The status quo was broken in Birmingham, Ala., in the weeks after the Bonita Carter killing. The city once known as Bombingham, as the Johannesburg of the South, reeled from protests and counter-protests from the Ku Klux Klan. A scientist and former college dean named Richard Arrington who had long been aligned with the city’s white progressive mayor, David Vann, broke away from the mayor to launch his own campaign.
A committee Vann formed to take testimony from witnesses to the shooting – one of the main reasons we can reconstruct the events of the crime – found Officer George Sands had no cause to shoot Carter. Yet Sands remained on the force.
Just sixteen years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched through the city, the election of 1979 would prove pivotal for Black residents exercising their voting power. How would voters decide?
Reckon Radio presents: “Unjustifiable,” an investigative series from Pulitzer-prize winning columnist John Archibald and Roy S. Johnson examining an overlooked moment of civil rights history in the heart of the South. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or your favorite podcasting app.
Below is a full transcript of Episode Four.
Richard Arrington: “Oh, I never intended to be mayor. Even when I was on the council, I was learning things but, you know, that was just a part time job.
Roy S. Johnson: That’s Richard Arrington. Scientist. Academic. Sort of a geek, some would say.
Arrington: “I had come back to Miles College after finishing my work in biology. And I had done several things. I had been — I got to be a National Science Foundation research fellow, which took me to several places trying to update my learning.”
Johnson: He’d studied medicine, and beetles, and radiation.
Arrington: I was in medical school at Iowa State University. I was studying radiation biology at the medical school as a research fellow in the foundation. And then I was at Washington University of St. Louis studying molecular biology, just trying to get updated. And one other school.
Johnson: He never planned to run for political office.
Arrington: “I had never been out marching, protesting. I had been teaching. I still don’t know why even to this day, why the Miles College students who came to me in my office in the 2121 building to see me. And they really came here because they wanted me to run for mayor… And I just said, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to do that.’ I don’t know why to this day they did. I mean, I had been Dean at the college, so they knew me, but it’s interesting that they had a certain kind of image or perception.”
Johnson: This was back at the dawn of the 1970s. Why him, he wanted to know.
Arrington: “And I said, well, I don’t know. I tell you what. Why don’t you come back tomorrow? Let me think about it. I was thinking ‘they’re not coming back.’ I was getting rid of them. But sure enough, the next day, about four or five o’clock there they were at my office again. And I just sort of thought, you know? Yeah. These people are working young folk. I would feel bad if I said no. So I said, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll run.’ And of course, they promised me they would do everything from buy me a suit and everything like that — none of which they did, incidentally but anyway that’s how I got into it.”
Johnson: I’m Roy S. Johnson.
Archibald: And I’m John Archibald, and this is “Unjustifiable:” the story of a young woman’s death in Birmingham 40 years ago, and how it motivated a community to demand the political power it had long been denied.
Johnson: Dick Arrington was raised in the Jim Crow South, through the dawn of the civil rights movement. Though he was not what we call a foot soldier. He didn’t picket or protest or get knocked flat by fire hoses wielded by Bull Connor’s henchmen.
Archibald: But he was aware. He knew how Black people had long been kept off the voter rolls with complicated and confusing tests, arbitrary rulings by white boards of registrars. When he came of age, he made it a point to get on those voter rolls.
Arrington: “I knew people had tough times voting. I mean, I grew up Black in Birmingham. I’ve seen folks — my family and all — study long lists of questions, hoping to go to the board to register to vote. And the church would load the van up, the bus up and take them down there and they’d fail the board exam.”
Johnson: Church and community leaders — Arrington was part of them — developed a sheet and passed it out to those who wanted to register — a study sheet, front and back, with arcane facts that might be asked on the poll test. Like the number of courthouses in Alabama.
Archibald: We looked that up, by the way. I think that answer is 69 by the way — 67 counties and two courthouses in Jefferson County and St. Clair. But who really knows? The folks who didn’t want Blacks to vote could count annexes, closed courthouses, whatever they wanted.
Johnson: They could do whatever they wanted. Anything to make it harder for Blacks to vote. If not impossible.
Arrington: “I had seen people work and try, you know, try to get the right to vote. I was even nervous about that myself. I went off to school. I wasn’t old enough to vote when I left, when I graduated from Miles College. You had to be 21, I was 20. I was going to turn 21 that October. So I went up to Michigan to school and then I came home for Christmas and I had just turned 21. And first thing I wanted to do was to go down to the courthouse to register to vote. The Jefferson County Courthouse. It just kind of stayed on my mind.”
Johnson: It was daunting for Black people. It was humiliating to study and cram. Even more humiliating to fail. It was something white people did not have to endure.
Arrington: “So I boned up on the questions, both sides of this sheet. And I went down there just as nervous. I’ve got a college degree and working on a second degree at the time, and just nervous as I can be. I go to the courthouse and fill out the paper with the registrar — this was a woman, one of the registrars, there were three of them sitting there — one of them. And she starts talking with me, you know, she asked ‘where do you go to school,’ just a regular conversation. And I’m trying to answer the questions and all, you know, and she’s being very nice and so forth. And I’m just waiting for her to hit me with the questions. She never asked me. After she talks to me about five or 10 minutes she said, ‘okay, raise your right hand.’ She swore me in. She never asked me a single question about the government or anything of that sort. So it was just amazing, but they had that kind of power.”
Archibald: By the Summer of 1979 and the death of 20-year-old Bonita Carter, Arrington had served two terms on the council, and had earned a reputation in the Black community for pointing out harassment and brutality by Birmingham police officers. Others had questioned the actions of the city cops, but never with Arrington’s platform and measured insistence.
Johnson: Now, Arrington still thought of Mayor David Vann as a friend and mentor. They had served on the council together, and Arrington’s support helped Vann win the office in 1975. But Bonita Carter’s death was already changing everything.
It quickly exposed the city’s broad racial divide. While Vann and Arrington might have thought they understood each other, Black and white citizens in Birmingham were still light years apart.
Archibald: Scott Douglas, now the head of Birmingham’s Urban Ministries, worked for the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth then, as an investigator monitoring racial issues and transgressions across the Deep South for a magazine called ‘Southern Fight Back.’ He saw that Arrington’s voice resonated in the Black community, even among those who had not been subjected to physical violence from police. So many still knew from experience that they were treated differently. Douglas did too.
Scott Douglas: “I lived in West End at the time and the atmosphere was one of frequent police stops. Like, one of mine was, I went to a stop sign. I stopped. I went over and police turned his lights, it was like daytime. I said, sir, what did I do? He said you ran that stop sign. I said, no, I didn’t.
The problem was that when I stopped, if you go to the stop sign to stop, you can’t see oncoming traffic. So you had to go about six feet past it, you’re not in the streets, but to see oncoming traffic. And he told me I did. So I challenged it in court. In court he told the judge that all four wheels didn’t come to a stop. I replied back that on my car when one wheel stops all of them tend to. The judge got mad and I had to pay the fine and court costs, but there was a lot of harassment going on, especially in West End.”
Archibald: “So, I mean, Bull Connor was long gone, but was this still the Bull Connor’s police department?”
Douglas: “This was still Bull Connor’s police department. Um, there was a lot of confidence in David Vann. He didn’t have a reputation of being supportive of the police department despite what the evidence was. Richard Arrington was a city councilman and he was the one everybody went to if they had a complaint about police. He filed a lot of complaints as a city council person.”
Archibald: “So there was a lot leading up to this moment in 1979?”
Douglas: “There was a lot leading up to it. And it was like, Arrington was the go-to person. Not the mayor. Not the police chief. But Arrington.”
Archibald: Arrington had become the public face of his community’s long festering complaints against the police.
Johnson:: City leaders and chamber of commerce types liked to talk about how much progress had been made in the 16 years since Dr King marched and Connor turned the dogs and fire hoses on young people. On children. Birmingham had moved forward, they bragged. In truth, in 1979, the city was still polarized by race, as it had been for decades. These days, it seems like the divide is all about political parties, but in those days, in Birmingham, it was all about black and white.
Archibald: White people often knew next to nothing about the issues important to Black people because, in part, the media seldom contained positive portrayals of African Americans, and perhaps because most White people just didn’t care to know.
Richard Mauk, now the chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party and in 1979 the campaign manager for Vann’s re-election, had the difficult job of trying to build a biracial coalition across that divide.
Richard Mauk: “This was a nonpartisan race for city council. So back then you, you didn’t have Democrats and Republicans, although you did but not officially. You basically had black and white. Who’s gonna be the white candidate? Who’s going to be the black candidate? Um, only a few years before in ‘63, ‘64, you had the riots and the fire hoses. And I was 10 years old and, you know, we didn’t hear any of that stuff because it wasn’t on the TV and mom and daddy would turn the national TV off. So we really didn’t know what was going on.”
Johnson: Building a biracial coalition seemed impossible after Bonita’s death. Mauk’s boss, Vann, had refused to fire George Sands, the officer who shot her on that hot Friday evening. Even after reports from an investigative committee said the officer had acted inappropriately. Residents expressed their anger in marches and meetings and threatened boycotts of local businesses. Vann had counted most of the city’s Black leaders as friends or at least allies. He even tried once to march with protesters in a display of respect and commitment. Not surprisingly, it didn’t play well in Black neighborhoods.
Archibald: Hell, it didn’t play so well in white ones either. Vann caught the devil from all sides, alienating those who had supported them in the past, and making unlikely — and unreliable at the polls — allies of those who had never much liked him in the first place.
Mauk: “Apparently the police needed much better training in certain instances like this, but you know, hindsight’s always 2020. David realized that Sands was not guilty of a gross act of violence, that he actually did think the guy was armed in the car. He was convinced that it would be wrong to fire him. He did suspend him without pay. Sands did come to our headquarters at one time and got some material to pass out.
The Black community was just totally outraged. David had worked for many years with the community and they basically turned against him except for a few. Uh, we worked and worked and worked and, David tried his best to make amends and get proper training in and did a lot of things. And we thought that we had everything under control. Uh, we did not.”
Archibald: Arrington still maintains that, in the beginning, he was never politically ambitious, that he had been ready to leave politics to pursue other things he was working on when His second term on the council began to wind down. 1979 changed a lot of minds. Bonita Carter changed it all.
Arrington: “Oh, I had never intended to be mayor, uh, even when I was on the council. I was learning things. But, you know, that was just a part-time job. Uh, I was, when I was on the council I was working for the eight historically Black colleges in Alabama, my job was to travel around. I was raising money for all eight of them and carrying that program. That was my major job, but I just got caught up in it.”
Johnson: It was a surprise to some when Arrington decided, in the wake of the shooting and Vann’s terminal failure to act, to run for mayor of Birmingham. A city that had never elected a Black mayor. And, at the time, seemed like it might not ever. The decision was especially surprising to Vann’s camp.
Mauk: “The night before Dr. Arrington declared that he was a candidate, he was in the mayor’s office with me. Uh, I can’t remember anybody else being there except Michael, David’s little son who was a toddler then. And he said, basically, I’m not. And he said, I’m going to go to this meeting with Reverend Woods, and we’re gonna, uh, I’m gonna tell him that I’m not gonna run. We’re going to support you. And we thought, Yay! Okay, this is it. We’ve done what we needed to do. And I went home, went to bed. I wake up next morning and Reverend Woods is standing by Dr. Arrington’s side, and they’re announcing that they’re running. So, boom, what do you do now? Well, I’ve got to split their votes somehow.”
Johnson: There’s more after the break.
Archibald: So at 10 p.m. one night, Arrington isn’t running. The very next morning, he is.
Johnson: Which, in many ways, was surprising to Arrington as well.
Arrington: “David Vann was kind of, my mentor is the way I saw him, and I think he saw it that way. Other people saw it that way…. I worked with him on the city council. I helped him get elected as mayor. And so I was a great David Vann fan and never thought I would be the one running against him during his re-election effort.”
Johnson: Given the city’s past, the shooting of Bonita Carter and the tension that swelled every day thereafter, it was certainly not surprising that the mayoral race became, well, largely about race. Especially in the city some called the Johannesburg of the South. The pool of candidates was charismatic, opinionated, and diverse, and each was not without their own controversies. Many would gain notoriety in the city and keep it for decades.
Archibald: There was the mayor, Vann, and Arrington, the egghead city councilman.
Johnson: City Councilman John Katopodis, a white man, jumped into the race with an advanced degree from Harvard and a razor wit. He argued “a Ph.d from Harvard is the ‘minimum requirement for understanding’ this new gun policy that Vann proposed.
Archibald: To try to split Black votes, Mauk thought of Larry Langford, a charismatic Black councilman who had made his name in Birmingham as a flamboyant television reporter, one of the first and most memorable in the city’s history. As he would effectively do later in his career, Langford tried to appeal to both Black and white voters with the kind of sound bites that rang of down-home wisdom but offered little in the way of policy.
Archival recording of Larry Langford: “We need to quit talking about this Black-white issue. Every campaign in this city turns racial. I’m not going to turn in my corvette and go back to Africa just like no white folks I know are going back to Europe. We have to address that and be done with the problem.”
Mauk: “I approached Larry and said, why don’t you run for mayor? I mean, are you gonna let Arrington be the granddaddy of them all. Why don’t you, why don’t you jump in Mr. Upstart? And he did.”
Archibald: This 1979 mayoral race was quite a show. Candidate Don Black was grand dragon of the Alabama Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. His campaign, as you might imagine, was openly racist, though it was covered seriously and matter-of-factly in the press. He argued that “as long as the public officials are catering to the Black vote, there can be no effective solution to the rising crime rate.” Today, he runs a white supremacist, neo-Nazi website.
Johnson: Frank Parsons was a white businessman, the owner of a local travel agency. He played to white fears, too, warning them at a civic club meeting that a large Black voter turnout would shift the balance of power in the city to Black people.
“We’re going to lose by default,” he said to the Birmingham Exchange Club. “We’re going to have a Black mayor, and I guarantee you I’m not for any of those Blacks. Then we’re going to have a Black police chief.”
Archibald: There were seven candidates altogether, including a candidate for the Socialist Workers Party.
Johnson: In many ways Arrington was the least exciting of them all, perhaps with the exception of Vann. Langford and Katopodis were larger than life personalities, masters of the sound bite and political barb. Arrington, by contrast, spoke low and long and thoughtfully. Here’s Scott Douglas again.
Douglas: “I was worried at first. I supported Arrington, but Larry was on TV.”
Archibald: “He had a big personality.”
Douglas: “A big personality. But Arrington had filed over 200 complaints by citizens about police brutality and stuff. And people knew that, you know. So he already had a connection with the community … And so Arrington really represented the, um, um, the most besieged, uh, lowest income and was seen as being their advocate.”
Johnson: And let’s be frank, to whites in the Birmingham business community, he also seemed safer than the other black candidates –certainly preferable to a Klansman or a socialist. He was measured and careful. He’d been a college dean, after all. He had community and academic cred. He had eight years of taking on the police. It was a stark contrast to his friend Vann, who still refused, for whatever reason, to take decisive action on George Sands.
In the election, Vann, the sitting mayor, the mastermind who had ousted Bull Connor, finished in fourth place. Fourth. Arrington finished first with 31,000 votes but without an outright majority, and Parsons, the race-baiting businessman, squeaked ahead of Katopodis to reach the runoff. Klansman Don Black got just under 2,000 votes. Yeah that’s right, 2,000 people voted for a grand dragon of the KKK to become the mayor of Birmingham. He beat only the Socialist Workers Party candidate. Vann got about 11,000 votes. He won zero polling places in Black neighborhoods. Zero.
Archibald: Vann went to Arrington about 10:30 on the night of the election, to congratulate him when the will of Birmingham voters had become clear. This is what Arrington said about it at the time, in the thoughtful, academic way he answered questions throughout his term:
Johnson (reading a letter from Arrington): “We didn’t talk very much. David apparently was a bit emotional at the time, and it moved me a bit because David is my friend and I’m a great admirer of David Vann. We just shook hands and patted each other on the shoulder, and he made that statement and turned and left.”
Archibald: That left Mauk looking to the future.
Mauk: “So, um, David, uh, congratulated Dick and I started packing up the office. Dick showed up at the office one day and offered me a job.”
Johnson: The offer was a job with Arrington’s campaign; he still has a runoff to win. But Mauk had been offered another job as a federal law clerk in bankruptcy court, and well couldn’t mess around with politics anymore. He turned Arrington down. But Dick was persistent.
Mauk: “And he said, well, listen, you’re the eastern area guy. I need you. And I said, well, what do you need me for? I can’t, I can’t play politics and be a federal law clerk. I can’t do that. And he said, ‘well, then get your mama and daddy to help. I’ve got to get 10% of the white vote in Eastlake and Roebuck and Huffman. Can you do that?’ And I said, ‘well, I can’t, but I’ll see what I can do to help.’ So I enlisted a lot of folks that lived out there, a lot of white folks, uh, and our main goal was to say and show that Dick Arrington didn’t have horns and a tail. And it wouldn’t be the worst catastrophe in the world for him to be elected.”
Archibald: In a racially charged run-off between Arrington and Parsons – who, of course, pandered to white fear and warned white voters they’d end up with a Black mayor and Black police chief – Arrington won by the slimmest of margins — by about 2,000 of the almost 88,000 votes cast — to become the first Black mayor in the city’s history.
Johnson: Double digit support from whites helped put him in the seat he would hold for 20 years, until he simply decided it was time to walk away.
Archibald: Some 130 days after Bonita Carter was killed, four months after the ad hoc committee found there was no cause to shoot her — and almost as long since David Vann decided to reassign George Sands instead of discipline him, Richard Arrington became the first Black mayor of Birmingham, in front of Time and Newsweek and the world.
Johnson: President Jimmy Carter called to congratulate Arrington the night he beat Parsons. Mauk — who had been his opponent’s campaign manager — was right there with him. He’ll never forget it.
Mauk: “Dick won. We got 15% of the white vote, which was very good… and I was very fortunate that I was standing next to him at the parliament house when he took the phone call from President Carter congratulating him. And I was like, I was about to wet my pants.”
Johnson: Arrington knows the killing of Bonita Carter put him in the mayor’s office, that it put a Black person there long before anyone would have predicted.
Arrington: “I also think that it led to voters probably rejecting one of the best. Uh, certainly one of the better, if not the best mayor I thought the city had ever had in David Vann, it created a time of change.”
Archibald: The man who for years stood as a lone voice against police brutality in Birmingham, who still maintains he had no ambition to be mayor – was suddenly, and historically, in position to change the city.
Johnson: Among the first things Arrington did was to reach out to his old friend, David Vann, who had burned a lot of bridges at the big law firms downtown.
Mauk: “And of course, David and Dick remained good friends, uh, and Dick extended to David a job so he could live and make money for his family.”
Archibald: It’s another long story, but together the two worked to annex a portion of property a long way from downtown, a controversial long-lasso plan developed by Vann and carried out by Arrington, that keeps the city afloat to this day. On that property was built the Summit, the most successful upscale shopping district in whole metro area.
Mauk: “David came up with the annexation scheme and that’s what it was a scheme…The scheme is this — under the annexation laws you have to have contiguous property next to…. The property has to touch your property that you annex. Okay. That’s what contiguous means. And a lawsuit or a law decision at some point in the back in the sixties said that you could use roads as those lines. And so by following the road and streets, we were able to grab up unincorporated land outside the city limits of Birmingham that were not contiguous to the city, but we made them contiguous, like down 280, like down Lakeshore Parkway, all that was just unincorporated property. Now it’s all city of Birmingham, and making a tremendous amount of sales taxes that helps the city.”
Johnson: It was a final parting shot for a mayor ousted by the city’s racial divide. And it was vintage Vann. He armed himself with the law, reached through wealthy white suburbs that had abandoned Black Birmingham because of race, and took the most valuable commercial property he could find. His city claims it still.
Archibald: Solomon Crenshaw, that veteran Birmingham reporter who found himself at the scene of the Bonita Carter riots when he was just an intern all those years ago, looks back on the events he witnessed, and the ‘79 election, with a sort of wonder.
Crenshaw: “I used to say to myself that Richard Arrington should have made a pilgrimage to her grave every year that he was in office because had that event not happened, he would not have been mayor. At least not then. Uh, I don’t know when, if ever he would have been, maybe he would have at some point, but without a doubt that situation, put the elements in place because he and David Vann had been allies, they’d been friends. He wouldn’t, I don’t think he would have run against David Vann and David Vann had been viewed as an ally to people of color. And frankly, I don’t think anybody, Black or white, believed that a Black man could win a citywide election for mayor in Birmingham, Alabama. I just don’t think it was conceivable.”
Johnson: In a sense, Arrington did make such a pilgrimage last year. In 2019, 40 years after Bonita Carter died in Buster Pickett’s car, the city’s first Black mayor stood at the corner of 45th street and what used to be 10th Avenue North — the street now bearing his name, for reasons that should be clear. He stood at the spot where Bonita died, and to the crowd that included members of Bonita’s family he spoke of what her life meant.
Arrington: “It is important that we understand that, especially that our young people understand Bonita Carter. The Bonita Carter incident reformed one of the nation’s most violent and abusive police departments. The police foundation had issued a report and it talked about particularly three cities, Baltimore, Detroit and Birmingham, for a very abusive police department. The Bonita Carter incident led us to reform our police department. Our police department would become an accredited police department. At that time, it was one of only 60 accredited police departments in the entire nation. That’s part of the Bonita Carter legacy. You know, some events in history, we simply say they are attributed to time. You know, ‘we said, well, it was about time. It was going to happen anyway.’ And I say that sometimes myself. sometimes people say ‘How did you get to be the mayor?’ It was just time. Well, that’s not always true. Time can be so neutral. It’s what you do with time that matters. And that is what’s important about the Bonita Carter incident. Some events in history are attributed to a particular event that took place. I think Birmingham’s transition to a better city began with the death of Bonita Carter.”
Archibald: Arrington was mayor of Birmingham, its first Black mayor, and it would be on him to fulfill all his promises, to reform the police department, to integrate it thoroughly, to deal with George Sands and give Black people the voice they never had.
Johnson: Join us next time to meet Sands himself and see what it was that this mayor did with his time.
Catch up on “Unjustifiable” by Reckon Radio: