody’s going to show up.” Which was really her polite way of saying “I’d rather have something else to do in Tuscaloosa tonight.”
I would like to mention one regret that I have tonight is that some dear friends are not able to be here. Many of you may have known Becky and Melford Espy, long time and dear friends of mine. Both passed away a few years ago. Becky taught me social studies in the seventh grade and Mel was a counselor in high school when I was a student, and I owe them a lot, and I miss them and I know if they had been able to be here tonight, they would be here on the front row beaming proudly for someone they helped raised back in Fairfield, Alabama.
I’m also especially glad to be here tonight because you are honoring one of my dear friends and heroes, Bill Baxley. You will hear more about Baxley, but truly in 1970, when I was just 16 and he was only 28 years old, he was elected as Alabama’s Attorney General. I’m absolutely convinced that in 1978 if this state had elected him governor, we would be a far different state today.
I do quickly want to make one correction in your program though, because the program says that Bill was best known for his work in prosecuting the Chambliss case, which was the other 16th Street bombing case. He’s actually known very well for that, but what he’s best known for is something that is connected to the case. You see, when Bill, a great politician when he was in office, used to get all this mail he would answer all this mail. But during the investigation and trial of that case, he got a lot hate mail.
You can imagine in the early 70’s the kind of hate mail that came into his office. One in particular came in from Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Edward R. Fields, who was the National States Rights Party president from Atlanta. Bill showed me a copy of it, and it was awful. I mean, it was a three-page diatribe about how bad an individual Bill Baxley is, called him everything under the sun, including a disgrace to his race for prosecuting these “good white Anglo-Saxon Christian men.” But like all the great politicians, Bill responds to his letters, and this is what he wrote: “My response to your letter of February 19, 1976, is — kiss my ass.” True story folks, true story.
Bill and I travel together a lot, talking about the prosecutions of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing cases. I have been fortunate enough not only to travel with Bill, but also to travel throughout the state and country lecturing on those cases and the history behind them. Dr. Mullins and I were talking about this a moment ago. I have always been fascinated to see how important it is for people to learn about what happened in Birmingham in 1963, and how we came to prosecute two former Klansmen almost forty years later.
Folks seem to want to touch a piece of history, which I truly believe is history that is not adequately taught in our schools today. You see, people know the big picture, they know the events, they know about Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. they know and have heard about the Freedom Riders in 1961, they know about the children’s march and in 1963 the fire hoses and the dogs and the stand in the school house door in Tuscaloosa and the march on Washington, and yes, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
But for my legal team, as prosecutors, we had to connect all those events, connect the dots, if you will, to explain why it came to past that the 16th Street Baptist Church was targeted for a Klan bomb, and maybe even children targeted for death. So, let me explain just briefly about that.
In 1954, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision declared that separate schools are unequal schools, and the schools should desegregate with all deliberate speed. I don’t have to tell you the history of the “separate but equal” doctrine in schools in this country. But desegregation didn’t happen with all deliberate speed; it took decades. And in 1957, Fred Shuttlesworth decided to enroll his children in all-black Phillips High School in Birmingham, but he was met with a mob of white people and beaten. He and his wife were both beaten and chased up and down the sidewalks. One of the people in that crowd was an individual named Bobby Cherry. He felt so compelled to violence to stop school desegregation, that he would beat up a man of the cloth, a man of faith, Fred Shuttlesworth.
Then you have the 1961 freedom riders, and Bull Connor allows the Klan to have their way with the freedom riders. Police officers didn’t show up at the Greyhound bus station for some 20 minutes. But because of what happened to the freedom riders, Birmingham business leaders decided to change the form of government. It took them a while to get a change, but all of a sudden in the fall of 1962 the Birmingham city government changed from a three-member commission that included Bull Connor, to a mayor and city council. So they had an election. But at the same time, Reverend Shuttlesworth was in Atlanta talking to Dr. King to come to Birmingham to desegregate the most segregated city in America.
And the children’s marches took place just after the election. Bull Connor lost the mayor’s race but he stayed in the office. When all the marches were settled, and you’ve seen the pictures of the fire hoses and the dogs and the kids streaming out of schools to participate. When that was resolved with modest change to Birmingham, the Klan was not happy. And they responded the the only way the Klan knew how to respond and that was with violence.
A.D. King’s house was bombed shortly thereafter. The Klan was seeing their segregated way of life sliding away and they didn’t like it. In the children’s marches, it wasn’t just the children who were the symbols of the movement, but also the 16th Street Baptist Church, because that’s where they would meet. So now the Klan was unhappy and guess what: The 16th Street Baptist Church and the children were the symbols of the movement. The stand in the school house door made them angrier. They never dreamed that George Wallace would actually step aside. They didn’t know that it was just a charade all staged for his political career. Later that summer, bombs continued to blow up in Birmingham. Arthur Shores’ home was bombed twice.
In August was the “I Have a Dream” speech, and everyone thought that things were looking up.
It was a positive atmosphere, but in Birmingham the desegregation of Birmingham city schools was about to take place. Court ordered the desegregation of Birmingham city schools. Five days before the bombing of the church, young men and women walked into elementary and junior high schools to desegregate the Birmingham schools for the first time. And Birmingham was on edge.
Because so much violence over the years had occurred as a result of school desegregation, I don’t think it was coincidence that five days later the marquee outside the church was advertising a youth worship service that targeted the youth, and the children were coming to that church together again. That’s the weekend that it was targeted for a bombing. So the jury understood it, and the jury got it.
And it’s only by connecting the dots of history that people come to fully understand what was happening in this state and in this country. It’s only by connecting the dots today that we can measure how far we have come as a society, how far we have come to realize Dr. King’s dream that he so eloquently talked about on the mall in Washington.
Now certainly as has been discussed earlier, we had made enormous strides in race relations and equality, in civil rights and in human rights. Legally mandated social, racial segregation in Alabama and the South had been dismantled. The field of education had seen huge improvements. While just under 26 percent of black adults age 25 and older had completed four years of high school in 1964, the percentage had increased to 85 percent by 2012. The number of African-American college undergraduates has increased 10-fold since 1964. Infant mortality in the black community has dropped dramatically, although I think we still have a ways to go in Alabama.
African-Americans have come to occupy positions of power and influence from boardrooms to the State House and the White House. But it’s very easy, and especially at events like this, to talk about how far we have come, to mix and mingle and to pose for pictures and celebrate. We should celebrate, congratulate ourselves on our success. But it’s real easy to never have the conversations that we must have about race in this country, never even trying to connect the dots about what is happening in this state and in this country that is eroding the true fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream.
A few years ago, I was struck by the final passages of an editorial in the Anniston Star following the death of Bobby Frank Cherry, one of the individuals I prosecuted. He’d died in an Alabama prison where he had been in since the conviction. The Star wrote: “Cherry represented the banality of evil in a time when it was more common than we like to admit. It is easy to look back on those times and see the militant racial hatred that consumed him had no place in a civil society then and certainly does not now. It’s much more difficult to confront the shadows of racism and prejudice that surround us in the present. It comes in subtle forms. There is rarely a fuse that gets lit. It’s more of a slow burn. But make no mistake, its flames are just as consuming as those that raged inside Bobby Frank Cherry.”
Like so many Americans, I believed with the election of Barack Obama we had finally moved past so much of our racial divides, not necessarily a completely post-racial world or whatever that term is. But we have really moved beyond having race so prominent in our everyday lives. Not that we have eliminated racism, but that race would not be as dominant a factor as it had been, at least in my lifetime. I remember on a really remarkable occasion on the night of election in 2008 I had gone to the Boutwell Auditorium in Birmingham, which was the site of the beating of Nat King Cole in the fifties. It was the site of the Dixiecrat Convention in 1948, but on that night in November, it was the site of a victory party with the election of Barack Obama. And it was a raucous occasion, to say the least.
And I stayed and I enjoyed it, and it was awesome and as I am leaving, the party is still going on. I walk across a street, and I meet a friend that I had known for a while who’s been around in Alabama politics a long time, Billy Joe Camp. And I talk to Billy Joe, and we talked about that night, how exciting it was, and I say, “Well, I got to go to another party.” As I walked away I turned because it struck me as he also walked toward that party that I was just watching the former press secretary to the late Governor George Wallace going to a victory party for the first black president of the United States.
So, yeah, folks, we have come a long way.
But if there is one thing I have learned from Bill Baxley (and it’s a lot more than that): You kind of just tell things like it is, And unfortunately the election of President Obama appears what I hoped to have been a watershed was simply a high-water mark rather than lasting change, because with his election and since his election we have seen a consistent and disturbing erosion of civil rights in this country. It is everywhere and racial bigotry and prejudice are continuing to rise; you all know it.
As we sit here tonight, you all know it. It’s not necessarily talked about as much as it should be, but it needs to be, and frankly, it is being talked about more. We have economic disparity and the wealth gap is growing. Our schools tend to be more segregated today than they’ve ever been in the last fifty years. Law enforcement and the criminal justice system continue to struggle with racial issues. We have seen it all too often in the last couple of years where unarmed young black men are killed by police. And I’m not trying to dis the police because they do an incredible job, but there’s got to be some change. There’s got to be some change in the way we do things.
The access to the ballot box by minorities is getting harder and harder. Through various state laws, whether it’s voter ID laws or others, access to the most fundamental freedom that we have, the freedom to vote, is being challenged every day, and especially in a state like Alabama where we have a budget crisis and all of a sudden it seems to be used to close the ID-getting places, the Department of Motor Vehicle offices in the Black Belt, where Democratic voters happen to be.
I promised Louise I wouldn’t get too political. If I do she’ll throw a cheesecake at me. And in the case of Shelby County vs. Holder, the Supreme Court of the United States stripped the Voting Rights Act of a critical provision used by the Justice Department to ferret out voting rights abuses before they take effect. And then across college campuses, from one end of the country to the other, minority students are once again finding their voices, rising up to express their concern and frustration with racism that they are experiencing on their campuses.
Right here in Tuscaloosa, one of your honorees tonight, the second African-American to be elected SGA president at the University, has felt compelled to participate in a video to shine a light on the problems that he sees. Now those problems are not being sufficiently taught at the University of Alabama and other places. They’re not happening just in this state, but other places where parents and teachers and ministers are not doing the job of teaching people about justice and truth and reconciliation.
Now, the last thing I need to do tonight is to give you some kind of laundry list of things that have happened in this country over the last few years. You instinctively know what I’m talking about: the erosion of civil rights and the rise of bigotry. What I hope you will do, not just tonight, but every day, is to connect the dots of what you see and hear going on around you, from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery to Washington, D.C. to see what is happening in Alabama and throughout the country, and connect the dots to what you know in your hearts is happening.
I believe that the rhetoric of our political figures fans the flames of bigotry and prejudice. We have seen that history in this state, and sometimes in today’s world, I think they fan those flames even when they don’t intend to. You know, George Wallace never used the “N” word in public but he fanned the flames of hate and bigotry with code words and fear. In those days, the hate was directed toward the black community and the involvement of the federal government. But in part as a result of our ever-growing diversity in this state and country, today’s rhetoric seems to be directed at much broader and much more diverse segments of our population: African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community, Muslims. If you don’t look like them, talk like them, or worship like them, lot of people just hate them, and we’ve got to work on that, we’ve got to do something, and make no mistake: Today’s politicians, in my view, are taking a page from the playbooks of the past, in which leaders continue to resist the growing movement of civil and human rights in the state and in this country.
You remember from your old civic lessons the terms “nullification” and “interposition” used by Southern politicians to attempt to override acts of Congress and the decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Well today, we have a State Chief Justice who believes that his views of morality override decisions of the United States Supreme Court, and he tells probate judges throughout Alabama “just ignore the law, they are wrong, so just ignore them.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is a problem, and if you don’t think that’s a throw-back to the civil rights era, look and compare the two.
In this state, we are in a fiscal crisis; we’ve been that way for couple of years through lot of reasons, and I’m not going to just blame the folks in Montgomery now. This has been building up a long time. But even today we spend thousands, tens of thousands of dollars, on legal fees defending an indefensible immigration bill that was simply attempted to override the constitutional authority of the United States government. Everyone agrees that our immigration system is badly flawed, but when a sponsor of that bill seems to conflate the term “illegals” with the term “Mexicans” we got a problem.
And at this point, there is just not much need for me to go into that hateful rhetoric we are hearing from Donald Trump. Republicans from one end of the country to the other are doing that for me. You’ve heard it and you’ve seen it. But I will say this, I am concerned about one aspect after I hear this from some of the political commentators who were talking about Trump’s rhetoric, and even though they will note the criticism, they then come back and say “Well, Mr. Trump seems to be just tapping in to what so many people believe.” That is true; people believe that way. You see it in the turnout that he has. That’s the sad part, that there are people that actually still believe that and applaud him. You know our political leaders need to lead, our political leaders need to be more like Bill Baxley who took a chance on the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing case in the 1970s, who took a chance cleaning up the environment in Birmingham, going against big business in the seventies when it wasn’t popular. Our leaders need to lead. When there are fundamental wrongs in the minds of folks, they need to be the ones to lead the change and translate it into public policy.
Chris Christy, the governor of New Jersey, said at the Republican convention a few years ago, “Leaders should not just follow polls, leaders need to move polls.” I wish Governor Christy, and the others on that stage, would follow his advice. And we need to demand more of our candidates and our elected officials. They need to know that Dr. King’s dream is not just for rich white guys in this country. Dr. King’s dream encompassed everybody of all races, all religions, all ages, all sexual orientations. You name it, it encompassed everybody.
There are a couple of areas specifically that I would like to talk about just briefly that I’m working on that concern me, that I believe are a function of some problems that we’ve got both in race and civil rights and civil justice, areas that I think are desperate for change in which I also believe that there is some opportunity for bipartisan support. The first is with the payday lending practices in the state, outrageous interest rates of over 450 percent in most instances. Think about that, you’ve probably got credit cards, you have loans, you have credit cards that you complain about 20 percent — but 450 percent! That law was changed in 2003 to change the usury laws that allow these people to charge these outrageous rates, make millions of dollars on the backs of the poor and the working class families in the state.
Last year they started keeping some tabs on these loans. In a 10-week period, 450,000 of those loans were taken out by your neighbors in the State of Alabama. Think about that, we are a state of about four million people and 450,000 of those loans were taken out in a ten-week period, and these are not loans for people that are trying to feed a gambling habit, or drug habit, or even for emergencies like their car was broken down or their child was sick. These are loans the studies show that are taken out by people who are just trying to meet everyday expenses. Now, a bill is going to be introduced in the Legislature again — one was introduced last year that never got the light of day — for Alabama to end this practice, to cap the interest rates at around 36 percent, which is still high, but what an improvement if we could do it.
So please contact your state legislators, contact your representatives, ask them to do something positive for the poor and the working-class folks in this state. And when you do, remember this, and we had a program about this at our church in Birmingham at Canterbury the other day. Remember when you are complaining about the payday lenders, remember that there are victims of payday lenders, these people taking out those loans, because think about it: If 450,000 people have to take out those loans to meet everyday expenses, what does that really say about our state and what does it say about the leadership in our state who don’t seem to care as much for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.
I told them the other night, I want to work hard to knock payday lending vultures off, but it’s kind of like picking off that vulture that’s beginning to pick on a wounded rabbit. You can shoot that vulture, but if you walk away from the wounded victim, you’ve really not accomplished an awful lot. So we need to work to make sure we do that.
The second area is in criminal justice reform. Recently, I have been working with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School with about 150 law enforcement leaders and prosecutors from all 50 states, calling for changes in our criminal justice system through an initiative called the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.
Today, the most civilized country in the world has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world prisoners, we spend $80 billion annually to lock people up, and in so many cases it’s simply just not necessary. Unnecessary incarceration hurts our communities in so, so many ways.
Now, let’s make no mistake, I’m all for law and order. I have been a prosecutor at two different times in my life. I defend people, but I’m all about the rule of law and order, but I also know there is just simply a lot of unnecessary incarceration that puts people away and treats them like animals. And when you do that, it hurts the communities by furthering racial disparities. It exacerbates the economic impact in inequality of communities. It fuels recidivism and hinders the economic development in communities that need it the most.
Today, and I know you’ve heard these statistics, today, one in three black men will end up in incarcerated at some point in their life; 60% of prisoners reentering society face long term unemployment. With restricted economic opportunities, criminal activities increase. The Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration have put forth a series of proposals that I hope will be given a good look by law enforcement and state legislators and members of Congress.
I won’t go into all of them, but they are talking about engaging communities, we are talking about alternatives to our arrests, alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, not the violent offenders. And I want to make sure, as I said a minute ago about my history, these 150 folks are not some bleeding hearts here. They are tough on crime law-enforcement officers who have spent their careers in law enforcement and protecting the communities and when you are a foot soldier for law enforcement, you learn a lot about what’s going on the streets, so these are well reasoned. Being tough on crime and being smart on crime are not incompatible.
This morning, as I was getting ready to go to work, I saw the news about the rise in the homicides in Tuscaloosa, something that bothers everyone. And when you are trying to talk about reducing crime through changes in the system, it’s hard when you know there are certain statistics out there that seem fly in the face of what you are saying. But I will tell you that studies will show that there is not necessarily the same correlation between locking people up and throwing away the key and reducing the crime. But what I saw this morning, I thought was important. I saw your police chief on the TV, discussing the rise of homicides in Tuscaloosa. But rather than simply giving the tough guy law and order speech, he talked about community involvement, he talked about engagement of the community, and education of both the community and the leaders of this community. That is exactly the type of approach that can have long-term effects and you should be proud of your chief for articulating those in the media.
So, ladies and gentlemen, you know I know our theme is “Realizing the Dream,” and so many dreams have been realized, but we have so, so far to go. For me, I go back to the case that will forever define me. And I think forever defines Bill, because it is more than for us than just simply about history. You know, when a child is killed, scores of other lives are shattered. The loss of those four young girls at the church in Birmingham, Alabama, and the two boys who died later that day from gun fire in Birmingham created a deep crater of remorse in 1963. It woke up the conscience of America, the conscience of the president, the conscience of Congress.
But around that well of grief, something incredible has grown. Lives have been saved and countless more, mine among them, have been enriched. The blast of 16th Street Baptist Church shook us out of a stupor. It was easy to see that things had to change. It was an alarm to warn about the creep of a smothering darkness that only could be repelled by fundamental change in America.
I have learned much from the bombing investigation and trials, from people like Bill, people like Mary Jolley, Cleo, my colleague at Alabama. I’ve learned a lot about my city in Birmingham, my state and my country, the law, our people, good and bad, the dangerous absurdity of racial prejudice and the terrorism facilitated by divisiveness.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was exactly what the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was, an act of terrorism, before that word was really a part of our vocabulary as it is today. In the years since the trials, I have started to realize that we are repeating many of the same mistakes from a half century ago. Sometimes that connection is only evident if you are prepared to look past the mask of dog whistle politics, the posturing of about economics or expose those hiding behind religion and political bluster. At other times, it hits like a sledge hammer, as with the Charleston church shootings in June of 2015.
The Charleston church shootings raised an interesting piece, something I want to share, because as we’ve talked about politicians and their words, we know words have meanings, whether you say it or not, the words have meaning. Well, the symbols have meanings too, and it took the deaths of nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina for people to wake up and realize that the Confederate battle flag has no place in this society.
And I want to show you something real quick. For any of you out there, whoever are talking to someone who said that I don’t necessarily agree with taking down the flag because it’s really a symbol of history, it’s a symbol of Southern heritage. Despite the fact the heritage is Confederate heritage, which seceded from the United States of America, tell them to call me and let me show them this picture, this advertisement from this magazine called the “Thunderbolt.” It was the newspaper of the National States’ Rights party run by Bill’s pen pal friend Ed Fields. On the back, this is in June of 1965, you can see this, an ad where you can order Confederate battle flags. This is 1965 and the ad says, “Fly the Confederate Battle Flag.” The Confederate flag is no longer a sectional emblem. It is now the symbol of the white race and white supremacy. Fly it on on your car and on your house. So folks, this is not new that this has become a symbol of hate, and thank goodness Governor Bentley and others have begun to bring that down.
Despite my instincts as a lawyer, somewhat as of a political junky, to declare that I have the answers for anything, I cannot profess at all to have the absolute remedies for the enormous ills that we see. However, the richest part of those girls who died, the richest part of their gift to me has been an awakening that has connected me to my own personal prejudice, strengths and weaknesses, a very humbling reality check, and now an invigorating journey toward a greater self awareness that might not solve the world’s problems, but hopefully won’t contribute to them.
Indeed, and I told Bill this in our talks, I feel like I have grown more in the last 15 years, than I did in my first 45. Searching for winning solutions to these recurring problems like most everyone else — politicians, street protesters, blog writers, anonymous internet experts, academics — everyone wants to hit a home run or win a national championship. But perhaps it’s more productive to take the long view, exactly the way Coach Sabin and the Tide Football team did recently.
It’s the kind of approach that we took in tackling the four decades-old cold case in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. I longed for the big hit, the one big thing to put everything in order, to put it to rest, but truth and resolution weren’t going to be established that way. The details had to be linked, the dots had to be connected, and the game contested one play at a time with everyone doing their part until the very end.
Power teams like the Crimson Tide realize that excelling at small ball — solid blocking and tackling, accurate pass routes, sticking with your plan — wins the game, not the fluke or the last second heroics. It’s not as sexy, it’s not necessarily going to produce a fair result every time. But just as we have witnessed, it’s an especially useful strategy when the whole team buys into the concept. You are playing for a winning season, not just for the glory of an occasional spectacular victory.
So in considering this unique moment today, considering our unique moment in history, a time when we cannot ignore our past and perhaps tumble backwards toward the abyss, or truly embrace its lessons and take a step away from the lingering dangers, the choice for me is clear, in my personal life, my hopes for this country, my hopes for my family, my children, my grandchildren … my hopes for this country is to play the small ball, get the little things right. And hopefully others, just like everyone in this room, will also join the team. As a team we can win, as a team we can defeat the prejudice that we know is going to exist regardless of what we do. That’s the goal. And at the end of the day, we are all in this together. We are all in this together, and our state is becoming more diverse, and if we don’t remember the lessons of history, we will be doomed to repeat them.
So thank you for allowing me to be here tonight, thank you for this event, for your celebration, and for your courage and for your look forward to recognizing where we are and where we’re headed. Thank you very much.