Black History Month: The Whitehurst Case

The most common reaction that I’ve encountered to Bernard Whitehurst, Jr.’s story is disbelief. I’ll admit that I experienced a fair bit of it myself in researching and writing the story of a black man who was shot dead by a white police officer in 1975. Questions that have been asked of me, since the publication of Closed Ranks, are ones that I also asked repeatedly during my process: did that really happen? how could that happen? was nothing done about that? During book talks and other presentations, audiences have asked me about procedures that should have been followed or about decisions that were made by public officials. Given the complexity of what became known as The Whitehurst Case, those questions were hard, or impossible, to answer. However, the few times that someone has asked whether there were public protests or marches in the aftermath of Whitehurst’s death, that question was easy to answer: No. And now, nearly forty-five years later, as his family continues to seek avenues for latter-day justice, Bernard Whitehurst, Jr.’s name and his case are still not well-known.

This Black History Month, we will once again celebrate and acknowledge people whose lives were extraordinary, many who were leaders in the movement for justice, some whose accomplishments have been neglected in surveys of history, a few who were martyrs to racial injustice. Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. falls into the last category. Whitehurst was no more an activist than Emmett Till, but his death necessitated a reckoning in the same way that Till’s did. There was no good reason for Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. to die on the day he did, in the way he did. Police were searching the area for an armed robber, and Whitehurst, who was walking nearby, was not the man they were looking for. Some versions of events claim that police knew that on the spot, other accounts say that it was discovered later. Either way, the realization that he had not pointed a gun at a store owner and taken some cash could not bring him back to life.

Montgomery, Alabama was changed forever by Bernard Whitehurst, Jr.’s death and the consequences that followed. At the time, The Washington Post called the Whitehurst Case “Alabama’s Watergate.” However, even in our current age of uncovering lost stories and celebrating neglected figures, Whitehurst’s name has still not entered the American lexicon. But it should, and it’s long overdue that it did.

If you’re interested to know more about Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. and the Whitehurst Case, the publisher’s description of Closed Ranks is below.

On a chilly December afternoon in 1975, Bernard Whitehurst Jr., a 33-year-old father of four, was mistaken for a robbery suspect by Montgomery, Alabama, police officers. A brief foot chase ensued, and it ended with one of the pursuing officers shooting and killing Whitehurst in the backyard of an abandoned house. The officer claimed the fleeing man had fired at him; police produced a gun they said had been found near the body. In the months that followed, new information showed that Whitehurst, who was black, was not only the wrong man but had been unarmed, a direct contradiction of the white officer’s statement. What became known as the Whitehurst Case erupted when the local district attorney and the family’s attorney each began to uncover facts that pointed to wrongdoing by the police, igniting a year-long controversy that resulted in the resignation or firing of police officers, the police chief, and the city’s popular New South mayor. However, no one was ever convicted in Whitehurst’s death, and his family’s civil lawsuit against the City of Montgomery failed. Now, more than four decades later, Whitehurst’s widow and children are waging a 21st-century effort to gain justice for the husband and father they lost. The question that remains is: who decides what justice looks like?

In this latter-day exploration of the Whitehurst Case, author Foster Dickson reviews one of Montgomery’s never-before-told stories, one which is riddled with incompatible narratives. Closed Ranks brings together interviews, police reports, news stories, and other records to carry the reader through the fraught post-civil rights movement period when the “unnecessary” shooting of Bernard Whitehurst Jr. occurred.

In our current time, as police shootings regularly dominate news cycles, this book shows how essential it is to find and face the truth in such deeply troubling matters.

Closed Ranks: The Whitehurst Case in Post-Civil Rights Montgomery was published by  NewSouth Books in November 2018. Copies can be purchased from major retailers like Amazon and ordered through local retailers.

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