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Ghosts of the Birmingham church bombing still haunt America

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 9/18/2013, 11:37 a.m.

• According to FBI reports, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary terror squad in Mississippi, committed nine murders between 1960 and 1965. In nearly all cases, FBI agents quickly learned the identities of the suspected killers through Klan informants, or the men’s own boasts of the killings. There was only a token effort made to bring them to justice.

Federal prosecutors have, and in fact always have had, the legal weapons to indict the suspected killers. Two federal statutes have long been on the books that give the Justice Department the power to prosecute public officials and law enforcement officers who committed or conspired with others to commit acts of racial violence.

The four children massacred in the 16th Street Baptist church on that nightmarish Sept. 15 day a half-century ago and the other cold case victims were not solely victims of Klan terrorists, hostile local sheriffs and state officials, but at times of a racially indifferent federal government. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson cautiously and reluctantly pushed the FBI to make arrests and the Justice Department to bring indictments in the murders of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, Army Major Lemuel Penn in Georgia in 1964 and civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in Alabama in 1965. Even then it took mass outrage and pressure to get legal action against them.

The 50th anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing is a reminder of how far the nation has come from its ugly and violent racial past. But at the same time, it also tosses another terrible glare on the period in the South when blacks were murdered with the tacit approval of Southern state officials, and the cold shoulder indifference of the federal government.

The commemoration of the bombing presents yet another chance for federal and state prosecutors to permanently close the book on all the nation’s old unsolved racial murders. Without that, the ghosts of that atrocious past will continue to haunt America.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.