Just two months old when it happened, Bernard Whitehurst III was nine when he learned the truth about his father’s murder.
“When you go into school,” he explains, “the first thing kids say is ‘What do you want to be?’ You’re either going to be a doctor, lawyer, firefighter, or policeman. So for me, finding out my dad was killed the way he was killed — by police — that drew a lot of anger, a lot of resentment, and all I knew was violence.”
Nevertheless, today Whitehurst speaks of police officers who kill unjustly with a surprising humanity, stressing that everyone can have a bad day and screw up.
In the year since the Black Lives Matter social movement was galvanized by the controversial shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a combination of public interest reporting, ubiquitous camera technology, and public protests have brought long-delayed attention to the fact that police officers sometimes kill innocent people.
But forty years ago, when Whitehurst’s father was gunned down by a white policeman, there were no cell phones or body cameras or dash cams to capture the event. And although the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were just a decade old, no mass-movement existed to react whenever police killed a black person under sketchy circumstances.
The pain of that day still lingers with survivors forty years later. “When we hear about other cases…of police taking lives of young black men, and even teenagers these days, it really hurts our hearts because it opens up wounds within us,” Bernard’s brother Stacy Whitehurst says.
There is no controversy about the life of Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. or the mode of his death. It is now universally agreed that when he was shot twice in the back by a Montgomery police officer who was searching for a robbery suspect on the afternoon of December 2nd, 1975, Whitehurst had committed no crime of any kind.
He was a devoted father and hardworking family man, but like almost every black male who lived in Montgomery during the Civil Rights Era, Whitehurst also had a highly-developed and well-justified fear of police brutality.
While walking home from his job as a janitor, Whitehurst was mistaken for the suspect who had just robbed a grocery store at the end of the block, so he ran behind a house on Holcombe Street and tried to climb a chain-link fence to get away.
That’s where Officer Donnie Foster gunned him down — and the controversy began.
As recalled by Whitehurst family attorney Donald Watkins, just after 4:30 PM, an unattributed police radio signal announced that “We done shot the wrong nigger.” By then, Montgomery Public Safety Director Ed Wright and Police Chief Charles Swindall were already standing over Whitehurst’s body and a monstrous cover-up was underway.
The first officers on the scene had ‘somehow missed’ a gun which now lay just 27 inches from Whitehurst’s dead hand; it was collected as ‘evidence’ that a fleeing felon had exchanged fire with police officers, therefore incurring his death. Confiscated in a drug bust the year before and logged into the the department’s evidence room, this planted weapon would prove to be the single most important piece of evidence for clearing Whitehurst’s name. A prisoner sitting in a jailhouse more than 100 miles away was also coaxed into signing a statement which supported the police department’s version of events.
Uncovering these facts on behalf of the Whitehurst family, Watkins turned the evidence over to a grand jury convened by Montgomery County District Attorney Jimmy Evans and championed by the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper.
But the good news ended there. Despite the forced or voluntary resignations of the mayor, the public safety director, the police chief, and all the officers involved in the scandal, final justice has been impossible for Whitehurst’s surviving family to obtain. In 1976, an all-white jury found for the city; then the verdict was upheld by a Nixon-appointed conservative federal judge with a track record of gleefully denying black civil rights plaintiffs. In the four decades since then, the city of Montgomery has consistently refused to apologize or to compensate Whitehurst’s wife and children.
Things seemed to be changing in 2012, when the city council resolved to express their “condolences, sympathies, and regret” to the Whitehursts, but those good feelings had no money or admissions of guilt attached to them. The next year, a historical marker was erected near city hall to celebrate the changes that Whitehurst’s murder, and the exposure of the cover-up, have forced on the Montgomery Police Department’s training and supervisory doctrines.
But the apparent contrition was not accompanied by real compensation for the devastation wrought on the victim’s family so many years ago.
Now the long arc of the universe may finally be trending towards justice. At Wednesday’s unveiling of a second historical marker, this time on the actual site of Whitehurst’s murder, attorney and city council member Arch Lee spoke of a renewed effort to bring closure to the case by fairly recompensing the Whitehursts for their fallen breadwinner.
Seen making his remarks in the video above, Lee even drew an affirmative nod from Mayor Todd Strange, who was on hand to mark the occasion.
Yet even this potential breakthrough does not come smoothly or easily. In fact, while my camera was recording the moment of reconciliation, Bernard Whitehurst III sharply disagreed with Mayor Strange over the outcome of his efforts to rename Holcombe Street for his father.
According to Whitehurst, his father’s full name was first rejected for being too long for a Montgomery city street — which is a ridiculous excuse, given that Montgomery has a ‘Congressman W L Dickerson Drive.’
As required by city ordinances, Bernard Whitehurst III then canvassed the street for petition signatures to change its name to ‘B. Whitehurst Dr.’ He maintains that he had the required number of property owners on his side, but Montgomery’s Director of City Planning says that Whitehurst’s petition fell short of the sixty percent threshold needed to rename the street, allowing the effort to fail.
The resulting fresh disagreement between the family and city is what led to the new marker being placed on Holcombe street this Wednesday before the now-empty lot where he was killed.
Also a victim of the city’s neglect and endemic poverty, the neighborhood is in visible decline, with at least five empty lots around the marker where houses used to stand. Dilapidated eaves and roofs sag against the gray skyline.
Sadly, the Whitehurst case did not change American policing. From time to time, law enforcement officers are still accused of planting weapons on the corpses of those they kill. When Patrolman Michael Slager was recorded shooting Walter Scott eight times in the back and then planting his taser on the victim’s dying body in South Carolina this year, it was widely seen as vindication for those claims.
Stacy is still understandably bitter, but when I ask him what he teaches his own son about police, a father’s protective love pushes those emotions aside in an instant. “I teach him to respect them, and to listen to what they ask him to do, and one thing I do teach him: never run from a police officer. They tell you to stop, you stop,” he says.