Unjustifiable Chapter One: ‘It was a girl in the car’

June 22, 1979. Just another evening in Birmingham Ala., and Bonita Carter and her friends ride their bikes to a convenience store as the sun sets. What happened there would change their lives, and their cities forever.

Episode One of “Unjustifiable” reconstructs those events, moment by moment and step by step, from the vantage points of onlookers, participants, store workers, witnesses and police. By the end of the night, a police officer named George Sands fired four shots into a car, killing the unarmed young Black woman, after a white man pointed to the car and screamed that she was dangerous man with a shotgun. Carter’s friends screamed too: “It’s a girl in the car!”

They were ignored.

Reckon Radio presents: “Unjustifiable,” an investigative series from Pulitzer-prize winning columnist John Archibald and Roy S. Johnson examining an overlooked moment of civil rights history in the heart of the South. Subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotifyAcast or your favorite podcasting app.

Below is a full audio transcript of Episode One.

Sound effect: crackle of cassette tape and audio montage of clips from upcoming episodes:

Sgt. Inkle: “If you will, state your full name for us please.”

Louise Daniels: “Louise Daniels”

Inkle: “Now, Louise, where do you live?”

Daniels: “4409 11th Avenue. Apartment G.”

Inkle: “Okay. You need to speak up now so that they tape recorder can pick you up. How old are you?”

Daniels: “Twenty-nine.”

Inkle: “Tonight at approximately 8:10 p.m. were you in the vicinity of Jerry’s 7-11 Store at 4500 10th Avenue North?”

Daniels: “Yes.”

Unnamed Interviewer: “While you were down at the store did something happen?”

Milton Hubbard: “Yes.”

Unnamed Interviewer: “Can you tell me what happened?”

Hubbard: “The shooting started.”

News Anchor: “Police fired over the head of the Negro mob with tommy guns, rifles and shot guns.

Jim Thompson: “Bonita Carter had no business being in that car. She was doing what all Blacks do when a brother is threatened with arrest.”

Dr. James Montgomery: “She was in the front seat of the car. So the two things have to be put together, where the assailant was and where the victim was. Where else could she have been?”

Daniels: “And they went up to Bonita and shot her.”

Sound effect ends and narration begins.

John Archibald: The story of Bonita Carter has been mistold a lot. A lot. Especially by white people. Like me. The myth of it grew into something that seemed real. But it was not.

It took on a life of its own. Even among people sympathetic to her memory.

Richard Mauk: “Oh my God, this poor little girl was shot and it is tragic. She really did not know that the guy she was in the car with was about to go rob this place.”

Archibald: That’s how I remembered it, too. But it’s not the way it happened. I grew up in east Birmingham — played high school sports against Bonita Carter’s alma mater the year she was killed. I grew up knowing her story, I thought. Telling her story. But it wasn’t history. It was just a tale passed down to make the real one easier to forget.

Roy S. Johnson: I know that phenomenon, John. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where an ugly event in the city’s history was rewritten. In 1921, whites burned and bombed black-owned businesses and homes and killed hundreds of African Americans in the area known as Black Wall Street. It was a race massacre. But for years it was described as the 1921 race “riot.” That made it easier to rationalize … for some. To look beyond. That erroneous narrative is slowly being rewritten now, which is why we’re here, too. To do right by Bonita Carter.

Archibald: I guess there was a lot I didn’t understand about that moment that changed my city. Maybe that says a lot about me, Roy. Maybe it says a lot about Birmingham, Maybe it says a lot about America in 1979. Or in 2020.

Johnson: Yep, in 2020.

There are moments that change the world. And this moment did, in tangible and lasting ways. But since the story grew on spreading branches, the people of Birmingham came to recall them differently as you just mentioned. The differences, often, depend most of all on the color of the teller’s skin.

Archibald: On the color of their skin.

Johnson: So how do you recall it?

Archibald: The way I always heard the story growing up, Bonita Carter was with a friend in his car, when he drove to commit a robbery at a convenience store east of downtown Birmingham. She got behind the wheel, like some kind of getaway driver or something, and then cops came. She got shot.

But that’s not what happened. Not what happened at all.

Johnson: No. We’re going to tell you what happened, though. And why.

From Reckon Radio, I’m Roy S. Johnson.

Archibald: And I’m John Archibald. And this is “unJustifiable,” not just the story of Bonita Carter, but of killings in the South over generations that made a movement inevitable, and overdue. In this series we’ll tell the story of a moment often mistold in the struggle for civil rights.

Many of the people who witnessed this shooting are now dead, or unwilling to talk. But most of them gave detailed, sworn testimony to a committee that investigated in 1979. It provides us a sort of blow-by-blow of what men and women and even children saw that night.

Johnson: In this episode we’ll reconstruct that night from that testimony. It’s an all-angles view of a moment that represented a breaking point in one city that started a movement four decades before Black Lives Matter.

Archibald: It is June 22, 1979, a little after 8 p.m. Night is coming on, but it is still light outside in the early Summer. Jerry’s Convenience Store, on the corner of 45th Street and 10th Avenue North – a street they now call Richard Arrington Boulevard – is full of men buying beer and cigarettes, and of children who tagged along with them. Young women browse the shelves for soda. One buys pampers for her baby as another tries on hats, modeling the styles through the plate glass for a friend. Outside 20-year-old Bonita Carter – some of her friends call her Nita – watches the hat show and laughs.

Johnson: Man, she has 1979 written all over her. Red hot pants and black and white top. She pulls her blue hat – you know the kind with a bib on front and zippers down the side – tight over her plaited hair as she leans her bike against the convenience store.

Archibald: Nita and her friends had been riding bikes, as they did most of these summer days, pedaling to the store and to Stockham Park, named for a company that makes valves and fittings. Nita had been struggling with a flat tire that afternoon, but now smiled through the window as her friend Louise Daniels – Tina to her friends – tried on hat after hat. Bonita may have been tired, but she was happy. It was almost time to go home.

Daniels: “All I remember is Bonita liked the cartoons — they come on, and we said — well, we always leave when the cartoons come on.”

Johnson: It was just after 8 p.m. Just a moment in the uncertainties of 1979, as the Iranian revolution created oil shortages. It was just a day turning into a warm night in the weeks after President Jimmy Carter spoke to the people about America’s national malaise.

Jimmy Carter: Good evening. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. In the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

Archibald: What happened that night had really begun to unfold moments before. And Nita and Tina really thought they had missed it. They arrived at Jerry’s after the action, but their friends Dorothy Mitchell – Dot — and Tangie Rutledge had seen it all.

Johnson: Now, a 33-year-old man named Alger Pickett – he was known as Buster in the neighborhood – pulled up to the gas pumps at Jerry’s as he did often. He got out to fill the tank on his big old 1971 green Buick Electra, but he saw a couple of young ladies at the pumps ahead of him. He volunteered to fill up the rest of their tank – they’d paid $4 worth – and asked them to tell the cashier to turn on the gas for him when they went inside the store.

Pickett would later tell police he did not know the store had recently implemented a new policy that seemed outrageous in the 1970s. It required all customers to pay for their gas before they pumped it.

Alger Pickett: “They said that he said that – uh- that he had to have the money. So I said what?

Archibald: That was testimony from Pickett. He thought he was being singled out. Probably because he was Black. He went into the store. Angry. The way he told it the white man behind the counter, Mike Avery, was rude to him.

Pickett: “I said the way you talk to people — I say I’ll tell your boss. I say I know your boss.”

Johnson: A Black man who worked part time in the store, Wayne Crusoe, was on another register making pleasantries with a white couple in his line. He wasn’t paying a lot of attention to what was going on between Avery and Pickett, but he knew there was a disagreement. This is how he told it to the committee:

Wayne Crusoe: “Mike said: ‘It is not the fact that we want you to pay for the gas. It’s just the fact that this gas has got to be paid for first no matter who you are , before we turn on the pumps.’”

Archibald: Finally, Mike said.

Crusoe: “I don’t have to give you the gas. You can take your money back.”

Archibald: There was more, but Crusoe didn’t catch it all. Until an angry voice got everybody’s attention. It was Pickett.

Pickett: “If you reach for a pistol I will kill you.”

Archibald: Crusoe heard Mike Avery respond.

Crusoe: “I don’t need a pistol to take care of you.”

“He (Avery) broke away from behind the counter and they stood in the doorway arguing and shaking each other’s hands in each other’s face. That’s when they took their hands from each other’s faces and that’s when the brawl started with the fists.”

Johnson: Pickett insisted Avery lied to him. He turned to go outside, and Avery followed him, shouting… Pickett: “‘You’re calling me a liar? You’re calling me a liar?’ So I turned around and said yeah, you’re a liar. And when I said that he hit me. Hit me right there. And we got scuffling.”

Johnson: The two fought through the doorway, knocking the door off its hinges, until Crusoe ran out, along with a customer, to break things up.

Crusoe: “That’s when I went from behind the counter and went outside and got between the two of those men and said stop fighting.”

Archibald: Tangie Rutledge saw all this go down. She and Dot had just arrived and they watched the fight. They saw it come to an end, but Tangie didn’t think it was over. After Crusoe broke it up, he and Avery ran back into the store. Rutledge testified this way.

Tangie Rutledge: “I hollered ‘Oh Lord I’m fixing to see somebody get killed,’ cause I took for granted he was going in to get a gun.”

Johnson: Pickett sensed the same thing. He heard Avery say “Wait a minute, you just wait a minute.”

Pickett: “So the Black dude said to Avery ‘man don’t go get your gun or nothing like that. So I just took off to run… I run and left in my car, went around the back.”

Archibald: Tangie Rutledge watched it all.

Rutledge: “So the Black dude that he was fighting with ran in the direction we were, which was on the side, the right side of the quickie mart. He ran out to the street. So about, maybe about 30 seconds went by and he realized the guy wasn’t coming back out. So his car was parked by the gas. He went back to his car and he left.”

Johnson: Pickett drove off slowly in his Buick. He drove around the block, past his own house, and stewed.

Bonita Carter and Tina Daniels arrived then and met up with their friends. The four had been riding bikes all day but separated earlier so Bonita could fill her bike tire with air. Tangie and Dot told them all about the fight they’d missed, and they laughed about how the men tore the door down.

Archibald: Tina and Nita went in to buy sodas, thinking it was all over. Wayne helped get Avery settled down, and noticed the door was off its hinges. He and another customer put the door back in place. He worked the register some more, until the place cleared out a little, then he went to the back to stock a case with beer.

There were a few people inside. A man was there with his little boy. Other children browsed through the candy aisles. Adults milled around, and Tina listened to workers talk about the fight that had just taken place.

Daniels: “When I got in the store, the man in the store had been hit in his eye. So by us going to the store all the time, I asked him what had happened, and he said some Black man had hit him in his eye and threatened to kill him. But he say I got two good licks in though.

Johnson: Chesley Jackson was in the store with his 7-year-old son, Milton Hubbard. His wife – his old lady, as he put it – was outside in the car. He’d been there about five minutes but couldn’t find what he was looking for. He finally made it to the counter with his goods and handed the clerk a $50 bill. He realized something was happening when two other little boys behind him  – they must have been 8 and 10. They told him to watch out or he was gonna get shot in the back. Jackson thought at first they were joking. He looked down at them and asked what they were talking about. One of the boys pointed.

Little boy: “There is a guy holding a gun and he is mad. He is going to shoot in here.”

Archibald: Jackson looked out and saw a man with a long rifle. It was a .30-.30 Winchester, loaded, as it would turn out, with 3 or 4 rounds.

Johnson: Unjustifiable will return right after this.


Archibald: Tangie and Dot, were outside at that very moment. They saw Buster Pickett pull into the lot a second time and step out. They saw him walk around to the trunk of his big green Buick and stick the key in. They saw him rise up again with a long rifle in his hands, and they yelled for Nita and Tina to come out of the store.

Johnson: The young ladies ran over to the side of the store, between the trees and neon sign. They watched as Buster’s wife, Helen, drove up behind him in a Black and white Oldsmobile. She tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t stop. She pulled on him, but he was a big man – 6-foot-1 and 242 pounds. He just pushed her away.

She was aghast as he pulled out the gun and fired a shot in the air.

Pickett: “She asked me what I was doing. She got erratic. She said ‘Buster what is you doing? What is you doing?’ She asked me what I was doing and I said you just get on back when I shot up in the air and that’s when he started shooting. He started shooting and I shot back. And I ran cause he shot back.”

Archibald: Tina had been hearing from workers inside that the customer who had been in the fight was called Buster, but she didn’t realize it was Buster Pickett. She knew another Buster in Kingston, and thought they were talking about him. When she saw Buster Pickett she begged him to leave.

Daniels: “He was walking toward the door. And we screamed for him not to come in – told him to go back.”

Archibald: He was cursing. Angry. Undeterred.

Daniels: “He either said ‘What the fuck you done’ or ‘What the fuck are you going to do.’”

Johnson: People were screaming and running.

Daniels: “He said ‘I’m gonna kill that cracker.’”

Johnson: So she began to yell:

Daniels: “Pickett don’t go up there. Please don’t go up there, Pickett. You gonna get killed.”

Johnson: He didn’t listen. Tina watched as Pickett fired two or three shots, and two men came out of the store with long guns and began to fire.

Archibald: Inside Chesley Jackson found cover behind the counter and his son – 7-year-old Milton – hid behind a rack of potato chips.

Archibald: Wayne Crusoe had been in the cooler in the back of the building for about five minutes when he heard something go “Bam!” At first he thought it was nothing but the freezer door slamming.

Crusoe: “Then I heard a series of bam, bam, and looked out and saw the customers scrambling for safety. When I heard the next ‘Bam’ I figured somebody must be shooting.”

Archibald: Wayne pulled a pistol out of his pocket and pushed the door open to see what was happening. He saw Michael Avery, grasping at his bloody left shoulder.

Michael Avery: “Wayne, I have just been shot,”

Crusoe: “By who?”

Avery: “The guy I had a fight with.”

Crusoe: “Where is he?”

Avery: “He’s out there, Wayne. Be careful.”

Archibald: Crusoe began to make his way to the front of the store.

Crusoe: “So I pulled the door open and I got low and I crawled. Then, the people in the back I asked ‘Where is he?’ A guy said ‘he is outside.’ Then, I low crawled further to the first counter on the right as you walk to the door. I stayed down, and everybody said “Wayne, stay down, he is still out there.” I asked ‘How many people is out there shooting.’ They said ‘We don’t know.’”

Johnson: Bullets are flying. Children diving behind shelves. Chesley Jackson crawls to the back room and sees Avery, but his son, Milton, is still out front behind the chips. Outside, Buster Pickett takes off running across the street.

Pickett: “And I run across the street. I thought they was still shooting at me. I run across the street. I run nearly across 10th Avenue … by my house. They was still shooting, and I still thought they were after me. Evidently they was not.”

Johnson: He later recalled yelling to his wife as he ran.

Pickett: “I said Helen get my car, when I was running. “I told her ‘Get my car, get my car.”

Archibald: Inside, Ray Jenkins, the store manager, had been napping in a room behind the store. When the shooting started, he crawled to the first counter, and tried to dial the police. But he couldn’t get a line in.

Johnson: Beside the store, by the neon sign, Tina Daniels and Bonita Carter saw Buster – a man they knew from the neighborhood – run across the street and call back over his shoulder about his car. Tina was afraid. Especially when she heard Bonita say:

Daniels: “Tina, he told me to get his car.”

Johnson: Tina was adamant. No no no no no.

Daniels: “Don’t get in the car. Don’t get in the car.”

Johnson: But Bonita didn’t listen.

Daniels: “Bonita said. “I’m going to get his car and take it home, because they will pull it in.”

Johnson: She got into the Buick.

Archibald: Inside, Jenkins continued to try to call the police. He barked orders to the other men.

Richard Jenkins: “Pull the Alarm, the burglar alarm.”

Archibald: The register was wired to an automatic alarm, called a Tact Two. If you pulled the last $20 bill out of a certain slot in the cash drawer then a metal contact would touch the metal base and a connection would be made, automatically signaling to the police department that a robbery was in progress. Somebody pulled out the 20, and the signal went out.

Johnson: Outside, just by chance, Birmingham Police Officers George Sands and R.W. Hollingsworth had just pulled into the parking lot in Car 71. They were working in plain clothes, assigned out of the South Precinct to ride in the area to guard against burglaries and robberies and the like. They had stopped at Jerry’s, as they frequently did, to get a Coke, and visit with the workers.

Johnson: They waited for a woman in a silver Malibu to back out of a parking space when the radio crackled and the dispatcher came on with a signal 16-A, an armed robbery in progress. Sands, who was behind the wheel, began to back up and pull away, to rush to the scene. That was when the address crackled over the radio.

Johnson: The signal 16 was at the intersection of 45th Street and 10th Avenue North. It was at Jerry’s. They were already there.

Archibald: By the time Sands and Hollingsworth scrambled out of their unmarked car, Bonita Carter had climbed into the driver’s seat of Buster Pickett’s Buick and eased slowly out of the parking lot. She had just reached the street when Jenkins ran out the front door of Jerry’s, waving a 44-caliber pistol, and ordering the driver to stop. Which she did.

Archibald: Jenkins saw the police officers and pointed them toward the car, apparently sure that Pickett was behind the wheel.

Jenkins: “I said, ‘that’s him!’”

Johnson: Pistols drawn, the two officers headed toward the Buick. Hollingsworth came from the driver’s side, Sands from the passenger side, from the rear of the car. The car was completely stopped now, in the street.

Archibald: It was just getting dark by this time. There were 10 or 15 people in the parking lot, including Tina and Dot and Tangie. Jenkins, as Hollingsworth would say, pointed at the Buick and said:

Jenkins: “He’s in the car and he has a shotgun.”

Archibald: Someone, Sands would report, yelled:

Jenkins: “He’s hiding in the floor”

Johnson: But Tina was yelling, too, as loud as she could.

Daniels: “There’s no man in that car. It’s a girl! A girl! She hasn’t done nothing!”

Archibald: Hollingsworth and Sands reported that they said “Stop, police,” but got no response from the car. Tina didn’t hear it if they did.

Daniels: “I didn’t hear them say anything, because they didn’t have to tell her to stop. She heard us screaming, ‘It is a girl.’ And she stopped. She wasn’t going fast no how. They didn’t say they was the police. They didn’t even present a badge. They didn’t even ask her to get out of the car, because she would have gotten out.”

Johnson: Sands told his superiors he approached the car, with his badge on and a Colt Python with a four-inch blue steel barrel out, but he couldn’t see anybody at first.

Daniels: “They jumped out of the car, and they was mad. And they started toward the car and I was hollering and screaming, and telling them that that was a girl in the car.”

Johnson: He got to the car and said a person jumped up.

Daniels: “And they went up –

Johnson: So he pulled the trigger.

Daniels: “up to Bonita”

Johnson: Four times.

Daniels: “And shot her.”

Johnson: He didn’t know it then, but three of the bullets hit the driver. They hit Nita. In the back.

He looked into the car and learned he had killed a young lady. Hollingsworth called an ambulance, and Tina tried to run to the car to see about her friend…. Sands stopped her.

Daniels: “The officer said to everybody, you get back before somebody else got killed.”

Archibald:  There are moments that change lives. And none of these would ever be the same.

What happened in Birmingham that night would change the city and its government, challenging a police department that had been built by notorious police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor years before. It would change the city power structure forever and demonstrate the power of protest. Bonita Carter changed her world, after she was gone from it. But what was it about her that made such a difference? Over the course of this podcast, we’ll endeavor to find that out. And join us next time as the city came apart.

The Reckon Report.
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