Blaming Victims For Mail Bombs Carries Echoes Of Civil Rights Bombings
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, NPR, October 27, 20188:04 AM ET
[..] The conspiracy theories flying around before the arrest [of Cesar Sayoc] hearken back to another era in American history — the 1950s and '60s — when bombs were a tool of political intimidation.
"Terrorism is nothing new"
During that time, Birmingham, Ala. was known by another name: "Bombingham."
Jeff Drew grew up on a street called Dynamite Hill — so named because many black family homes were bombed for moving into the predominantly white neighborhood.
"It would push the furniture off the floor and break the windows," Drew said. "And scare us all to death. So terrorism is nothing new to this part of Birmingham, Alabama. We experienced it firsthand."
There were more than three dozen unsolved racially motivated bombings in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era — mostly houses and churches. A frequent target was the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the Birmingham civil right movement.
And Drew says there was a pattern after the attacks. Authorities, including then Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor, would accuse victims of planting the bombs.
"That's the most inhumane thing you could think of," Drew said. "Who would bomb their own house?"
But that rumor was widely circulated in white circles says Diane McWhorter, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Birmingham Civil Rights movement called Carry Me Home.
"The understood motive was that blacks were bombing their own churches and buildings in order to raise money and get publicity for the movement," she said.
She says it was repeated publicly by politicians, including Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace. Other common theories were that the bombings were ordered by Martin Luther King Jr., or were part of a communist plot, or were orchestrated by the FBI.
"It was repeated so often — I mean I grew up hearing this from my own father — that, you know, I think they started believing it," she said. "And part of the reason they were able to believe it was that, until the 16th Street Church bombing in September of 1963 when four young girls were murdered, there had been no real fatalities."
Even after that deadly Ku Klux Klan attack, police at first zeroed in on the church's black janitor as a suspect.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch wrote a trilogy documenting America in the Martin Luther King Jr. years. He says conspiracy theories were rampant across the South as African-Americans pushed for equal rights.
"It shows the lengths that people will go to not to acknowledge something that they don't want to believe," he said.
For instance, what happened in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964.
"Three of the civil rights workers were kidnapped by a sheriff's posse of Klansmen and murdered and, because the bodies weren't found, Mississippi officials denied that that segregationists could have done this crime," Branch said. "First of all, they said there was a hoax. Sen. James Eastland even told that to the president on the phone."
"Jim, they got three kids missing down there. What can I do about it?," President Lyndon Johnson said on a recorded call.
"I don't know," Eastland replied. "I don't believe there's three missing. I believe it's a publicity stunt."