That September, Ku Klux Klansmen planted a bomb in a prominent Black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and injuring at least 14 other churchgoers. It would take 14 years before one of the men responsible was tried and convicted, and 20 more before I became the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama and took on the reopened case.
As part of my prosecution, my team and I carefully studied the events leading up to the bombing — which dated back nine years to 1954 — and presented our findings to the jury.
Perhaps one of the most important contributing factors was this: Words matter. That is, the rhetoric employed by our public officials and community leaders can have real-life consequences. In the case of my home state of Alabama, people like 1960s public safety commissioner Bull Connor and Governor George Wallace strategically used dog-whistle rhetoric that fed a White backlash to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Their hateful speech essentially gave the green light to racial violence. There was no question among the Ku Klux Klan and other White supremacists that Connor, who had control over Birmingham’s police and fire departments, and other public officials were sympathetic to their cause.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Klansmen who were responsible for the 1963 church bombing believed they had cover from the very top. The Klan at large felt invincible, because at the time the Klan’s reach extended throughout government and law enforcement from the local level on up. And that historically deep-seated influence, combined with the challenges of systemic racism and implicit bias, remained a dangerous combination long after the 1960s.
In the case of Michael Donald’s lynching in 1981, as examined in the new CNN Original Series “The People V. The Klan,” the local police in Mobile, Alabama, did not engage in such overt, vocal racism. But the broader Black community still had plenty of reason to mistrust. Throughout the early investigation, the department disregarded mounting evidence pointing to the Klan, instead floating theories that young Michael was caught up in drugs or other criminal activity that led to his brutal murder. The Mobile Police Department said they were trying to chase down every lead, but as the so-called “War on Drugs” began to mount in 1981, too many in law enforcement simply assumed that drugs were at the cause of every young Black man’s death. Of course, that wasn’t true — and we now know the Klan had targeted Michael as an act of retaliation after the case of a Black man accused of killing a White Birmingham police officer ended in a mistrial.
While times had certainly changed between 1963 and 1981, racism remained stubbornly embedded within American communities and institutions, like Mobile and its police department. It continues to be one of the greatest challenges we face as we look to root out discrimination and disparate treatment within our criminal justice system.
Today we find ourselves in similarly dangerous and yet unprecedented territory. In the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by violent extremists, we have seen troubling reports about those rioters’ connections to law enforcement and our military — positions of great responsibility and with the power to make life-and-death decisions on the job. While I do not believe there is some broader conspiracy among the police, our military and the myriad extremist groups in America to coordinate and advance racist ideologies, it’s clear that these views continue to find safe harbor within many of those institutions.
Of the rioters arrested for the attack on the Capitol, at least 38 are current or former members of the U.S. military, according to an April CBS News accounting. At least five of those arrested were law enforcement officers at the time of the riot, and five more were former officers. Among those present, extremist groups including the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys to the Three Percenters and others are reported to have been driving forces organizing the mob. The Oath Keepers, notably, are a self-proclaimed organization of current and former law enforcement officials and military veterans.
Though these extremists are a minority of our uniformed officers, the danger that they present from within our institutions is clear. The Capitol riot showed us a stark example of that most recently, shaking many Americans to their core. But this is a far greater systemic problem that has spanned generations in our country. It has taken different forms over time, but we are clearly still struggling to confront the influence of these hateful ideologies — as well as the infiltration of those who seek to advance them — within our public safety ranks and criminal justice system.
Finally, let there be no doubt that the actions of those Capitol insurrectionists were prompted by similar dog-whistle style rhetoric from some of our nation’s top leaders. Once again, as we saw in the 1960s, hateful rhetoric prompted violent consequences.
The question then is, what can we do about this? How do you root out bad actors and hold institutions accountable?
One solution starts within. Police and public safety officials need a clear, consistent set of guidelines and code of conduct to prohibit any support for or affiliation with extremist groups. To be effective, such rules must be upheld forcefully and discipline should be applied fairly, regardless of rank. Setting an example from within is key to rooting out racist behavior as well as discouraging those with extremist ties from seeking employment in departments to begin with.
To date, disciplinary action appears to be inconsistent and lenient, given the authority officers are granted on the job. That lack of accountability sends a message again to extremists — however accurate it may be — that law enforcement continues to be friendly to their cause. We have to take steps to break that cycle. If we fail to meet this moment, I believe we will continue to see more attacks on democracy and on people of color by those who feel they still have cover from the top.
But in the end, our public officials have to bear some responsibility for their rhetoric and choose their words carefully. Condemning violence after the fact is simply not enough and in many instances rings hollow. Leaders must stand together, put partisanship aside, and do all they can to bridge divides, not make them wider.