Ralph Cook and Grover Dunn were born in the early 1940s, and though they did not know each other until much later, they had some things in common. Both were black, both were raised in Bessemer, both have had long public careers and have been among the first blacks to hold various public posts in what used to be called “the Cutoff.”
Being black, Cook and Dunn also had another shared experience – a talk from their parents about how to behave in the presence of the police. That experience is one they hold in common with black children and parents in Alabama and across the country, including black parents nearly half their age, such as Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Chris England.
As adults, Cook and Dunn have had what is commonly referred to as “the talk” with their children and their grandchildren.
“It’s a shame we have to do this,” said Dunn, the assistant tax collector in the Bessemer Division. “But we do it constantly.”
The 43-year-old England, who also is a state representative from Tuscaloosa and the son of former Alabama Supreme Court Justice John England, and his wife, Shea, have had the talk with their 11-year-old son, Christopher Jr., or C.J. Unlike Cook and Dunn when they were young, C.J. has access to much more information on everything, including the recent deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of law officers or vigilantes. The most prominent of those has been George Floyd, whose killing in Minneapolis in May led to calls for police reform and widespread protests and episodes of violence.
“We’ve had to have this discussion because he’s seen videos about what happened to George Floyd, but he’s also seen what happened to Ahmaud Arbery (shot while jogging through a neighborhood in Brunswick County, Georgia), and we had to go through the others, just to let him know that these things are possible and you’ve got to do the best you can to take care of yourself,” England said.
Another video available to C.J. and anyone who cares to look is one from England himself, posted earlier this month on Instagram with the hashtag TellYourStory. It’s part of an effort, in his words, to start some healing conversations around the state.
During that six-minute video, England tells three stories, and he could have told more. One story is of having a judge mistakenly think he was a defendant in a courtroom when he was there as a prosecutor. Another is about a security guard skeptically questioning him about his presence at a meeting he was attending as a state legislator and allowing him to attend after one of the whites there vouched for him.
England also shares the story about the night, during his time as a law student at the University of Alabama, when he was driving to Houston, and a trooper pulled him over in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The trooper held him at gunpoint, handcuffed him, bombarded him with questions about what he was doing, where he was going, why he was out so late. Then, after making him sit on the ground, the trooper searched England’s car. Ultimately, the trooper let England go, having found nothing suspicious in the car and having found he and England had a common interest in Alabama and LSU football. He also told England why he had pulled him over: he was driving too slow.
“The reason why I’m telling you these stories is not because it makes me special, or unique or different,” England says in the video. “Many people who look like me suffer through some of the same situations and are humiliated just because of the color of their skin.”
In the fall of 2014, about two months after Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the news site ProPublica reported that young black males were “at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater.” Based on an analysis of 1,217 fatal police shootings from 2010 to 2012, the report stated that black males from 15 to 19 years of age “were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.”
The killings in recent years, many of them recorded on cell phones, have touched some sensitive scar tissue in the collective memory of many blacks in Alabama and beyond. Those memories — of law enforcement participation in, indifference to or enabling of murders, beatings or other hate crimes — have made for what Ralph Cook, himself a former Alabama Supreme Court justice, calls “a complicated relationship between the black community and the police.”
“Back when I was a child, I think the general sentiment was that you only became involved with the police authorities only if it was necessary,” Cook said. “And today, I think with these incidents that have occurred around the country, it shows that there is still a problem within the police culture, but I don’t think it is as widespread as it was during my childhood.
“I think the overwhelming number of police officers are really out there to serve the public. … But they know the bad apples that are within their departments and they don’t come forward and report those people, and those people are the ones that are the bullies, the ones that are there in the job to take advantage of other people, and when they step out of line like some of them do, then it reflects poorly on the overwhelming majority of police officers who are not like that.”
Cook, the middle of three children, and Dunn, one of eight, grew up in opposite ends of Bessemer, Cook south of downtown and Dunn to the north.
Cook’s father, Joe, owned and operated a dry cleaner in Bessemer’s black business district. His mother, Nannie, was a teacher, coach and school principal. Dunn’s father, James, was a steelworker, and his mother, Willie, worked for a time as a housekeeper for a white family that lived in Birmingham’s Central Park.
Then, as now, Bessemer was a majority-black city, but then it was segregated to the core, with an all-white police force. As Samford University historian Jonathan Bass has written, “With so many Bessemer law enforcement officials also members of the Klan, the hidden hands of terror and law enforcement were one and the same.”
“The cops were always patrolling in the black neighborhoods and, man, they’d just pull up beside you for nothing, especially if you were walking by yourself … and ask you what you were doing and tell you to move it,” Dunn said. “And then if three or four of you were together …, they’d come out and say, ‘All you boys, get your asses off this corner’ … and they’d run you off the corner for doing nothing. We experienced that all the time.”
Even before Dunn was old enough to get the talk on police from his father, he had heard him give it repeatedly to his three older brothers, Edward, James Jr. and Robert.
“My three oldest brothers, they were some tough dudes, and my dad had to talk to them all the time about, ‘Watch your mouth around these Bessemer cops. You know they’re ready to shoot you. … Whatever they say, just say, ‘Yes sir,’ and ‘No, sir.’ My brothers hated that because some of the cops were just two or three years older than them.”
When Edward, James Jr. or Robert would say “I ain’t saying, ‘Yes sir,’ or ‘No sir,’ to them,” James Dunn Sr. would reply, “’If it takes that to stay alive, you do it,’” Dunn said.
Neither Dunn nor Cook had a traumatic experience at the hands of police, but that may have been because, in Dunn’s case, he followed the “yes sir and no sir” guidance from his father. For Cook, other than going to school and church, he did not stray too far from his neighborhood until he started doing some work for his father, particularly on Saturdays, when many of Bessemer’s black residents would do their shopping and drop off or pick up laundry.
On those days, he would sometimes get to see the police in action, and it was not always pleasant.
“The police station was a block down from and several blocks west of my father’s business, and I would on occasion see police cars passing the cleaners with a policeman flailing away at a black person in the back seat of the car,” Cook said. “So I grew up with a lot of apprehension and I would say a bit of fear, as it relates to police officers.”
When Cook got old enough that his parents were willing to let him go around downtown Bessemer by himself, the talk came.
“They would tell me how I should behave, and even if I had done nothing wrong and was accused of doing something wrong, just to do everything that (the officer) said,” Cook said. “And that if it was necessary that I had to go to court, that would be the time that we would contest it, but (I was) not to try to do that on the street because literally he was the judge and jury.
“When I became a teenager and started driving, my father told me if I was close to home and I could make it home, to come home. But if I couldn’t, and if I was stopped some distance away from home, (it was) pretty much the same thing. … Be very cooperative, very polite, say, ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ and not … give them any reason to want to get aggressive or abusive toward me.
“By the time my father spoke with me, I hadn’t given any thought that it was something that was discussed in many homes, but I’ve come to learn by talking to people that that was something that their father or their parents gave to them at a very early age.”
That discussion continues through today’s generations.
Years ago, Cook had it with his son, Ralph Jr.. and he said the talk pretty much echoed what his father had told him, “Be very, very respectful. Keep your hands where they can see them at all times. Yes sir and no sir, and if they crossed the line, then it would be in my bailiwick and we would handle it from there.
“But fortunately, he never had any bad experiences,” Cook said.
Ralph Jr., now 44 and the owner of an Atlanta-based consulting firm, has had the discussion with his son Justin, a recent Morehouse College graduate.
In Dunn’s family, he, his wife, state Sen. Priscilla Dunn, and their daughter, Deputy Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Karen Dunn Burks, and her husband, Eric, have had multiple discussions on the subject with the Burks’ two sons, Blake, 26, and Brock, 18.
Blake, 6-foot-2 and about 290, is a former Hoover High and Jacksonville State offensive lineman. He has an accounting degree and is a supervisor at an accounting firm in Atlanta. Brock, thinner and shorter than his older brother, is a talented saxophonist and is a sophomore majoring in jazz studies and political science at the University of Alabama.
Dunn said both of his grandsons are outgoing and have groups of friends that are more diverse than the one he had growing up. He and Blake are especially close and are frequently on the phone.
“And I remind him every time, ‘Watch your manners, boy, when you’re dealing with the police,’” Dunn said. “‘It doesn’t matter if it makes you feel little, or not macho. The important thing is to stay alive. It’s not going to hurt you to say yes sir or no sir, and if he tells you to get out of the car, get out of the car. Don’t worry about why.’”
Things certainly are not where they were in the 1940s, ’50s or ’60s, when Cook and Dunn were young — a time when, as the celebrated black writer James Baldwin once wrote, “To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.”
It was a time when police forces almost anywhere in Alabama were all white, when the only black employees in courthouses and city halls were usually custodial workers, when the Bessemer police chief berated Ralph Cook’s father for simply telephoning him on behalf of a part-time worker at Cook’s Cleaners his officers had arrested, where one year, according to Jonathan Bass, black prisoners in Bessemer were forced to do a “watermelon run” on a downtown street while firefighters sprayed them with hoses. And Cook and Dunn remember the time in 1957 when law enforcement agents terrorized black households in and around Bessemer in their search for a teenager named Caliph Washington, whose conviction for killing a white police officer who had pulled him over one night would be thrown out more than 10 years later.
Even though most police forces are integrated and in places like Bessemer, majority black, Dunn said that change, one he thought he would never see when he was growing up, is not a reason for his grandsons, or anyone, to be indifferent to the lethal power an officer can wield, even one who happens to be black. More often than not, he tells his grandsons, an officer they might encounter may need some respect.
So, Dunn says, “Give him the respect that he’s begging for, because he’s got the upper hand, and you can’t win.”
Chris England is part of the generation for which people like his father, Dunn and Cook were change agents. Because he has friends in law enforcement, he knows the criminal behavior of some officers does not represent the attitudes of all. He also knows from experience, and from his son’s growing awareness of and questions about the world around him, that he and his wife have no choice but to talk with him not just about police, “but race in general, telling him people that don’t know you may decide that you may have to prove who you are before you get the benefit of the doubt.”
“You don’t want to jade (your children) before they get too old, but you also kinda want to explain to them that it’s a reality,” England said. “Not everybody’s going to give you that opportunity, you may have to work several times harder than your white counterparts to be treated fairly, and also sometimes, you may just have to expect for it to happen.”
“We just want to make him aware of it, so he knows it’s a possibility, but (that) he doesn’t let it impact what he wants to do with his life.”