What was it about the killing of Bonita Carter that sparked police reform?

The search for that answer led the Reckon Radio team into the bowels of the Birmingham Public Library, to a recently discovered box of “Birmingham Police Shooting and Incident Cards.”

These cards, seen by almost no one in decades, detail the deaths of hundreds of people in and around Birmingham – killed by police and security officers and written off, seemingly casually, as “justifiable.”Almost all the victims are Black. Almost all are men.

Many were teenagers shot in the back as they ran or walked away or they were simply suspected of a crime as trivial as picking up a few bucks off a lunch counter. What was it about Bonita Carter? The answer in these files and others, which indicate that more police in this one county shot as many as 500 people in the last century, that they were not just allowed to shoot people they believed had committed a crime, they were expected and encouraged to do it. Especially if the suspect were Black.

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 PodcastsSpotifyAcast or your favorite podcasting app.

Below is a full transcript of Episode Three. 

Cynthia Carter: “She was a loving — I’m talking she loved everybody. She would do anything for anybody. You hear me? She came up here. She was riding her 10 speed. And I asked her, and she said, I’m gonna go up here for a minute. And I said ok. When she took – the dude told her to move the car. She didn’t know nothing had happened up here. You know, she was just doing a favor and moving it to his house. But she didn’t know. They pretend like it was a man driving that car, but it was my sister. You hear me?”

John Archibald: That’s Cynthia Carter, one of Bonita Carter’s sisters. She is standing on the corner of 45th street and what used to be 10th Avenue North in Birmingham. It’s now Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard. Because of her sister. Because of a night that went so wrong.

Carter: “You know, when we come up, they said that’s your sister. And I said what? And they said it sound like a gun blowin’ up. And we got – we was running from that way. Come on down – and I’m talking the car was shot up. She, there was holes all the way up through her.”

Archibald: “Right here?”

Carter: “Right there. Yep. “

Archibald: “And what did you do?”

Carter: “They wouldn’t let me in the car. They tried to hit me. My other sister, I told her to sneak around the other way, Mary, I told her to sneak around the other way, they tried to get in the ambulance. And when she got in the ambulance she said, you don’t want to see that. There’s so many holes in her it was sad. I’m talking the whole car with big holes in it.”

Archibald: I’m John Archibald

Roy S. Johnson: And I’m Roy S. Johnson and this is “Unjustifiable.” We are telling the story of young Bonita Carter, and how her shooting death in 1979 by a Birmingham police officer led to massive protests that changed a city forever, and presaged the Black Lives Matter movement.

Archibald: How did we get here? How did we get here 40 years after Buster Pickett fired a .30-.30 Winchester into Jerry’s Convenience Store, after being told to pay for his gas in advance.

Johnson: Four decades after a store employee pulled a Tact Two alarm signaling a robbery. 40 years after Pickett ran and yelled for somebody — anybody — to take his car home for him.

It’s really a lifetime isn’t it? A lifetime since Birmingham police officer George Sands pulled his trigger again and again and again. And again. Without really seeing who he was shooting at. Killing that young woman.

Archibald: What was it about Bonita Carter? The way she smiled, as her family said? Or danced? The way she sang in the church choir? Perhaps, as we’ve been told, with more enthusiasm than skill. What was it about Bonita Carter that created such outrage?

Mayor David Vann had ignored the findings of the committee, and though Officer Sands eventually left the force, he went unpunished for this offense, at least by the courts and the city. All those things were regions for outrage. But there was more. Perhaps it was time. And here’s why.

(Tape of John Archibald and Alexander Richey talking to Brian Burghart at the Birmingham Public Library, reviewing cards of people killed by police in Jefferson County)

Brian Burghart: “So, let’s see what we got.”

Archibald: That’s Brian Burghart, who founded FatalEncounters.org in an effort to track every police-related killing across America. We are in the Birmingham Public Library, Brian and me and producer Alexander Richey. Say Hi Alexander.

Alex: Hi.

Archibald: We’ve been asked to keep our voices low. It’s a library, after all.

Alex: Brian is used to this. He loves looking through police records, spending hours tracking down the details of police related deaths that are not so easily Google-able. I mean, so do we, but Brian is on a whole ‘nother level. His obsession began in a past life as a journalist in Reno, Nevada.

Burghart: “Okay. So it was a Friday night. I was going home from work at the time I was the editor and publisher of the Reno News and Review. I drove past this scene on Arlington Avenue a little, it was like half a block, maybe a block off the river. Um, and I saw this scene of just chaos is the way I always describe it, but there were just a ton of cop cars parked haphazardly, sort of sealing off the neighborhood. I just knew that either a cop had killed somebody or somebody had killed a cop. And it just spurred a question in me: how often does that happen?”

I mean, it was as simple as that and I thought it would be as simple as that to find out. So, I went home and I cracked a bottle of wine and I started looking and I realized fairly quickly I wasn’t getting satisfactory numbers.

Archibald: So he started collecting, gathering data on all the police killings he could find, crowd-sourcing when he had to, relying on news reports and confirmed web postings. It grew and it grew. And in the 21st Century alone he has catalogued 28,000 people killed in America by police.

Johnson: Wow. That’s four times the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, eight times the number killed in 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing.

Archibald: About 10,000 more than the total number of homicides in America in any year this century. It has risen by 1,000 since we talked to Brian just last year.

Archibald: But the records we’re looking over now are much older than Brian’s current focus. We’re poring over a box of photocopied index files in the archives of the Birmingham Public Library, recent acquisitions the library refers to as the “Birmingham Police Department Shooting and Incident Cards.”  Alexander began referring to it as ‘’The Shoebox” but it’s really 12 inches long, 5 inches wide and 11 inches high. As the archivist said, it “would be pretty weird shoe box.”

Richey: I swear you called it the shoebox at one point. But it is an historical treasure tracked down by the records management staff in 2015, and largely unseen.

Archibald: They detail shooting after shooting by police in Birmingham and surrounding Jefferson County between the late ‘30 and early ‘70s. More than 200 police shootings during that time.

Johnson: And no surprise. almost all are declared justifiable by the Jefferson County Coroner’s office, often before the next sunrise. Too often. And of course almost all the victims were black – or ‘colored,’ as the early files note. Almost all are men.

Archibald: “What we have here appears to be an event. I mean, they’re all shootings or they’re either assaults or murders or homicides. The vast majority being homicides. The vast majority of them are police shootings and uh, just take a look at that.”

Richey: “Tell us what the, what the card says, like what information is on it.”

Burghart: “Well, the one I’m looking at is Percy Charlie. He’s a ‘colored male.’ Um, it says crime is justifiable homicide. … It’s got the place of occurrence. Arkadelphia Road, March 13th, 1939 at 9:30 PM. Uh, the motive is resisting arrest. The weapon was a pistol by officers, RG Shirley and Jay N. Brian.”

Archibald: I think it was investigated by Shirly and Brian. Shot by Jones.

Burghart: “This one’s a burglary too. So under what circumstances do you think one officer would shoot three shoot and kill three people?”

Archibald: “Right Who were armed.

And here’s, here’s one … This Negro had burglarized several houses and stolen a car. He was shot when he attempted to escape. There’s one — I don’t find it immediatelybut it said he was a known burglar. That was the note on it. They shot him.”

Richey: No further description, just, they just knew he was a burglar and…”

Archibald: “That’s what it said. He was a known burglar.”

Burghart: “So it’s interesting. Now if this, if this were to appear in public, I’d be willing to bet these officers’ names wouldn’t be on this, on this document. Nor would the people who investigated them.”

Johnson: On and on it goes, the beginning of a long and linear tale, an answer to the central question that brought us here. “What was it about the killing of Bonita Carter that created such rage, that drove people to the streets and, ultimately, to the polls. What was it about the killing of Bonita Carter that ignited change?”

Archibald: This is it. This is the answer: It wasn’t just Bonita Carter. It was the world in which she lived. The world, actually, that existed generations before she stepped off that bike and into that Buick.

Unknown Voice: Nelson Collins, a Black man. George Lyons, a Black man. Willie Harris, George Lee Bonner, Richard Anderson Jackson. Black men killed by the police in Jefferson County.

Second voice: Justifiable. 

Johnson: So many names. So many.

Voice: Sam Simms, a black man shot dead that same year after police say he resisted arrest.

John Brown. Police said he was a burglar so they shot him dead in 1943 when he ran onto the side of Red Mountain, along an old L&N railroad bed near Green Springs.

Johnson: Between 1940 and 1972 there were 213 justifiable shootings in Jefferson County where we can identify the race of the victim. 200 were Black.

Archibald: In 1948 a young white girl phoned police to say she saw a face at her window, a Black face, the kind of thing that made the front pages of mainstream newspapers in a racially hysterical South. Police arrive. They see a man. They see Theris Rudolph Wood. They see him running. They shoot him. Justifiable, it was ruled. Theris Rudolph Wood was 19 years old. The Birmingham News ran it on the top of Page 1 the next day: “Prowler is shot dead in East Lake District.”

Johnson: A similar shooting, John, happened the year before, when a 16-year-old black teen was shot dead on the spot outside a girl’s boarding school on the city’s Southside. Dead on the spot. The News headline screamed across the top of the page in 72-point type – Now, that’s big! It said: “POLICE KILL NIGHT PROWLER.”

Johnson: On Dec. 29, 1948, 21-year-old Robert James – a Black man – ran when police tried to arrest him on suspicion of burglary. They shot him, dead. On the spot. Justifiable, it was ruled. That same day, in a different place and time, Walter Zuber, a 27-year-old Black man, ran when police tried to arrest him on the same charge, suspicion of burglary. They shot him too. On the spot.

Johnson: At least Police Chief C. Floyd Eddins was asked about Zuber. The Birmingham press was usually breathless in its defense of police, in its dehumanization of the dead. But this time, at least they asked.

Archibald: The chief’s response: “No officer has an order to shoot anyone at any time. But he has the authority to use what force he deems necessary to prevent the escape of a felon.”

Johnson: Translation: We can justify almost anything.

Archibald: It was the law at the time in Alabama and elsewhere. Police not only had the right to shoot people who ran from what was thought to be a felony, they were expected, by peers and superiors, to shoot fleeing suspects. They were supposed to shoot fleeing suspects. But police showed far more patience with fleeing white suspects than they did with Black. So Black suspects were shot, and died, at incredible rates.

Voice: Curtis Miller was 25 that same year. He didn’t stop running when cops ordered him to halt. They claimed he lifted $11 worth of lipstick and perfume.

Voice: Justifiable.

Johnson: On Sept. 5, 1963, 16 years before Bonita Carter was killed, the home of civil rights lawyer Arthur Shores was bombed in that Birmingham neighborhood that was targeted so often by racists it was called “Dynamite Hill.” Black people were tired of it, and they poured into the streets. Police told reporters they shot and killed John L. Coley because he burst from a nearby house firing a gun.

Johnson: The Birmingham News, complicit as it so often was, like many Southern dailies, published exactly what the police said, without skepticism.

Archibald: But that wasn’t what happened. Coroner J.O. Butler later said stray pellets from a shotgun killed Coley. The last paragraph in a four-paragraph follow-up story contained that important detail.

The follow-up story also revealed this: “Earlier reports said that Coley was armed and joined in the firing, but an investigation revealed he did not have a gun.”

Archibald: Again and again and again. Ten days later, now in the aftermath of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young Black girls, it happened again. 16-year-old Johnny Robinson was downtown, not far from the church, when a group of white men drove by, yelling the things white men yelled in the 60s, particularly white men in a car draped with the Confederate Battle Flag. Robinson and his friends threw rocks at the car, then a police officer drove up. Officer Jack Parker fired from the back seat, either accidentally or on purpose. It is still hard to know. We do know Jack Parker’s bullets killed Johnny Robinson. The officer was never indicted or tried.

Johnson: Another young Black man – a teen – gone.

It’s hard to count them all. So many Black men and women. Gone.  Jerry Moses Faison Jr. was shot in the back in 1957 as he walked away from cops. A Jefferson County coroner ruled the shooting justified, almost immediately, but the feds launched a civil rights trial. The officer, John Pyron, was acquitted. By a white jury. In less than an hour.

Voice: Claud J. Jackson, 18 in 1966. An officer said Jackson threw an ashtray at him.

A week later, Phillip J. Murray, 29. He was chased by police dogs after a reported burglary. The officer said he had a knife and wouldn’t drop it.

Voice: Justifiable.

Archibald: It was Edwards’ death, in February 1967, that prompted several religious and civil rights organizations to urge Birmingham and Jefferson County law enforcement to recognize the problem, and to act.

Voice: “We are duly alarmed at the fact that in the past 14 months, according to our information, at least 10 Negroes have been shot and killed in our community by law enforcement,” the group said. “We recognize the job of policemen as one of considerable challenge and trial. But law enforcement will never gain the respect it should have when Negroes have come to believe that dual methods – apprehend the whites, shoot the Negroes – have become the pattern of law enforcement.”

Archibald: But it didn’t change. In the next year there would be at least 10 more justifiable police shootings of Black people.

Voice: Aaron Robinson. Bobby Thomas. Justifiable. Elvert Givins. Willie Otis Martin. Justifiable. Charles Hamilton Jackson. Justifiable. Robert Anderson. Larry Jones. Joseph Spencer. Robert Haywood Allen. Walter White. Justifiable. Police also shot one white man. John Howard Clonts. Justifiable.

-Ad Break-

Johnson: In this box of Birmingham Police Department Shooting and Incident Cards are hundreds of justifiable shootings by law enforcement agencies across Jefferson County. That was – and is- Alabama’s largest county at more than 640,000 residents in the 1970s.

Yet the box is just a snapshot, John, just a snippet from the 1940s to the 1970s, to Bonita Carter’s time. Just a moment in a long, long — too long — history of police violence in a town known for killing.

Archibald: For a better understanding of the volume of these killings we went to the man reporters of a certain age in Birmingham always went to for a better understanding of death:

Jay Glass: “Yeah. I’m Jay Glass and I’m retired as the chief deputy coroner for the Jefferson County coroner medical examiner’s office and held that office til the late 2000s when I retired.”

Johnson: He was in the coroner’s office for the Bonita Carter autopsy. He served there for decades. Jay Glass also wrote the book on death in these parts. It’s called “Life and Death in the Magic City, a Coroner’s Perspective of Jefferson County Alabama in the Early 20th Century.” He describes a pretty tough place in those days.

Glass: “At that time the city was described as “Bad Birmingham,” and a wild west town. And actually, uh, you know, back in those days, we had the popular literature that used to try to, uh, show that the Western part of the country, which was being built up at that time, was very violent. It was to a certain degree, but I can assure you, when you look at numbers, Birmingham was more of a wild West town than Dodge City, Kansas.

There was a famous preacher back in the 1890s named Sam Jones, I believe, uh, who made the statement that Birmingham was a hell hole. Now that was the, uh, you know, a lot of opinion going on. It was rather violent”

Archibald: Glass decided to take a statistical look at those days, with homicide data from 1909 – that year President William Howard Taft was inaugurated in a snowstorm – to 1939, as World War II began in Europe. 1911 was a particularly deadly year in a county much smaller than it is now. It was an industrial town, a hard-working and hard playing wild west of a town.

Johnson: Glass looked at crime rates then and in more recent years, from 1981 through 2017, paying special attention to 1991. That year is considered by most modern crime watchers as Jefferson County’s most deadly ever.

Glass: “So what does that mean? Technically, and from a statistical standpoint, it means that you, that a citizen of Jefferson County and more specifically, Birmingham, probably stood a greater than twice the chance of becoming a victim of homicide in 1911 than they did in 1991.”

Archibald: It also means that, with a few small gaps, we can now use coroner data and the box of incident cards to see most of the 20th century police shootings around Birmingham.

Johnson: Between 1909 and 1939 – not including two years in the early ‘30s when there seems to be no information for some reason, Glass identified 239 people killed by police. About eight every year. In 1909, there were 16. The number rose dramatically from 1927 through 1930. 26 police shootings that first year. Then 16, 13 and 26 again in 1930. Of the 212 cases where race was documented, 85 percent were black.

Archibald: In that same 30-year period, for perspective, 39 law enforcement officers were killed in the county.

Johnson: In more modern times, from Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981 through 2017, there have been at least 93 police killings in the county, or 2.6 a year. According to Glass, 71 percent of those victims were Black.

Archibald: Just look at the volume, though. From 1909 to today we can now identify more than 500 shootings by police. 500. These cases were hard to find because records were not always made available and the press at times aided and abetted in downplaying the true numbers.

Johnson: Glass, as he researched deaths in the county for his book, found gaps he couldn’t reconcile.

Glass: “As I looked through the numbers, uh, it was so egregious that I just can’t help believing that there…You know, I’m not a big conspiracy guy, but it just seems like there had to be an agreement between the powers that be at that time, be it the politicians, the coroners, the police, and the news media, sorry to say. Especially I found that particularly during that surge period, I mentioned in Birmingham from 1927 to 1930, when it had a large number of police shootings and relatively few of them were reported. It just seems to me that it’s essentially impossible for a number of these cases, not to have been known about by the media at that time.”

Archibald: He did find story after story, printed on the front pages of The Birmingham News and the Age Herald, which later became the Post Herald, detailing Black people in faraway places being punished severely for the crime of questioning the white establishment.

Glass: “In the newspapers many times right on the front page would be a reproduction of a story about a lynching, maybe, that occurred in Texas or Mississippi or wherever. They reprinted that and in the news, and it was pretty much a repetitive thing. Looking at the times back then they were trying to send a message out. Say, look, what happened in Mississippi? Look what happened in Georgia to this person who violated the mores of the times, and this is gonna happen to you too, if you do something like that.”

Johnson: So, clearly, it wasn’t just the police that sent messages of intimidation to Black people. The press was complicit. It was part of the establishment. It was among the powers that be. It was The Man.

Back then, everything in society told Black people their lives mattered less than the lives of white people. Including some of the laws themselves, like the acceptance of shooting fleeing so-called felons who were, after all, supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in court. Including local policies and practices that stamped so many shootings justified, often before the victim could be buried.

Archibald: About the time of the Bonita Carter shooting, some of the systems that allowed indiscriminate killings by police began to crumble, at least in Jefferson County. Perhaps it came in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, and with persistent voices like Richard Arrington, who had been on the city council since 1971 and had consistently and publicly pointed out police brutality. David Vann, as mayor, played a part.

Johnson: In much of Alabama, the coroner is appointed by the county commission, and requires no expertise. It is often the person who owned the town funeral home. But Jefferson County’s process changed in the 1970s, when law required it to have a chief medical examiner who was a board-certified forensic pathologist. That person, at the start, was Ronald Rivers He took the stand in that committee examination of the Bonita Carter killing. Jay Glass recalls how Rivers’ appointment became the start of reformation.

Glass: “And shortly after he arrived, there was a shooting up in the North Birmingham where it was reported to a police officer that someone who was seen running from the scene when the officer arrived had stolen a radio out of a car. The officer took out his gun, shot him in the back, killed him.

So the next thing that comes up is the, uh, district attorney asked the medical examiner, says, how are you going to rule on this case? You going to rule this a justifiable homicide or what? And the medical examiner says, ‘I’m not ruling anything.’ He says, well, the coroner always did that. Well, I’m not doing it anymore. He said, I’m a physician. I’ll provide my trained forensic pathologist. I’ll do the examination. I’ll provide you and the police with information that I couldn’t figure out where the person was shot, how many times, maybe the distance from which they were shot. And then you take that information with all your investigative findings and you make the ruling. And if you still can’t make the ruling, put it on a grand jury.”

Johnson: That really shook the place up. Rattled some nerves. Because police brass and District Attorneys depended on often relatively anonymous and almost certainly ill-qualified coroners to make the potentially explosive rulings on shootings, so they didn’t have to.

Archibald: The coroners were depended upon, at times – so many times – to make cases just disappear. Or simply to say: “Justified.” Well, not anymore.

Glass: So in 1977, when that case occurred and the medical examiner told the DA I’m not making these rules, I’m a medical person. I’m not going to do them anymore. Uh, the DA was just, you know, taken aback because the coroner was a buffer for him and the judicial system. You have to understand that the DA was an elected official. Still is. Okay. So if people are not happy with his or her decisions, uh, they can vote that person out. You can’t vote the coroner out.”

Johnson: Police shootings are still often ruled justifiable, in Jefferson County and everywhere else. There are more safeguards against these often-rushed rulings than there used to be, though still not enough. We know what happens, though, when those safeguards don’t exist at all.

Archibald: 500 people shot by police in a single county tells quite a story. But white people weren’t listening, they weren’t even always given a chance to read about them in their newspapers. But Black people knew. From personal experience, from family tragedy, from Black radio in the ‘60s, from Birmingham DJs like Tall Paul and Shelly Stewart.

Shelley Stewart: We had been misled so long, uh, that the darker you are, the worse you are, the darker you are, that, that you’re less than. It said, when you’re white you’re right; when you’re Black get back. You know, those types of things were put there.

So that’s where the police with Sands killed Bonita for an example, it got to the breaking point where enough was enough.”

Johnson: Enough of the shootings, of course, But enough of the attitudes and fears, the slights and often not-so-silent silent threats. Uche Bean is a Birmingham native and administrator of Mayor Randall Woodfin’s Office of Social Justice and Racial Equity. She was not yet born in 1979, but is well versed on the shooting of Bonita Carter. She wonders about Buster Pickett, the man who fired into that convenience store after an argument in which he was told to pre-pay for gas.

Uche Bean: “Why did he feel that? Why did he feel so offended by someone saying, ‘Hey, you have to pay for your gas first?’ What was the conversation like? What was the tone of the conversation again in an area that was economically challenged in an area where yet again we’re, we’re discussing the ability of, we’re talking about it’s a housing community there. So again, we’re talking about the separation of the Black family and who could live where and we don’t know what was going through his mind. Like what would make someone that mad to say, ‘Oh you’re, you’re questioning my integrity and now I have to go get my gun because you don’t believe that I’m going to pay for this gas.’ Right?

Archibald: Well he pulls up to the gas station. He’s feeling okay cause he’s, he pumps gas for a couple of women who are in front of him in line and doesn’t understand this pay-in-advance policy that they’ve just implemented, which is hard to imagine in this day and age. But in the 70s and the gas crisis was just starting and it was a different sort of thing. So he goes in and his, you know, certainly words were passed, but then this white man behind the counter comes out and starts punching him in the face, knocks the door off the hinges. There’s a big altercation. Both of them are at this point beyond reasonable. And he makes a terrible mistake of going to get the gun and um, and Bonita Carter makes the terrible mistake of getting in his car to drive it home so it won’t be towed away by police, which she doesn’t trust because 40 to 60 to 200 years of…”

Bean: “We are all given the right of due process. Right? But some people who are here to protect and serve, decide to be the judge, the jury and the executioner. So the due process is cut before it can happen.”

Johnson. Some people. Too many people throughout Birmingham’s deadly history of more than 500 police shootings. Too many of them justified. Too many of them accepted. Until Bonita Carter. That’s why she matters so much now. Why she matters far beyond the grief that still lingers with her family, with friends and in her neighborhood. Her death ignited seismic change in the world she left behind.

Archibald. But what changed? How did it change? And what became of George Sands? Join us in our next episode to find out.