By CARYL P. PRIVETT
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama, March 7, 2019 — Reading the new book “Bending Toward Justice,” written by my friend U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Alabama), brings back so many memories for me. This book is focused on the last two trials of the perpetrators of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church here in Birmingham, where four precious young girls were killed.
Years later, I was the U.S. Attorney who authorized the re-opening of the FBI investigation into the bombing, and Doug, who had succeeded me as U.S. Attorney, successfully prosecuted two Klansmen for the murders. Doug has some nice things to say about me in the book, but that’s not the only reason I highly recommend reading it.
I was a 15-year-old, white, female Birmingham native who had just moved to a small town in southern Alabama on September 15, 1963, when the bombing “heard around the world” took place.
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, as it appears today. In the foreground, across the intersection from the church, is the sculpture memorializing the four young victims of the bombing.
While many of the racial atrocities in Birmingham, Jefferson County, Alabama in the late 1950s and early 1960s didn’t show up on my radar, this one did, but not as much as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy about two months later. I remember laughter in the women’s locker room at my high school when the news of JFK’s assassination started circulating. The Confederate flag still flies in Covington County, Alabama, to this day.
Other major milestones in the quest for civil rights made a greater initial impact on my consciousness.
I recall hearing that the preacher at the local First Baptist Church vilified the Selma marchers after “Bloody Sunday” and the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo (who was referred to by some as “that n-loving white woman,” or worse). The preacher was apparently more concerned about the alleged sinful behavior of some of the marchers than the brutality of white law enforcement and the murder of an innocent woman. I don’t remember what, if anything, was said from the pulpit of my Presbyterian church.
My senior year in high school, 1965-’66, was the first year that our school was desegregated. There was one African-American girl in my class, the daughter of a minister. What a lonely existence she had. To my eternal shame, I did nothing to welcome Linda, and was silent when friends uttered the n-word in her presence. Our senior prom was moved to the local country club in order to be “private” and exclude her.
It wasn’t until my years at Vanderbilt University that I became an advocate for civil rights. Getting away from the influence of my George Wallace-supporting father certainly helped, but learning from my college professors how to think for myself was crucial.
And then I met Chuck Offenburger of Shenandoah, Iowa. Chuck and I worked on the school newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, together. Chuck’s brother Tom worked for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I campaigned for U.S. Senator Gene McCarthy for president in 1968. I protested against the Vietnam War and for the rights of women students. And I recall sitting with Chuck and other friends in the stadium at nearby historically African-American Fisk University on the first anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, listening to recordings of his words over the loudspeaker. That still brings back tears.
I went on to law school in New York, came home to be a civil rights attorney, then an Assistant U. S. Attorney, court-appointed U. S. Attorney, and finally a state court trial judge. I’m now retired.
Judge Caryl Privett outside her courtroom in a 2014 photo.
While I was an Assistant U. S. Attorney in 1977, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley successfully prosecuted one of the bombers of the 16th Street Baptist Church. I watched some of the trial from the courtroom balcony when I could slip away from work. Doug Jones, then a law student, watched almost all of it. After that trial, the case went dormant, despite it being clear that the convicted Ku Klux Klansman had not acted alone.
In 1996, 33 years after the 16th Street church bombing, I had been U. S. Attorney for about a year. The Special Agent in Charge of the Birmingham FBI office came to me, proposing to re-open the investigation of the bombing. It was as cold a cold case as you’ll ever find.
Re-opening the investigation was not a sure thing. I was concerned about the length of time that had passed because memories fade and witnesses die. I was concerned about legal issues like the statute of limitations and whether there was still federal jurisdiction. And I was seriously concerned about the effect that a failure to prosecute and to get a conviction might have on the community, if we couldn’t assemble evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt against the other Klansmen involved.
But considering the age of the potential defendants (one had already died), this was the last opportunity to try to seek justice in this case.
My senior staff and I agreed this investigation had to go forward.
Photo at right: U.S. Senator Doug Jones, former prosecutor, now telling the story of bringing the Birmingham bombers to justice.
Before the case could be fully investigated, my friend Doug Jones replaced me as U. S. Attorney in 1997. I went into private practice in 1998. Two Klansmen were finally indicted by a Jefferson County, Alabama, grand jury in 2000. As I had suspected, it was determined that the federal courts did not have jurisdiction, based upon what the evidence revealed. Doug was appointed a Special Assistant Attorney General by Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor (now a federal appeals court judge) to lead the prosecutions. In 2001 and 2002, the two defendants were each convicted. “Bending Toward Justice” is the history of these cases.
Doug Jones tells a good story. He shows how hard assembling the evidence for and trying to get a conviction in cold cases can be. He highlights all of the roadblocks that were faced by the investigators and prosecutors who wanted to bring about justice for four little girls: Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, Cynthia Morris Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, and for the fifth little girl, Sarah Collins (now Rudolph) who survived despite serious injuries, including losing the sight in one eye. He tells the story of the investigators, the prosecutors, the victims and the perpetrators.
Doug went back into private practice after his term of office and these prosecutions were over. In 2017, he surprised many, including me, when he was elected U.S. Senator from Alabama — the only Democrat elected to statewide office in this deep red state. It was a great day for Alabama.
Cover of the new book on the 1963 bombing and the later prosecution of the perpetrators.
“Bending Toward Justice” is a reminder that racism is still a factor in American life.
There really is no such thing as being color-blind. If we are to overcome our worst biases, and as I used to tell my juries, we all have biases, we must acknowledge them, face them head-on, and work diligently to overcome them.
I know from personal experience that this is not an easy task, that it’s a life-long struggle. But we must always be “bending toward justice.”
Guest columnist Caryl P. Privett, a retired U.S. Attorney and Alabama District Court Judge, is a good friend of the Offenburgers. She now lives in a Birmingham suburb. You can write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.