It’s probably not the most Christian belief to have. Still, I’ve always had a really hard time with the forgive-and-forget attitude that is supposed to be one of the more important mainstays of Christian morality. Whether or not I’m willing and able to truly forgive someone depends on what it is they did. To a lesser extent, it also depends on whether I can believe the person is actually sorry for whatever their transgression may have been.
As for the forgetting part? Yeah, well. I guess some folks are able to just “let it go” — as even one friend of mine said in a heated exchange of e-mails — but my memory tends to be pretty long. I’m not saying that’s necessarily good or healthy, but it’s the way I’m wired.
One week ago today, Bobby Frank Cherry, a 71-year-old white supremacist, was found guilty of murder for the part he played in the infamous 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four young black girls, namely, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson. His sentence will be to spend the remainder of his life in prison.
Robert Chambliss, who was known in Birmingham as “Dynamite Bob” because of his involvement in so many bombings, was convicted in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1977, and died in prison. Thomas E. Blanton Jr. was convicted in the bombing last year. Herman Frank Cash died before he was ever tried. It was shortly after the bomb exploded under the stairs outside the church on Sept. 15, 1963, just days after the court-ordered desegregation of Birmingham’s schools, that investigators focused their efforts on those four men.
According to various news reports, Cherry was a Navy-trained demolitions expert who later joined an extremely violent branch of the Ku Klux Klan and who swore that his children would “never go to school with niggers.” In 1957, when the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth tried to integrate a Birmingham school, Cherry punched Shuttlesworth in the head with a set of brass knuckles. In another incident he pistol-whipped a black man in a restaurant who he said had insulted him, splitting the man’s head open.
During the course of the trial, five estranged members of Cherry’s own family helped put the man away. Two of those members were his ex-wife and a granddaughter, both of whom testified that he had bragged openly about his violently racist acts and admitted his participation in the church bombing. According to his granddaughter Teresa Stacy: “He said he helped blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham.” Thirty-four years ago, before that granddaughter was even born, the federal government decided to close the case without charges after FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover concluded there was no way to get a guilty verdict given the racial climate of the times.
Times have obviously changed, but have they changed so much that a man such as Bobby Frank Cherry should be forgiven and forgotten about in his old age? Should the families of the four murdered girls — and the African-American community in general — be expected to “just get over it” and to move on to more productive things? Is it unhealthy to obsess about the types of crimes committed by folks like Cherry and his cohorts?
See, in some ways this takes me back to the whole issue of reparations. In several earlier columns I’ve talked about my mixed feelings about whether black folks should focus their efforts on forcing the federal government to pay for the pain and suffering caused by slavery. As I have said before, it’s not that I don’t think the government owes us, because I do think that. Rather, I just don’t believe the government will ever agree to pay black folks a dime for what happened. Trying to force the issue is like trying to shove a 10-ton boulder up Mt. Everest.
This doesn’t mean black folks should just get over it and move on. All it means is that perhaps there are more productive ways to collect on the debt, defending affirmative action, for instance. Because at the root of the reparations struggle is not a dollar sign but a desire on the part of many to somehow rectify a horrific wrong. It’s about making things right.
On a smaller scale, sentencing Bobby Frank Cherry to life imprisonment, even after all these years and at this late date, is also about making things right. There are those who would argue that Cherry is now an old man in his 70s and that the crime he committed happened so long ago that perhaps it’s not worth resurrecting the whole painful issue. After all, putting an old racist behind bars won’t bring back those four little girls or change the surrounding lives that were battered and ruined by the event, right?
That’s true, but then that’s what some folks said about the Nazi hunters too. Personally I can very much understand the need to track down Nazi war criminals and to make them pay for what they did, no matter how long ago it may have been. Forgiveness is fine, and God bless those rare few who possess the honest ability to turn the other cheek and bless their enemies. That’s a fine quality to have if you can afford it. Not all of us can.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org