Why the Whitehurst Case Matters

It has been almost forty-five years since Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. was killed by a police officer in Montgomery, Alabama. On the afternoon of December 2, 1975, officers were searching for a robbery suspect who had pointed a gun at the owner of a small grocery store and taken about $45. Whitehurst, who was walking in the area, did not fit the description of the suspect, other than being black and male, but he did possess one peculiar trait that drew attention to him: he always ran when he saw police.

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Late 1975 may not ring as a significant time to most Americans, but it was very significant in Montgomery. Two months before the shooting, in September, the city had seated its first-ever biracial city council. Until 1975, Montgomery had held at-large elections for three citywide offices — mayor, commissioner of public safety, and commissioner of public works — but the 1965 Voting Rights Acts and its 1970 reauthorization had shown the at-large system to be incompatible with civil-rights progress, because it almost always resulted in a slate of all-white victories. So, Montgomery was among a slew of Southern cities that had changed to a mayor-council form, with single-member districts, which better enabled black candidates to win elected offices. Up to that point, other black suspects had been shot by Montgomery police, but the city had not had black representatives in a position to be responsive.

What became known as the Whitehurst Case began with quiet murmurs and underground rumblings. Official accounts from the time of the shooting said that the officer was justified in killing Whitehurst, since he was a fleeing armed-robbery suspect who had fired at the officer first. However, those accounts didn’t include assertions from three young officers who had tried to report that “there was no gun” near Whitehurst’s body as he lay dying in the tall grass behind an abandoned house. Those accounts also didn’t include the word spreading quickly around Montgomery’s black community that the police had pursued and killed the wrong man.

By early 1976, investigations had begun. Montgomery’s DA was looking into accusations that a gun had been planted next to Whitehurst’s body to corroborate the shooting officer’s claim that he had been fired upon. A young attorney was retained by the family, and he was looking into the situation. The new city council was demanding answers, as well. Grand juries were convened, internal investigators were assigned, and officers were brought to testify.

As spring turned into summer, the controversy of the Whitehurst Case flared up. In April, the family’s civil lawsuit was filed in federal court. In June, three detectives were charged with perjury in matters related to the gun near Whitehurst’s body. The accusation that it had been put there by police was gaining traction.

However, by the end of official legal proceedings in late 1976, there would be no substantive justice for Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. No police officers faced criminal charges for his death. A city council resolution to compensate the family was tabled indefinitely. The perjury charges resulted in mistrials and dismissals. The civil lawsuit failed and was later denied on appeal.

Yet, the Whitehurst Case wouldn’t just go away. As 1977 dawned, the state’s attorney general worked with city leaders to seek some kind of resolution. They agreed that the officers and officials who were involved would take lie-detector tests. Refuse to take the test, lose your job. Fail the test, lose your job. Pass the test, keep your job and go on with your life. Nearly a dozen officers, including the former police chief who had become public safety director, resigned or were fired. But it still wouldn’t end there.

On March 3, 1977, a year and three months after Whitehurst’s death, the Montgomery Advertiser’s editor-publisher ran an opinion piece about the Whitehurst Case calling the city’s mayor “the biggest deceiver of all.” He alluded to the case’s history, to the actions of the DA, to the officers and the lie-detector tests, and accused the popular mayor, who had led the process to create a biracial city government, of being behind the whole thing. The editor’s assessment was incorrect, but after fifteen months of the Whitehurst Case, the mayor was exhausted with it. He resigned his office the next day.

The Whitehurst Case turned the city of Montgomery upside down. After the firings and resignations at the police department, followed by the resignation of the mayor, an April 1977 special election brought the city council president into the mayor’s office. From his law-and-order perspective, the Whitehurst Case was already over, and he remained mayor until 1999.

Prior to the Whitehurst Case, few Montgomerians had ever heard of Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. He was a thirty-three-year-old, married father of four, who worked mostly as a janitor, but he also had a criminal record and a history of mental illness. Though it is debated among those who knew him whether he was actually mentally ill, one thing is certain: he always ran when he saw police. Even if he was walking down the street or buying something in a store. And, on the afternoon he was killed, there were lots of police.

I came to the Whitehurst Case in 2013, when his youngest son Bernard III called me. He was looking for a writer to tell his family’s story, since the City of Montgomery had erected a historic marker to the Whitehurst Case and the state legislature had passed a resolution acknowledging the wrong done to Whitehurst and his family. These came in 2012, almost thirty-seven years after the shooting. From 2013 through 2017, members of the family and I worked together to produce Closed Ranks, a latter-day look mainly at the Whitehurst Case of 1975–1977 but also at its long-term effects. During the time that I worked on this book about a black man killed by police, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile were also killed. Then, as I was nearing completion of the first draft, Montgomery had another police-shooting incident in 2016.

Though we live in an age when five years seems like “a long time ago,” the Whitehurst Case provides a long-range historical example of how the nation and the media may move on, but families and communities cannot. For family and friends, the grief, dismay, and frustration never go away. Likewise, for the community, these events become part of its history. The living memories of those who experienced the tragic events get passed on to successive generations, and though the details of firsthand knowledge fade with time, the overarching sentiments that arise from injustice and controversy continue to haunt the place and its people.

However, the Whitehurst Case also shows the glimmers of hope offered when local government is responsive. In 1976, one city councilman sought a multi-million dollar settlement for the family. In the early 2000s, another councilman called for the city to revisit the Whitehurst Case. In 2011, the city’s police chief created a civil rights-focused training module for officers, which included the Whitehurst Case. In 2012 and 2015, the City erected historic markers about the case adjacent to City Hall and at the address where the shooting took place.

The Whitehurst Case matters, because it provides a clear example of why it is best to address and resolve situations at the time they occur. In Montgomery, it has been nearly forty-five years since the shooting death of a man who was mistaken for an armed robber, and his family still feels that pain. Though he can’t be brought back through any action taken by man or government, the lessons of his death and its circumstances are there, waiting to be learned.

writer, editor, & award-winning teacher in Montgomery, AL | editor of “Nobody’s Home” | proud Gen X | www.fosterdickson.com

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