More coverage . . .
The Last 1963 Church Bombing Trial:
Birmingham, AL, May 21, 2002 -- As I write this, the closing arguments in the trial have ended. The jury is deliberating. Wrong or right, a verdict will be forthcoming. In the previous 16th St. Church bombing trial, it came in under four hours.
Rev. Will Campbell, a hero of the civil rights era, once said, that "church is a verb." In that spirit I "did" a visit to the 16th St. Church with some elder Southern crips.
Since 1963, the church has received a tremendous amount of support on many fronts. So imagine our surprise to find that the level of access there is only slightly better than your average church anywhere (The bright spot is a new elevator.)
It broke my heart to see the preaching area was still loaded with stairs. As a minister with disabilities, I would never be able to speak there. I worked to struggle up the stairs anyway, longing to be judged there on the basis of my pastoral talent, not on whether I could reach and see above the top of the pulpit.
Most of the older crips who went with me on this visit I had met at the Sunday service I'd attended about four blocks away the weekend before. Their able-bodied minister expected a typical amount of standing. By the end of worship, I'd felt was inside that pop-up "Whack-A-Mole" game you see at the state fair. The sound of arthritic joints going off all around me was painful to hear.
A big part of his sermon was about being a sinner. It lay at the core of regular food pantry use, inadequate housing and the inability to drive a vehicle you own. Economic need was labeled "moral failure." I wondered what the poorer crips listening to the sermon took from that. At its end was the standard call for everyone to come forward and pray around the altar. Elder crips there later told me they could never join in, because there is no wheelchair space and no one is ever there to help them up and down.
Of course there are more "with it" ministers. One is the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, former pastor of the 16th Street Church. He is now 80 years old and aging into disability.
Rev. Shuttlesworth did not attend the Cherry trial until today. But a video of his younger self was shown earlier. We saw him being beaten with bicycle chains and baseball bats by a white mob while trying to integrate Phillips High School in Sept., 1957. His wife was stabbed then. His daughter, Ruby, had her ankle crushed in their car door that day.
Cherry's current minister, the Rev. Robert High, was brought in to help the defense. I don't think this was such a good idea. Defense lawyers were trying to discount Cherry's alleged past violence against an African-American church by touting his current friendly involvement in a racially-integrated church But even though High discounted it, it was clear how close the date Cherry got active in his integrated church was to the date the FBI reactivated the church bombing investigation in 1997.
As a Southern crip minister -- married to another minister -- I find it a striking parallel: how many churches try to hide their past and continuing lack of meaningful access behind their so publicly stated "good intentions" toward us! The conservatism of the denomination involved doesn't seem to make much difference in terms of neglecting to truly and fully include crips.
Sometimes I think the worst thing that ever happened to religion for crips was church, because of the lack of access concern. Sometimes I think the worst thing that ever happened to churches for crips was ministers, because so many just don't get the need to extend inclusivity and civil rights to us. Always, and even after all this time, I reflect on this paraphrase Dr. King: For people with disabilities the Sunday morning church service is still the most segregated hour of the week.
NEXT: The Verdict
Watching the Trial.
May 20 -- Above the entrance to the Mel Bailey Criminal Justice Center where the trial is taking place is this quotation from Cicero: "We are in bondage to the law in order that we may be free."
Taxpayers have paid millions in recent years to build and renovate the clump of criminal justice buildings downtown. The jail and offices with new and old courtrooms are all in the same area. What does that mean for disability access? The nearby handicapped parking is almost totally blocked by concrete barriers -- for security . No automatic doors. Room numbers are in Braille, but with no indication of what the occupants of the rooms were doing.
The Cherry trial is being held in the basement; the accessible restrooms are on the first floor only. The trial courtroom is too small for such a grand trial. No access was planned for anyone using a wheelchair. Wheelchair accessible seating is only a dream here.
Circuit Judge James Garrett, a cello-shaped man in a black robe, fills all the space available behind his elevated bench. The sound system remains unreliable, with static and inaudible patches from time to time. Readings from old transcripts over the unreliable sound system beg for printed copies, but none are available -- neither to the press, the jury nor the public.
There are no visibly disabled people on the jury. One older man among them, though, moves more slowly than usual.
Learning disabilities and mental illness among members of Cherry's family took center stage today. A grandson, who failed in school-- Bobby Wayne Cherry, Jr. -- testified on behalf of his grandfather, explaining how his own learning disabilities led him to live with Cherry during his growing-up years. Glenn Belcher, a nephew, talked from the witness chair about the mental illness of female family members. His mother's mental illness landed him in Frank Cherry's home as well. Wearing his U.S. Air Force uniform to testify, he looked very young.
Prosecutor Doug Jones, who looks like everyone's high school graduation valedictorian, is still trying the able-bodied Frank Cherry of the past, while Cherry's attorney is defending the disabled Frank Cherry of the present -- a 71-year-old man with vascular dementia.
Prosecution witnesses are older, disabled. They testify about a much younger Frank Cherry, a man vibrant and active 40 years ago. Defense witnesses fall into the younger, able-bodied category. They testify mostly about the disabled Frank Cherry of 2002.
Frank Cherry is a large gray pear of a man in his oversize suit, loosened tie, and dangling shirtsleeves. He is a lesser figure than the prosecution wishes him to be. He wears his hair in an early 60s Elvis-style pompadour -- very, very gray. His dementia, which causes brain cells to wither and die, causes him to be a lesser intellectual threat than he may once have been.
By watching him long enough, will I get to understand what this evil really looks like?
My disabled mother lost her nerve and would not attend the trial with me today. Yet it's been 40 years since the bombing. What's behind such deep fear of such an old evil? My own old courtroom fear had to do with what happened -- and didn't happen -- in Birmingham courtrooms that so blighted my school years from ages eight to 17. But I heard that same kind of old scary thinking in statements today -- from a Cherry grandson: "He told me the Klan was just political"; from a would-be Klan member William Jackson: "I done anything they asked me to do."
That kind of lockstep reasoning also keeps the crip community from being taken seriously.
The trial is winding down now, but there is more to the story than what is happening in the courthouse. There is also the city itself.
'No One's Ever Asked How It's Been for Me:'
May 19 -- On Friday, the prosecution in the last 1963 church bombing trial rested its case. The defense for Frank Cherry began its presentation the very next day in a rare Saturday session.
All involved and interested in the trial can't help but feel the press of time -- time that is ending the ability to resolve unfinished civil rights business from the 1960s. Time is also bringing to a close the lives of people with disabilities who were alive around Birmingham at the time of the bombing. I've been talking to these African-American and white crip elders for the past few days. Their overwhelming and common feeling from that time was fear.
The white crips I talked to feared being held accountable for racist events and people beyond their control. Many were afraid of being perceived as having more power than they actually did. African-American crips told me they feared becoming especially easy targets for racist violence due to their already precarious place in their community. But all the crip elders I spoke with had points of view and stories that have not been included in histories of civil rights struggles at the time.
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, former pastor of the 16th Street Church which figures prominently in the bombing case, said on the 1961 CBS television documentary "Who Speaks for Birmingham" that "we're determined to either kill segregation or be killed by it." The crips I interviewed this weekend, whether black or white, added that they feared they might be killed -- either way.
Ex-wives and female family members have been central to both sides of the case. All these ladies have aged into disability. Willadean Brogdon, ex-wife of Cherry, unhesitatingly admits to hating her ex-husband and testified that he said he participated in the bombing. When prosecuting attorney, Doug Jones repeatedly questioned her about that statement, she tartly replied, "Why don't you write some of this down!"
Mary Frances Cunningham, now 78, began working as an FBI informant before the 1963 bombings. Sister-in-law of Robert Chambliss, who was successfully convicted of this same bombing 25 years ago based on her testimony, has age-related disabling conditions. She testified at this trial as well.
My Grandma Dowda, Ruby Pearl, who in 1963 had uncontrolled diabetes and other problems that left her in bed most of the time, told me she lived in fear of the actions of male family members who belonged to the Klan.
Still, she tried to teach us grandkids a racial tolerance that we had to swear to keep secret for her protection. I am eternally grateful for the seeds of acceptance she sowed in that back room that always smelled like her medication.
Life is easier for many Southerners with disabilities, especially those living in urban areas. But there is still fear -- the fear our community will not be able to shake until we are all out of the back rooms of homes and institutions.
I long to have the story of the crip community in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s told more fully. In the meantime, I continue to treasure the sweet sense of justice my disabled Grandma Ruby Pearl passed down to me before her death.
I left a bouquet of wild, sweet honeysuckle on her grave today in gratitude.
When the Bad Guys Have Disabilities, Too:
May 16 -- Thirty years ago this week, George Wallace was shot. The attack left him a wheelchair user and in chronic pain. At the time, I was a non-disabled high school junior sure that my skinny little body would always look and work the way it did then.
I and my friends talked about how his new disabilities couldn't happen to a more deserving person. There were a lot of people then begrudging him every ramp needed to attend functions in his own state. Sometimes I was part of that group.
Much as I disliked Wallace's politics, I am now ashamed of having shared those earlier able-bodied opinions. All it took for me to change how I felt was my first day out of rehabilitation when I was using ramps originally installed for his use.
This week, Frank Cherry is on trial for participating in the 1963 church bombing. He was supposed to have gone on trial last year for the crime. But his lawyers questioned his ability to fully participate, since he had been diagnosed with vascular dementia which causes brain tissue to shrink and die.
Thus, in July 2001, Circuit Judge James Garrett declared Cherry not mentally competent to stand trial. In response, a major political push began to have him tried despite the judge's decision. There was public talk, yet again, as to whether mental illness was a real disability.
That outside pressure led Judge Garrett to order Cherry's re-examination by state doctors. The judge then re-concluded in January 2002 that Cherry was faking bad memory and was not "mentally ill" after all.
Now the still allegedly disabled Cherry is on trial. His lawyers say he cannot remember events as far back as 1963, and cannot help in his own defense. He sat in a chair and slept through jury selection.
Wallace was no angel, although many say disability gave him the minority experience that later changed his views about African-Americans. Cherry's earlier racism and violence would not qualify as proof of mental illness.
I don't want to forgive Cherry for the bombing then on the basis of his disability now. And the ramps Wallace ended up getting installed did not change the fact that, back when he could stan, it was in front of doors to bar school integration.
But what if Frank Cherry really is too mentally disabled to be tried now? Are we seeing politics over the reality of disability now? State-appointed doctors, within six months of each other, said both that Cherry was too disabled to go on trial and that he was not disabled enough to be excused. What is our community to make of that?
Damn, it's tough when the Bad Guys have disabilities, too.
Some Questions About Access
Birmingham, AL, May 15, 2002 -- Yesterday was the first day of testimony in the last 1963 church bombing trial. The prosecution led eleven people through their stories. They began with Mrs. Alpha Robertson, a woman in her 80s. She is the mother of Carole Robertson, one of the little girls who died in the blast.
Mrs. Robertson uses a wheelchair and was questioned directly in front of the jury box. Other parents, who were able-bodied, spoke from the witness stand. The prosecution had known for a long time that their first witness was going to be a wheelchair user, yet they did not appear to make the stand accessible.
Of course, when I had earlier called to ask, I was told that the unusually small space chosen for this particular trial was completely accessible. Crips are always told that when we ask ahead of time. Even when it isn't true -- in most of our experiences, especially when it isn't true.
When Mrs. Robertson spoke to that jury, it was not to a group of her true peers. There are no African-American women with disabilities on the jury because no African-American women were seated.
Mrs. Sarah J. Collins Rudolph is also in attendance. Her sister, Addie Mae Collins, was one of the four girls killed. The other three were friends. Sarah was both emotionally and physically tramatized. The blast partially blinded her. She had to give up her dream of a career in the military.
Due to poverty and an indifferent city government, she did not get a comfortable, working prosthesis for one of her eyes until 23 years later.
The sound system did not work during most of the first day of testimony. This put the hard-of-hearing at a great disadvantage. The proceedings continued, though, just about as planned.
The space for THE disabled journalist (when I get there, they say) is going to be at the very back of the courtroom.
Doug Jones, the U.S. Attorney prosecuting Frank Cherry at this trial, said last year that "It is never too late for justice." He appears now to be trying for full justice without full access for participants with disabilities. He thinks that makes sense.
Rus Cooper-Dowda is a minister and freelance writer in St. Petersburg, Fla.
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