Unjustifiable: How an overlooked moment in Birmingham history charted a path to 2020

In our final episode of the Reckon Interview, we have an exclusive interview with hosts of the upcoming season of Reckon Radio.

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.

The story begins in 1979, when a police officer with a history of complaints shot and killed a 20-year-old Black woman named Bonita Carter. Her death would forever change the course of Birmingham, Alabama.

The legacy of Bull Connor’s police department looms large over Birmingham. Even today, black and white images of dogs and firehoses used against Birmingham children and foot soldiers are touchstones for protestors demanding police reform. What was it about the death of Carter that motivated Birmingham to change, 16 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned a letter from a Birmingham jail and four decades before Black Lives Matter.

In a six-episode series, “Unjustifiable” tells the story of Carter, the protests that erupted and the change demanded, resulting in the election of the city’s first Black mayor.

Archibald and Johnson also examine a century of police killings in Birmingham that had been ruled “justifiable.” They’ve identified 500 people killed by police in Jefferson County in the 20th century. What was it about Bonita Carter? She came to represent them all.

Unjustifiable,” is produced by the award-winning team behind the Reckon Interview, and Greek Gods. It features original music recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, at Single Lock Records.

This is a Southern story, told by Southern storytellers. But in 2020, the resonance is national. Listeners will hear echoes of Minnesota, Louisville, Ferguson and Baltimore, in the streets of Birmingham. And, maybe, they’ll find inspiration for a potential path forward.

Episodes will publish each Monday from November 16 through December 14 and are available wherever you find your podcasts.

Excerpts from the Reckon Interview are posted below but you can hear the full conversation here.

To hear the entire series “Unjustifiable,” subscribe to Reckon Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Acast, or your favorite podcasting platform. 

John Archibald on deciding to make a podcast about the police shooting of Bonita Carter

I grew up in Birmingham. In East Birmingham, as a matter of fact, and all my life had known the story of Bonita Carter, this 20-year-old woman who had been shot by police in the 70s. And how that led to protest and outrage over her death. Shot by a police officer with a history of complaints who had already been pointed out as a problem to the mayor. But nothing has been done about it.

How that really created a wave of change in Birmingham which really swept away, in many ways, the old police department that had been built by Bull Connor. And ushered into office Richard Arrington, the first black mayor of Birmingham, long before anybody thought that possible. He made it a point to reshape the police department and make it more representative of the people and to change the shooting policy.

I’ve always thought that that was a really important moment. And this seemed like the right time to really look at it.

Roy S. Johnson on how race affects collective memory

It’s not just how we collectively remember it but how we selectively forget it. How we choose to remember it. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which in 1921, was the site of the worst race massacre in the history of this country, which for many years was known as the Tulsa Race Riot. But thanks to the efforts of many people, it has been changed to be known as the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Whites essentially went from one side of town, it was very segregated at the time, went to the Black part of town. Which was not only just all Black, but it was a thriving Black community and middle class business community thriving so much that it was known as Black Wall Street. And still to this day is recognized as Black Wall Street.

[White people went there] based on the false accusation that a Black man had attacked a white woman. He essentially had bumped into her in an elevator and late years later, I believe [she] admitted their claim was false. But whites went to the jailhouse to try to lynch him. The jailkeeper did not provide them with him. And so they went to the other side of town, burned down Black Wall Street and murdered up to 300 African Americans, many of whom were buried in mass graves. Next year is the hundredth anniversary of that.

But from my recollection, and working on the Bonita Carter podcast, which I was privileged to be brought into. I didn’t find out about the race massacre until I was out of college. It was not discussed. It was completely hidden. And I understand later that both whites and Blacks were so embarrassed by what happened, that they literally chose not to speak about it. Not just change the narrative but to ignore the narrative. To the extent that if you go into the microfilm, and look at the Tulsa Daily World newspaper on the three days covering the massacre, there literally are gaps where the stories about the massacre have been cut out of the microfilm. There was a conspiracy of silence that went that deep.

I have a mentor who worked for my dad. My dad owned a drugstore on Greenwood, which was the central street on Black Wall Street. One of her first jobs out of college was working for my father in his store. And I spoke to her last year asking for some memories. And she talked about coming home one day after hearing something about this Riot and asked her grandmother about it. And the first thing her grandmother said is don’t ever talk about that again.

As I worked on this podcast, it became clear that a narrative that had been distorted throughout John’s lifetime, as he mentioned. What he heard was different from the facts. And we’re reintroducing it, not just to Alabamians, but to America at a time that is so reminiscent of that day in the 70s, when Bonita Carter was killed, simply trying to move a friend’s car, killed by a policeman. It was exactly reminiscent…you can go to Breonna Taylor, you can go to George Floyd, so many things that happened this year.

And America is going through some change. Maybe it’s not as quick and seismic as happened in Birmingham. And again, it wasn’t quick in Birmingham, a lot of people talk about how it led to the election of Richard Arrington as the first black mayor, I think as important, as John noted, it led to much needed significant change in policing.

And what this podcast also exposes is the depth of egregious police actions against Black people in Birmingham, that went on for decades to the extent that it was acceptable to shoot someone as they were running away. Shoot them and kill them and deemed justifiable.

John Archibald on why Bonita Carter made the difference

In three decades leading up to the Bonita Carter killing that there were 213 shootings. 213 justifiable shootings in Jefferson County. 200 of them were Black men. And of the 500, which really stretches from 1909 to now, we can’t say precisely how many of those were [deemed] justifiable. But we can say that 85% of those, over that 110 years were Black.

One of the questions we asked through this is “why Bonita Carter?” Why was she sort of the prism that focused everything on Birmingham and changed everything? What was it about this woman that caused a change?

And I personally believe that this is it. I mean, over the previous 30 years, this was not a secret. I mean, Black civic leaders were getting up and talking about it. Church leaders were getting up and talking about it. Nobody was listening. But it was not only legal for police to shoot someone who was fleeing from what they thought to be a felony. It was policy. It was expected. If a cop did not shoot, then they could be reprimanded and often were.

Hundreds of people as we’ve seen were killed, many of them young, many of them shot in the back over a matter of a few dollars. Many of them… a white person says that guy took $25 out of my cash register, a police officer shoots him when he’s running away. It was regular. It was traumatic. It was every day. It was an occurrence that boggles the mind now.

And so when it gets to Bonita Carter, it is as much, “enough is enough is enough.”

And real change began to happen. You cannot minimize how much change occurred because of that in a police department that had previously been entirely white, the largest in America that was all white. And one that was known for dogs and firehoses and shooting and policies that encouraged shootings. All those things piled on the fact the police officer who shot her and had 14 previous complaints, including several for use of force, and was only reprimanded one time. Reprimanded one time because he beat a guy in the head with a gun during a traffic stop. But he wasn’t reprimanded because he beat a guy in the head during a traffic stop. He was reprimanded because they beat him in the head with his gun. And the reprimand was for failing to carry his nightstick on duty.

That was the police department we’re dealing with.

To hear the entire series “Unjustified,” subscribe to Reckon Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Acast, or your favorite podcasting platform. The new season debuts November 16.

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