Birmingham, the Bombing and Restorative Justice

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls. The girls’ death and the long wait for justice raises important questions about civil rights, racism, and the nature of restorative justice.

(Clockwise from top left: Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Cynthia Wesley (aged 14),
Carole Robertson (aged 14) and Denise McNair (aged 11), image source.)

If you’re not familiar with the case, you can begin by listening to this interview from 2008, Mr. Christopher McNair – father of the youngest victim – offers his recollection of that devastating day with NPR reporter Michele Norris. And, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch Spike Lee’s documentary about the bombing, “4 Little Girls,” which is quite compelling.

This year, President Obama awarded the four girls with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civil honor.  However, it took many decades before the bombers – four white supremacists, Robert Chambliss, Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry –  were brought to justice.

The decades-long-delay in prosecuting the assailants in this case raises vexing questions about the nature of “justice,” questions that  Willoughby Anderson takes up in a 2008 analysis (“The past on trial: Birmingham, the bombing, and Restorative Justice.” California Law Review 96, no. 2 (2008): 471-504). Anderson writes:

“The community, media, and scholarly responses to these trials point to the way that a crime’s effects can reach far beyond the individual perpetrator and victim. In the context of unresolved civil rights-era violence, one murder or bombing inevitably expands outward and into the larger story of segregation and massive resistance; into the systemic, racially-based injustices of southern law enforcement; and to the New South’s willingness to move quickly forward without reconciling its troubled past. Restorative justice theory, a reform movement within the criminal justice system, can help contextualize the broad consequences of these crimes. Taking the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as an example, I use restorative justice theory to expand the concept of harm resulting from this one incident. Rather than understanding the crime in traditional terms as an abstract harm against the state, we must imagine it as an act with consequences for the victims, the community at large, the offenders themselves, and the relationships between all three.”

I find Anderson most persuasive in his argument when he takes up the “harm to community” from these crimes, and offers a context for the return to prosecution after many decades. He writes:
“But what can this criminal justice reform movement teach us about approaching historic unsolved crimes from the civil rights-era? The responses of communities, the media, and scholarly observers to renewed civil rights-era investigations were critical and mixed. Some saw justice long-delayed, but ultimately achieved. Others questioned the value of trials delayed for so long. Most simply wondered about the years of non-prosecution. Murder trials have a limited ability to address broad concerns about systemic injustice and the passage of time between an offense and its prosecution. These infamous crimes exposed the harm inflicted on whole communities through the violence of segregation and selective enforcement of criminal laws, a harm that cannot simply be understood as Alabama v. Defendant.
His argument, to take a restorative justice theory frame to examine the Birmingham bombing, is less well developed when it comes to the perpetrators.  In discussing the impact of the trial on the family of Bobby Cherry, Anderson writes:
“The criminal justice context also overlooked the plight of the families of the perpetrators. The effects of the crime on Cherry’s family strife illustrate how the bombing’s harms were not restricted to one side of the equation. Thomas Cherry, estranged son of the bomber, describing how his childhood was blighted by the crime, forcing his family to relocate to Texas, and providing the subject of conversation at every family reunion. The son was subpoenaed to testify in front of the grand jury, and the newspapers described him as “anguished over his father but . . . also haunted by the bombing.”  After the verdict, Thomas Cherry tried to explain how the crime cast a long shadow: “[i]t leaves you an awful empty feeling in you [to] know that your father is going to the penitentiary for the rest of his life.”  Cherry’s trial also featured conflicting testimony from ex-wives and a loyal grandson as to his character, the meaning of his Klan membership, and his motives for racial violence. After the verdict, the Birmingham Post-Herald ran a large picture of Cherry’s daughter Karen Suderland sitting on the ground weeping. One wonders what the effect of the competency protests might have been on this wide spectrum of family members, both estranged and otherwise. How could the trial possibly have brought them a sense of closure? In evaluating harms and victims, an inquiry into the effects the crime has on the offenders’ families is necessary, no matter how much this complicates otherwise simplistic condemnation of criminal offenders.
While I’m generally in favor of restorative justice as at least one, possible way out of the current mass incarceration debacle, I’m skeptical of such an approach here. Anderson seems well aware of the context of racism and white supremacy in creating the harm of the bombing, but once it comes to the perpetrators and their families, those slip from view. Instead, Cherry becomes merely an “offender” whose family has suffered because of their “crime.” When Anderson writes that the son was forced  “to relocate to Texas,” and discuss the bombing “at every family reunion,” speaks to a kind of minimal (if any) harm.  What this version of restorative justice doesn’t address all the ways in which the descendants of the perpetrators still benefit from and are complicit with certain forms of white supremacy.

Fifty years on from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young girls we are still struggling to understand what the nature of restorative justice might look like in a society that remains mired in racism.


  1. Earl Smith

    I don’t think you can have “restorative justice” inside of a racist society where POWER remains in the hands of those who would rather see those different from them dead.
    Diane McWhorter (NYT :Civil Rights Justice on the Cheap”) makes it very clear what happens to those maimed at the 16th Street church bombing once the cameras, and lights move on to the next story. McWhorter tells the gut-wrenching story of Sarah Collins Rudolph (62) who lost an eye 50 years ago yesterday when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. Sarah is the sister of deceased 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins who perished along with Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. How do you restore justice (handing out medals is not it) in a city that refused to acknowledge this grave injustice?

  2. An interesting connection between restorative justice (RJ) and the Birmingham bombings is revealed in the life story of Fania Davis, the sister of Angela Davis, and to some extent to her sister. Fania reports that a close friend of her family was one of the children killed in the bombing and that she grew up angry and bitter as a result. But then, in recent years, she learned at a conference of the power of restorative justice. She now is a leader of using RJ to help kids in Oakland in trouble with the law turn their lives around. Her story is really moving. I have it in our book, Restorative Justice Today: Practical Applications, and I learned more about her work at a conference on RJ this summer in Ohio. Angela Davis spoke as well. The RJ programs today are used throughout the school system in Oakland; kids sit in circles to settle disputes, and the delinquency and violence rates are down.
    Katherine van Wormer

  3. John Wilmerding

    In the work of the United Nations Working Party on Restorative Justice, Professor Paul McCold compiled an enormous annotated bibliography of books and research studies which prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Restorative Justice methods have by far the highest esteem and respect among participants in all quarters — Victims, Offenders, Family and Community members — for satisfaction generated. To call for Restorative Justice is to call for peacemaking, and to my mind this morally trumps any call for punishment. Seasoned activists and wiser people generally understand that no kind of justice is served when the primary result of a process (such as a trial) is damage to offenders, their families, etc.

    Consideration of the Cherry family in the above article is instructive. Did they move because of threats, or because of harm to their reputation? Or because of shame? Whatever nuances of reasons they had for moving, the broken nature of the family illustrates a significant part of the harm that came of Bobby Cherry’s act. It would be completely unfruitful to compare what they have gone through with the tragic deaths of these children, however.

    The most misunderstood part of Restorative Justice involves the implied or tacit question “What is restored, to whom, and how?” The childrens’ lives cannot be restored. The pain and suffering that families experienced, whether of victims or offenders, cannot be restored. No form of justice can take these stakeholders to ‘status quo ante’. However, Restorative Justice may help bring about the closest or nearest possible outcome to peace and recovery. The question Restorative Justice asks is not limited to “how can the harm be redressed” … they more properly revolve around “how can the wellness and peace of mind of all the participants and stakeholders be restored to the greatest extent possible?”

    Theorists of peacemaking and Restorative Justice study such matters as the persistence of memories and forgiveness. Practitioners are more concerned with the happiness and satisfaction of all parties. A shared goal must always be to break cycles of violence by preventing retribution, vengeance, or retaliation. Reparations are not primarily undertaken with the purpose of repairing harm, but rather reintegrating offender into community and giving all parties a positive outcome around which to base their healing, both individually and socially.

    Restorative Justice’s greatest problem is the tendency of a wounded society to discuss it in terms of “punishment justice”. It is a paradigm shift in that the very language used to discuss it must change radically for any honest appraisals to occur. For this reason, I have advanced a ‘Theory of Active Peace’, with Restorative Justice included as a type of active peacemaking. Ultimately, I believe that is what human society has to return to again and again – the rejection and termination of cycles of violence in favor of mercy, peacemaking, recovery, and forgiveness.

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