‘Unjustifiable’ Sheds Light On An Overlooked Alabama Police Killing

 1540608647 
1605533186

Reckon, Alabama Media Group

In 1979, a Birmingham police officer shot and killed Bonita Carter, a 20-year-old Black woman, outside of a convenience store. A citizen review panel declared the shooting justified, but Birmingham’s Black community was outraged. Bonita Carter’s death sparked street protests that ultimately led to the election of Birmingham’s first Black mayor. 

A new podcast called Unjustifiable from Reckon Radio dives into this story that changed the course of Civil Rights history in the south.

It’s hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist John Archibald, who was a high school student at the time Carter was killed. 

“I remember there was a shooting and the way it was always told to me or the way I processed it was that Bonita Carter was with a friend of hers and they went to the store,” Archibald told WBHM’s Andrew Yeager.

“And there’s debate over whether she knew what was going on but he went in and the way my faulty memory told it was he tried to rob the store and she was shot while sitting in the car. But that’s not the way it happened.”

You note right as you start this podcast, that not just your own memory, but much of the white community remembers this a certain way. And that’s not how it is in the Black community. What are the differences?

I think in a lot of ways it is a myth passed down in much of the white community that attempts to rationalize this, that attempts to say what you must have been doing something wrong. I think the more in the Black community we see that people see this as a symptom of the system that white people had set up over the course of time, which, as we will see in the podcast, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Black people, mostly Black men, at the hands of police over the decades preceding this. 

In terms of those systemic issues, black people are disproportionately killed in interactions with police and that goes back decades. Why Bonita Carter, why did that create such a reaction in Birmingham?

To step back a little bit, in the three decades leading up to the Bonita Carter killing, we can find now that there were 213 shot by police in Birmingham at that time. Two hundred of those were Black. It’s a staggering number.

And the fact that it was rare for a woman to be killed, it was widely seen in the community that she had done nothing wrong, that the officer took a white man’s word and simply opened fire on her because it was the way things were done.

Time after time, Black civic leaders, Black religious leaders came before the city and said, look, you’re killing Black people at alarming rates, you’ve got to do something about it. And it just never happened.

We see this pattern more generally that a Black person is killed by police. The death is ruled justifiable, or if not, there are minimal charges brought. Police officers are rarely convicted. So you have activists on one side saying the system is broken and harmful to Black people. You have police officers that say their jobs are tough and sometimes dangerous. They have to make split second decisions. In this project, did you find any way out of that pattern? 

Not really. First of all, a police officer’s job is tough. I mean, it is very hard. But what we see in looking back over these hundreds of police shootings is that, yes, the law was to shoot fleeing felons. In practice, white people did not get shot. White people got a benefit of the doubt. 

And inevitably, black people, young black people or black people were shot for being suspects of crimes, for being told by other people that they had committed crimes shot in the back over and over and over again. White people got a benefit and black people did not.

All these events happened more than 40 years ago. What do we take from the Bonita Carter case today?

This was really an example of Black Lives Matter style protest 35 years before Black Lives Matter. And it was an incident – I hate to call it an incident – it was a tragedy that motivated people to exercise their rights, to take control, to seize the power that had been granted through marches. And so it’s an example of how protest can work. 

News from WBHM will never be behind a paywall. Ever. We need your help to keep our coverage free for everyone. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. You can support our journalism for as little as $5. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.

 

3 things to watch for in the new Birmingham school board

With over half of its members new and millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief funding, the new Birmingham City school board is ready to tackle education with a fresh perspective. WBHM talked to incoming, outgoing and returning members about what Birmingham teachers, students and residents can expect.

Women will hold the majority on the Birmingham City Council over the next four years

Starting this Tuesday, the makeup of the Birmingham City Council changes when it swears in three new members.

Community leaders call for ‘fair maps’ ahead of special session on reapportionment

State legislators will meet Thursday for their second special session of the year. This time they'll vote on new legislative maps following the 2020 census.

WBHM selected to be part of America Amplified initiative

WBHM has been chosen as one of only 20 stations nationwide to be part of national initiative called America Amplified that prioritizes meaningful in-person and online engagement in order to build trust, expand audiences and deepen the impact of public media journalism.

COVID vaccines for young children could be approved soon. Are Gulf States prepared?

Kids between the ages of 5-11 years old might be able to get vaccinated in the near future. Here’s why it would be a game-changer for the Gulf States, and how they’re preparing for the shot’s rollout.

Birmingham takes part in Embrace Mothers guaranteed income pilot

Single-mother households represent about 60% of all Birmingham households with children, according to Mayor Randall Woodfin's office. The mothers involved in the program will receive $375 a month for a year.

More Front Page Coverage