16,425 days: The Whitehurst Case

It has been 16,425 days since December 2, 1975, the day that a 33-year-old black man named Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. was shot and killed by a white Montgomery, Alabama police officer. Whitehurst was married, had four children under age 5, and worked as a janitor at a McDonald’s. At the time he was killed, police were chasing him as an armed robbery suspect, but he was the wrong man. Whitehurst was only walking the area, and his clothing did not fit the description of the robber. Yet, the officer who shot him claimed that Whitehurst had fired first. That account was backed up by a pistol laying in the grass nearby.

After Whitehurst was killed, police did not notify his family. Instead, his body was taken to a funeral home and embalmed, and the Whitehursts found out about his death when his mother read it on the front page of the Montgomery Advertiser the next morning. 

Soon, what became known as the Whitehurst Case was sparked by an allegation that the pistol was placed beside Whitehurst’s hand after he was dead. Internal police investigations began in early 1976, and the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in April. However, as the year wore on, no officers faced criminal charges in the death of Bernard Whitehurst, Jr., and the family’s lawsuit was defeated in federal court. Though the internal strife within the Montgomery Police Department did lead to resignations and firings, the Whitehurst family did not reach any resolution that they regard as justice. 

Today is the 45th anniversary of Bernard Whitehurst, Jr.’s death. The family has now been waiting 16,425 days for justice. His widow has been living with this tragedy for two-thirds of her life, and his children have lived nearly their entire lives without him. As many in our nation make calls for justice for recent victims of police shootings, those calls shouldn’t neglect or exclude victims from further back in the past. 

While the intensity of the Whitehurst Case had died down by 1977, its effects have lingered. The family has continued to live in Montgomery, and new calls for justice have been made by his now-grown children. Recently, a mural in downtown Montgomery that included Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. was dedicated to victims of police violence. To learn more about the Whitehurst Case, then and now, Closed Ranks offers a more detailed account of the story, including what has happened in the years since.    


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