After a short delay in the original publication date, which gave me the time for one more round of revisions, I turned in the final manuscript for my book on the Whitehurst Case to NewSouth Books earlier this week. I began working on writing this story in the summer of 2013, shortly after the City of Montgomery erected a historical marker about it, when the victim’s youngest son and widow called me to discuss the possibility of a full-length telling. Now, more than four years later, I’ve told the story as well as I believe it can be told.
Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. was a thirty-three-year-old father of four who lived in Montgomery, Alabama and worked primarily as a janitor. He also had a substantial criminal record and a history of mental illness. On the afternoon of December 2, 1975, as Montgomery police were looking for a suspect in an armed robbery of small grocery store, Whitehurst was passing through the area and they mistook him as the suspect or possibly an accomplice. (Whitehurst’s only real similarity to the suspect’s description was that both men were black.) Whitehurst fled, and after a brief chase that involved multiple officers, he was shot and killed in the trash-strewn backyard of an abandoned house. The officer who shot him claimed that Whitehurst shot first, yet the first officers to arrive on the scene could not find a gun in the weeds around Whitehurst’s body.
During the year-and-a-half that followed, City officials and citizens alike tried to make sense of what became known as the Whitehurst Case. Trying to unravel the truth of what happened on Holcombe Street was at times difficult, at other times impossible. Seemingly simple questions had multiple, contradictory answers that pitted the district attorney, the state’s attorney general, and the family’s lawyer against the City and its police department. The ultimate outcomes changed Montgomery, and the lives of everyone involved, permanently.
This is the story that I agreed to chase down and write, and the book should be published next year. During the time I’ve been researching and writing, people have asked on occasion why the Whitehurst Case needs to be brought back up, more than forty years later. My job was never to “bring it back up” but to document it, to write the story so it isn’t lost. Montgomery’s leaders have addressed the Whitehurst Case directly in recent years – with a police training module and two historic markers – but that doesn’t mean that the story shouldn’t be told. This is an important episode not just in Montgomery’s history, not just in Alabama history, but in Southern history— and really, in American history.