Apologia, re: Whitehurst

Those familiar with the literary term apologia will know that it only loosely ties to our English word apology. In English, to make an apology focuses on regret and the desire to seek forgiveness; the Latin apologia means something more like a defense, a justification, an explanation of circumstance, with perhaps a some measure of regret attached to it. An apologist writes with the sense that some justification is needed, rather than with the sense that forgiveness is sought.

Two and half years ago, I began what might be the most difficult work I’ve ever encountered: telling the story of the Whitehurst Case. When Bernard Whitehurst III called me about writing this book, then met me soon after with his mother Florence to discuss the project, I had virtually no knowledge of this historical episode, which occurred from late 1975 until mid-1977. The Whitehurst Case is true crime, Southern history, Hollywood action-flick, and family-struggle story all rolled into one. The story has all the makings of a Hollywood thriller, or of a Lifetime movie. Yet, this time it’s real, not manufactured— before Michael Brown, before Rodney King, there was Bernard Whitehurst, Jr.

The conundrum of the Whitehurst Case is archetypally American: a post-Civil Rights era police shooting of an unarmed black man, who turned out not to be the suspect they sought, followed by a sundry array of democratic efforts and public outcries to obtain justice for the man and his family, which all failed in one way or another. The convoluted scenario offered little promise of that justice: allegations of a planted gun, erased dispatch tapes, conflicting accounts, fearful witnesses. Yet, a young lawyer stood up to the local power structure, filing a civil case against the city. Later, one city councilman proffered a resolution to compensate the family. The upsurge in tension had the district attorney at odds with the police and the newspaper belittling the mayor. The wild situation soon caused the state’s attorney general to intervene. However, when the dust settled, the mayor, the police chief, and a number of officers had resigned from their jobs, though no one paid out any money and no one went to jail. The city moved on, and the Whitehurst family had to, too.

Since June 2013, I have been sifting through the rubble of the Whitehurst Case, trying to piece together a coherent narrative that could rest between two covers. The combination of spotty cooperation, lost records, and faded memories have made the work exceptionally difficult. Many of the key players in the Whitehurst Case have passed away, and the few who remain hardly want to rhapsodize about those events. Some people have expressed quite bluntly that they’d rather I left this subject alone. However, what remains are a smattering of people still willing to talk, a cumbersome process of scrolling through news archives, and the slow grind of piecing together a mosaic out of broken shards. Sometimes I spend hours in my office, re-reading documents, comparing articles to interviews, going back over my list of unfinished tasks. I know it must seem, to the family and to the people I’ve interviewed, as though I disappear for long stretches of time; the somber truth is: writing is slow, methodical work, and a person has to love it to do it all.

Now two-and-a-half years in, with about 55,000 words written, I’m gearing up to finish. I’ve stepped away from the manuscript for a bit – the start of a school year is always hectic  – yet the time has allowed the fog in my mind to clear. (Anyone who has ever stared at a computer screen for too long will know what I mean.) There are still important people left to talk to. Others, whose silence I’ve not failed to notice, need to be contacted again. I want this telling to be as full and complete and accurate as possible, and the only way I can do that is if people talk to me. My goal is to have the manuscript completed by the summer of 2016. Hearing some long-lost perspective after the book is published won’t do anyone any good.

This book needs to be written— frankly, it needed to be written years ago. I didn’t really begin this project until it was almost too late, with so many of the men involved now gone. But it’s getting written, and it will be published, and that’s what matters.

This December 2 is the fortieth anniversary of the killing of Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. That afternoon, at 3:30 PM, the city will dedicate a second historic marker to the Whitehurst Case; this one will be at 546 Holcombe Street, the address where a Montgomery police officer shot Whitehurst. (The first marker, seen above, stands in Lister Hill Plaza, adjacent to City Hall.) The ceremony is open to the public.

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