On a December afternoon 43 years ago, a white police officer in Montgomery, Ala., shot and killed a black man during a foot pursuit in connection with a $45 grocery store holdup on the city’s poor west end.
Officer Donald Foster Jr. claimed he shot only after Bernard Whitehurst Jr., a 33-year-old father of four, had gone into a “shooting crouch” and fired first. He was hailed as a hero.
But there were problems from the start with his account.
The first police backups to arrive found no gun near the dead man. A short time later, a .22-caliber pistol materialized 27 inches from Whitehurst’s body.
The weapon was found to have been confiscated in a police drug raid a year before. It was a throw-down gun, an old-school cop trick in bad shootings. Whitehurst was not the stickup-man, and an autopsy—conducted after an exhumation—showed he was shot in the back.
The shooting, on Dec. 2, 1975, has hung like lumber-mill stink over Montgomery for decades, despite a belated city apology to the Whitehurst family and erection of two memorial markers in recent years that condescendingly cast the case as a learning experience “to teach powerful lessons to police officers seeking to understand the line between right and wrong.”
A new book by Montgomery native Foster Dickson takes the first long retrospective look at the case, whose racial overtones resonate today in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The books, Closed Ranks: The Whitehurst Case in Post-Civil Rights Montgomery, was published last week.
Just a decade after Alabama’s capital city had gained infamy as a southern bastion against civil rights, the shooting and ham-fisted coverup seemed destined to further scuff Montgomery’s reputation.
But police circled the wagons against a criminal investigation and civil lawsuit. In the end, there were no consequential convictions or civil judgments against anyone. In a final preposterous twist, the fate of accused cops hinged solely on lie detector tests.
One of the driving forces behind the book was the youngest of Whitehurst’s children, Bernard III, who was just 10 weeks old when his father was killed. His family was left fractured and deeply impoverished.
Whitehurst III, a boot-strapper who emerged from housing-project destitution and now operates a successful contracting business, told me that the Montgomery power structure was clinging to institutional racism in the 1970s.
“Black lives didn’t matter in 1975,” he said. “It would have been a totally different outcome if he was killed today. Police officers would have been charged with murder, tampering with evidence, etc. That would have been unheard-of back in 1975.”
Along with his mother and siblings, Whitehurst III has pressed for financial reparation from the city. So far, they have been rebuffed.
“I don’t think compensation will ever heal the pain and suffering my family has endured,” he told me. “But we do deserve some kind of compensation. He was the breadwinner of the household. He worked two jobs to provide for his family, and the City of Montgomery murdered him.”
Key court transcripts were missing; so Dickson, born in Montgomery a year before the shooting, cobbled his narrative largely from interviews and newspaper accounts.
He presents a warts-and-all portrait of the shooting victim, who was the subject of a scathing campaign by cops desperate to show that he was guilty of something—anything.
In one egregious move, police conjured an “eyewitness” six months after the shooting who identified Whitehurst as the robber and a gun-owner.
District Attorney James Evans described the alleged witness as “mentally retarded and a functional illiterate” who was “incapable of self-maintenance.”
Dickson writes, “No matter who we believe or how we judge Bernard Whitehurst Jr. as a person, one truth cannot be denied: He was effectively arrested, tried, convicted, and executed for a robbery he did not commit, all before any police laid a hand on him.”
Officer Foster, a 25-year-old five-year veteran, was absolved of blame under protocols of that era—long-since tightened—that allowed police to shoot at “fleeing felons.” And even that was a contrivance, since Whitehurst did not match the description of the robber, beyond being black.
Police chased him for up to 30 minutes, and his flight suggested guilt to Foster.
Running from a cop is not illegal—although it does make the officer’s heart pump and blood boil. Dickson makes a point that Whitehurst had a longstanding reputation as breaking into a trot whenever he saw a police car.
So why did he run from police? Considering the way his life ended, perhaps he was simply clairvoyant.
As Dickson documents well, DA Evans and Harold Martin, editor of The Montgomery Advertiser, were viewed as police adversaries during the investigation and were subjected to “whisper campaigns” about their personal morals.
This back-alley combat continued for 18 months after the shooting. Finally, in 1977, a strange deal was struck in which police officers and bosses implicated in the coverup would take lie detector tests and face dismissal if they failed.
Several cops quit preemptively, including Foster. Five others were fired. Colonel Ed Wright, the city’s hulking public safety director, failed his test and “voluntarily retired.” Mayor James Robinson resigned under pressure, despite passing a polygraph exam. That outcome was big local news at the time, but the historical view is that the men got away with murder.
In 1975, the racial demographic ratio in Montgomery was about two-thirds white and one-third black. Those numbers have flipped today to nearly a 60 percent majority for African Americans.
Dickson told me that his hometown has changed during his lifetime— “and mightily in the last 20 years.”
“I would say that post-Civil Rights Montgomery (and Alabama) maintained a certain status quo through the end of the 1990s,” he said. “The city still has issues to face now…but there are signs of hope that a 21st century mindset is prevailing, albeit slowly.
“There is a new kind of honesty about our past and about our challenges. If you ask me, the main difference is our candor about the challenges of racial division and poverty, coupled with a more progressive willingness to address them and seek solutions.”
The body of Bernard Whitehurst Jr. lies moldering beneath the rubble of that progress—shot to death in the twilight of the Jim Crow era, when a white city directorate managed to finesse an outcome in an appalling shooting that left no one notably discommoded but the dead man and his family.
As Herman Harris, a pioneering African-American city councilman in Montgomery, explained to Dickson, “Well, you know, the general pattern in this state or this area of the country at that time: blacks usually came out on the short end of the stick, so to speak.”
David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.