Romano calls civil rights trials an attempt to redeem the South
In the last 15 years, the South has tried to redeem itself by reopening the civil rights crime cases of the 1950s and 1960s, according to Renee Romano, Assistant Professor of African American studies, American studies and history. The media's portrayal of passive black victims and active white heroes in these cases has contributed to the historical falsification of these incidents, she argued during a lecture on Oct. 25 at Russell House.
Since 1989, investigators have examined 22 trials that have resulted in 16 convictions as well as several acquittals and mistrials. The reopening of these trials supports the notion that justice can be achieved years after the fact, according to Romano.
Romano focused her essay on the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963.
Initiated by white supremacists, this terrorist act instantly killed four girls and was responsible for one other death and many injuries. There was no trial until 1977, when Robert Edward Chambliss was convicted on one count of murder. Two additional trials that began in 2000 resulted in the convictions of Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry.
“The media coverage of the bombings depicted noble but passive black martyrdom,” Romano said. “People didn't know the names of the victims, but they knew the moniker 'four little girls.'”
According to Romano, while painting the girls as innocent and uncomplicated victims a was critical element in bringing emotion into the courtroom, it simultaneously served to downplay black activism.
“Children of the alleged bombers testified against their parents and the hero became the white family member whose morals triumphed over family values,” Romano said. “I think the intense focus on white prosecutors and witnesses has questionable effects. It is rewriting and ignoring history. Blacks were instrumental in the reopening of the cases.”
Romano also argued that the trials downplayed the role of the Birmingham government, which had links to the Ku Klux Klan, by emphasizing the role of the individual killers.
“It showed the three defendants as lone, virulent racists, not part of a terrorist apparatus used to sustain racism in the south,” she said.
According to Romano, the trials attempted to show that the South has changed and that racism no longer exists. They also helped Birmingham achieve closure and earn back an honorable reputation.
“It was interesting to learn how prevalent racism has been in mainstream media during the past 40 years, not just in the time of the civil rights movement, or in areas with heavy segregation, but in many parts of America,” replied Jeff Wong ’08.
“I thought [the lecture] was really elaborate,” said Yaw Agyenim-Boateng ’05. “It brought questions about the delay of justice in this country. Also, no one wants to put their reputation or political reputation at stake.”
Ramano finished by posing a rehertorical question. “This was the narrowest form of justice,” Romano said. “Is it justice to put the entire racist system of the South on three men?”
Romano argued that the only solution to the country's history of racism is honest and open discussion.
Romano published her first book, “Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America,” last year and is currently co-editing her next book, a collection of essays on the civil rights movement.