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The Jim Crow violence machine
January 21, 2013 1:38 PM   Subscribe

In on attempted murder . . . According to evidence cited by Diane McWhorter in today's NYT: Bull Connor, eased out but still active, organized a police assassination plot against Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. The conspiracy failed, but it was known to the Birmingham News beforehand. (The News was & is owned by the Newhouse family -- Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, etc). According to McWhorter, the paper also funded and collaborated in police spying on civil rights activists. McWhorter won a Pulitzer for Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. Her point in today's piece is to recall how wide and deep the Jim Crow violence machine operated. Good And Evil In Birmingham
posted by LonnieK (11 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Vincent Townsend, who had given him a sizable budget for surveillance equipment to fulfill his own desire, as the city’s power broker, “to know every word they’re saying,” according to Mr. Lankford, “10 minutes after they’ve said it.”

Logically, then, Townsend was also aware that the city commissioner he had supported editorially intended to murder an innocent, nonviolent man.


Slow down there. Is there actual evidence Townsend was aware of the intent to murder? Or does it just follow from the fact that he was trying to be aware of everything, and murder is a thing?

(It doesn't actually just follow.)
posted by effugas at 1:51 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mrs. McWhorter's column is conjecture, but it's credible conjecture, presented as conjecture.

And plausible enough to chill the blood.
posted by ocschwar at 2:04 PM on January 21, 2013


ocshwar--

Actually, no.

What distinguishes this from other officially sanctioned schemes to kill Shuttlesworth is proof that it was known by the state’s largest news organization

That's not a conjecture, that's a statement of fact. One that appears to be backed by...nothing?
posted by effugas at 2:27 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


1956: Shuttlesworth survives the explosion of a dynamite bomb beneath the bedroom of his home. The very next day, Shuttlesworth leads a protest to integrate Birmingham's buses. He is arrested and beaten while in custody.

1957: While attempting to integrate a Birmingham school, Shuttlesworth, his wife and his two young daughters are beaten with chains and brass knuckles by a mob of Klansmen. Police were notably absent from the scene.

1958: A bomb placed at Shuttlesworth's church explodes harmlessly in the street after a quick-thinking parishioner notices and moves it.

1960: Shuttlesworth is stabbed by an unknown assailant, never identified. The wound is minor.

1961: While participating in the Freedom Rides, Shuttlesworth is again beaten by a mob of Klansmen.

1963: Convicted of "parading without a permit", Shuttlesworth is again beaten while in police custody.

It is utterly unsurprising that there was an assassination plot hatched against Shuttlesworth by those at the pinnacle of power. He was an utterly fearless man, relentless, stubborn and media-savvy.

He lived to be 89. He saw Birmingham elect, then re-elect its first black mayor, Richard Arrington. He saw the people of Birmingham name our local airport in his honor. He saw the construction of the Civil Rights Institute adjacent to the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. It is interesting that the planners placed the statue of Dr King across the street from the Institute, in Kelly Ingram Park, the site of the police dogs and firehoses. But they placed the statue of Shuttlesworth right at the front door. You can't walk in to the place without acknowledging him.

I'm sure every town has its heroes of the Movement. But if there ever was a right man at the right time, it was Reverend Shuttlesworth in foment and turmoil of mid-20th century Birmingham, AL.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:42 PM on January 21, 2013 [36 favorites]


effugas:: Is there actual evidence Townsend was aware of the intent to murder? Or does it just follow from the fact that he was trying to be aware of everything, and murder is a thing?

The article is a little short on citations but I don't think that the assertion is that Townsend was aware of the plot because he was simply trying to be aware of everything. The assertion is that Townsend was aware of the plot because one of the conspirators told one of his favored reporters:
Cook described the attempt to a young reporter at The News, Tom Lankford, who was considered “Bull’s boy” by the police he covered. He was also the protégé of the paper’s chief executive, Vincent Townsend [...]
However, I'm not sure what the "new evidence" about this assassination plan that McWhorter is referring to.
posted by mhum at 2:52 PM on January 21, 2013


So, if I'm reading McWhorter's op ed correctly, the plan by Connor to assassinate Rev. Shuttlesworth was in October 1963, which would've been months after Birmingham changed to a mayor-council form of government (removing Connor from the seat of power) when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that Birmingham voters could legitimately change their form of city government in May 1963.

I mean, I have no problem whatsoever believing that Bull Connor had a plan to assassinate Rev. Shuttlesworth, but this feels like a supporting article was supposed to be published and wasn't.
posted by ndfine at 3:00 PM on January 21, 2013


Here's the problem.

We take offense because it's beyond the pale to know of a murder plot and do nothing.

But that may very well represent the type of information that doesn't get transmitted, or is in fact lied about having been transmitted, so as to acquire protection.

That's why it matters if there's evidence.
posted by effugas at 5:51 PM on January 21, 2013


effugas, I'm having a hard time tracking your objections and I can't tell if it's because you don't buy anything McWhorter is saying anywhere, you object to the assertion that Townsend must have known about the plot, or if you think a single reporter knowing about a murder plot constitutes enough culpability to indict an entire publication.

For my part, I don't think an op-ed is a good subject for such a close reading. McWhorter is clearly drawing on her much more copiously researched book to write an opinion piece. She's not writing an "article" in the sense of a researched piece of exposé journalism, but rather an opinion piece that draws from the learning she did while researching her book.

I don't own the book and haven't read it, but it is available for search on Google Books, where I looked around for mention of Lankford, who turns up in a number of passages and does not at all cover himself in glory. He's shown to be chummy with the police, he uses illegal surveillance for his boss (for union busting and general spying) and for white supremacists (to help set back the civil rights cause), and at one point he voluntarily hands over film that would have implicated racist police (though another account I found makes it sound like he did so to avoid a beating). He also sounds very young and ambitious, so maybe he was made tractable by those traits, or found himself in over his head due to his inexperience.

Either way, I'm inclined to believe her reporting because Lankford was still alive when her book was published in 2002, was writing articles at least as late as 2010, and I haven't seen any sign that he objected to any of her book's content despite being named in several key passages where he comes off looking pretty bad.

Anyhow, if he knew of the plot and was told about it by a police officer (and McWhorter claims he did, though I couldn't tell from the passages available in the book), then I guess we have to decide whether:

1. His knowledge qualifies as "knowledge" on the part of the news organization he worked for.

2. His knowledge was shared by Townsend, his boss, whom McWhorter describes as his "surrogate father," and for whom he carried out illegal surveillance and union busting.

Are those fair starting points, or am I misunderstanding what you're saying?

In the interest of just coming out and saying what I think based on my read, and as someone who used to be an editor for a living, I think some of the passage you find nettlesome could have been excised without detracting from the central thesis: The white establishment in Birmingham was, by any objective standard, a hot racist mess that was incapable of seeing itself as such because it thought history would vindicate it for trying to keep order in the face of social upheaval it found unthinkable. As near as I can tell from reading reviews, that's the central thesis of McWhorter's book and it's conceivably why she was brought in by the NYT on this particular day to comment on the nature of racism, and how it's not all leering stereotypes and bubbas, but rather "normal" people; people Hannah Arendt might call banal [1].

So, to the first question, I don't think one reporter counts as the entire organization and I doubt a court would think so either.

To the second, I think McWhorter saying it logically followed that Townsend knew about the plot is a poor choice of words. But I'd take little issue with wording along the lines of "pretty likely," because it does sound, based on her writing elsewhere, that it was, indeed, pretty likely: He was already doing illegal work for a mentor who was interested in maintaining a racist status quo (again, based on McWhorter's writing elsewhere), so one might believe he'd confide in his mentor.

And again, the real horror here isn't in those precise details. It's in the knowledge that a cop could freely share his involvement in the attempted murder of a civil rights leader with a young reporter with no apparent fear of getting in trouble for it. That's the real horror to me, anyhow. I used to be a young reporter, and desperately want to believe I would have chosen the right side of history—or even just the public trust I wanted to become a journalist to uphold— given that situation, even as I realize I can't ever know that answer: I wasn't raised a middle class white boy in Birmingham, Alabama on the cusp of the civil rights era.

[1] She wrote that book the same year all of the stuff McWhorter is writing about was happening in Birmingham.
posted by mph at 6:59 PM on January 21, 2013


Point of clarification I missed before the edit window closed:
But I'd take little issue with wording along the lines of "pretty likely," because it does sound, based on her writing elsewhere, that it was, indeed, pretty likely: He was already doing illegal work for a mentor who was interested in maintaining a racist status quo (again, based on McWhorter's writing elsewhere), so one might believe he'd confide in his mentor.
Lankford was already doing illegal work for a mentor [...], not Townsend.
posted by mph at 7:18 PM on January 21, 2013


mph,

I'm actually pretty sympathetic to McWhorter's general thesis. Those were ugly times, and there was unquestionable, systemic, unambiguously murderous corruption going on.

However, what gets me here is that she's making the case that this instance of corruption is particularly ugly, because there's evidence that the "state's largest news organization" knew. And you know, I'd agree with her. That evidence would indeed entirely support her case. But it appears to be that she has, in fact, just expanded one reporter ("Bull's Boy!") to the entire news organization.

And she knows she has, and she's admitting she's doing it, in a sort of legalistic tango. "Logically" isn't accidentally being used. I really see this as "I'm lying, and I know I'm lying, and I'm saying I'm lying in a way that will pass the lawyers, but trick enough people, because nobody should think racism was not baked into the culture stem to stern."

She's right about how just how deep the rot went. But she's associating intentional lying with things I otherwise believe to be not only true, but important to keep talking about. You're hitting the nail right on the head when you write:
The real horror here isn't in those precise details. It's in the knowledge that a cop could freely share his involvement in the attempted murder of a civil rights leader with a young reporter with no apparent fear of getting in trouble for it.
In a world where a man can't even take in poor children who have just survived a shooting, without people questioning his honesty, I have trouble with the mixing of real horror with "useful fictions".

That being said, I can understand McWhorter's own horror. It was only by sheer accident of fate that Reverend Shuttlesworth survived. In another universe, he died, and Civil Rights was a much more painful fate. Imagine discovering, in that world, that the press itself could have stopped all that, could have saved this great man, but instead agreed to allow him to fall.

Knowing this, what other things can we stop? To put it another way, is it worth not stopping those things, just because we don't have red letter proof that fifty years ago a young reporter sent news of this murderous plot to a man that surely would have wanted to have known?

What do we know now, that we refuse to act on? Who will die because of things that logically we must have known?

I do see her deeper point. I'm just not liking what appears to be dissembling at the point of her thesis. Who will die because we don't believe evidence anymore? Because, you know, that's been a problem too.
posted by effugas at 12:08 AM on January 22, 2013


And she knows she has, and she's admitting she's doing it, in a sort of legalistic tango. "Logically" isn't accidentally being used. I really see this as "I'm lying, and I know I'm lying, and I'm saying I'm lying in a way that will pass the lawyers, but trick enough people, because nobody should think racism was not baked into the culture stem to stern."
Thanks, effugas. I understand what you're saying (about the above quoted and in general).

Having had overnight to think on it more, I wonder if some of the things that made that piece a little hard for me to parse don't have to do with the way she's trying to bridge parts of the narrative where there's no documented link. I used to find when editing tech reporters that the more convoluted and difficult a passage, the more likely they weren't sure of their facts.
posted by mph at 8:49 AM on January 22, 2013


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