Protests began to swell in Birmingham the night Bonita Carter was killed, and it grew larger and larger in the days that followed. Black people, who had marched for voting power and integrated water fountains and lunch counters a decade and a half earlier, took to the streets to condemn police violence from a department built by Bull Connor.
The killing of Bonita Carter seemed to be the last straw, especially when the mayor, a progressive named David Vann who had helped push Connor out in the ’60s, hesitated to discipline the police officer who shot her. The killing demanded change.
What was it about her that seemed to mobilize a city?
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 Two.
John Archibald: I’m standing in the parking lot of the 10th Avenue Deli in the Birmingham neighborhood of Kingston with Solomon Crenshaw. This is the spot where Bonita Carter was killed by Police Officer George Sands in 1979, where Crenshaw, as an intern working for the Birmingham News, found himself the next day, as things went to hell.
Solomon’s a friend of mine, a colleague for 30 years, and we’re walking the grounds with producer Alexander Richey, retracing the last minutes of Bonita Carter’s life. It all started with Buster Pickett driving to the gas pumps when the store was known as Jerry’s, as gas shortages hit and filling stations began to institute pay-in-advance policies. This is Crenshaw, talking about 20-year-old Bonita, and why her death became something more.
Solomon Crenshaw: “If you know the story, he pulls up on Friday night to buy gasoline. “
Archibald: “It would have been right here.”
Crenshaw: “Yes. And he is asked or told that he has to pay for gasoline before he pumps.”
Archibald: “So he pulls up, they say, ‘pay in advance’ and he takes it personally. Cause he thinks it’s an affront to him.”
Crenshaw: “Very much so. And he goes home, gets his gun, comes back and starts shooting into the store.
And ultimately the people in the store called the police. Sirens could be heard in the distance. The fellow understands that they are coming for him. So he hightails it down the street, gets about, oh, half a block away, thereabouts. I’m not quite sure. And he realizes, remembers that he left his car so, unwilling to come back, obviously afraid that he would be apprehended. He yells back for someone to bring him his car.”
Archibald: And she said, if I don’t take it, they’re going to tow it. And so she got in the car and she started to drive away and we’re standing 20 feet from a memorial sign for her. Let’s walk over there.
Archibald: So, she pulls this way. While police officer, George Sands and his partner pull up 16 seconds after the call goes out, which was just happenstance really. He jumps out. A man runs out of the store and says, “He’s in the car,” pointing to Bonita Carter, which is exactly where we’re standing right now. Some of Ms. Carter’s friends are yelling and saying, ‘No, it’s a girl in the car! It’s a girl’s girl in the car!’ But right there where that yellow cigarette pack is or whatever it is, George Sands pulled out his gun and points it at the car. And according to his testimony, he said he saw somebody jump up in the seat. So he fired a volley of shots into her. She died right where we’re standing.
Crenshaw: I suppose, in a weak defense of the officer, he would not have known what to think. Now to what degree he dismissed the word of Blacks, who were in the neighborhood, I don’t know. To what degree he gave extra credence to the word of store owners, I don’t know.
Archibald: “And that that’s the way it always happened.”
Solomon: (14:16) “Yeah, history continues to repeat itself to some degree even today. If we were in a time now that was without cell phone videos, some number of more recent events would be in question or maybe not in question, they would say, ‘the authority said this.’ That’s how it is, because, well, they’re the authority.”
Archibald: I’m John Archibald.
Roy S. Johnson: And I’m Roy S. Johnson. This is “Unjustifiable,” the story of young Bonita Carter, and how her death and the outrage that followed changed a city, and perhaps gives us a roadmap to a better future.
Johnson: It was the third day of Summer in 1979, already hot in Birmingham on that Saturday morning when Crenshaw arrived at Jerry’s. The temperature would roll into the 90s, but it was hot in a lot of ways.
Crenshaw was just a college student, a rising senior at Birmingham-Southern College, a small liberal arts school across town from where he stood on that hot morning. He was a young Black man, a native of the city, the son of a well-known preacher. He had just begun his internship at the afternoon daily that had not always been — shall we say — progressive on issues of race. He had been interviewing a pediatric dentist for another story and came into the office to check on photos he had assigned. By chance he ran into an editor, Garland Reeves, who was looking for a body. Or maybe it wasn’t by chance. Maybe Crenshaw was exactly where he was supposed to be on that hot Saturday morning in Birmingham. Hot in so many ways.
Crenshaw: “I came out here and was frankly amazed by what I had seen… I get here and you’ve got what is easily described as a riot.”
Johnson: What struck Crenshaw, as he returned again and again to the neighborhood white people feared, was the growing crowd, the escalating anger. It was different from other protests he’d seen. Very different.
Crenshaw: “This was largely anger. Perhaps an overused term, but very eloquent here: The last straw. This was clearly the last straw because Bonita Carter was not the first, and unfortunately would not be the last person of color to be killed by a white police officer. But this was a circumstance where people simply said enough.”
Archibald: Enough. Unrest that began the night of the shooting swelled through that day and that early summer, growing larger as the weeks passed, as the community demanded the firing of George Sands, an officer who had racked up 14 citizen complaints between 1973 and 1979, including four from Black men who said they were beaten during arrests.
Johnson: The protests drew throngs from inside and outside the city. Joseph Lowery, national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, marched alongside the local chapter president, Rev. Abraham Woods. The Ku Klux Klan waged counter protests. Grand Dragon Don Black was in Birmingham — he would run for mayor that year — and the Revolutionary Communist Party USA passed out leaflets urging Black people to “tear the blood-soaked capitalist system down” and “burn its remains with the inferno of people’s rage.”
Johnson: TK Thorne, now an author and retired police captain, was a rookie cop when Bonita Carter was killed. After the shooting, she was called in to stand guard in front of Jerry’s, called in again to go undercover and investigate reports of white people being assaulted, and violent KKK insurgency in the area.
Archibald: Thorne was just 22 years old, all of five-foot-three and 120 pounds, at the most. She found herself, wide-eyed, in a line of officers trying to hold back an angry crowd.
TK Thorne: “And I had a riot helmet on, which pretty much fell over my eyes, and I was carrying a shotgun that was at least half the size that I was, if not more. And uh, I’m, I’m joking cause I felt, I felt kind of out of place, but the tension is hard to describe what was going, going on right across the street from us. There was a very angry mob of people.”
Johnson: Rocks were thrown. It was scary. Even for a young cop.
Thorne: I do remember standing with that shotgun and thinking that was all I had and what am I going to do if that crowd starts surging across the street? They weren’t that far away from us. And it was running through my mind that I had a choice. Either I shoot or I don’t shoot. If I don’t shoot and the crowd surges on top of us, somebody’s gonna get this shotgun and I don’t know what they’re going to do with it. It was, uh, I felt very vulnerable at that moment and having to make a decision. Fortunately I didn’t have to make it. I’m very thankful I did not have to make a decision.”
Archibald: Birmingham, Alabama, is proud of its heritage. It is proud, its residents will tell you, of how far it has come on issues of race; of what it has become today.
Johnson: Stuck on the southwest tail of the Appalachian Mountains, it is a city born of industry and labor. It grew from nothing after the Civil War, a Magic City, they called it, the only place in the world where all the ingredients to make steel – coal, limestone, iron ore – were readily accessible.
Archibald: Poor white laborers flocked to Birmingham, along with freed Black slaves, and the coal and steel barons who put them to work in foundries and mills and furnaces. By 1950 Birmingham was just about the same size as Atlanta, the Queen of the South. It was poised to take an important place in history.
Johnson: Instead, it became known as the hotbed for the Klan. It became known for bombings aimed at Black leaders and citizens. It became especially known for its villainous police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, who pandered to segregationists with his armored tank, his segregated police department and his divisive words.
Bull Connor (archival recording): “You can never whip these birds if you don’t keep you and them separate. I found that out in Birmingham. You’ve got to keep the white and the Black separate.”
Archibald: Birmingham is proud of its civil rights heritage, now. It calls itself the cradle of the Movement, a place of revolution and reconciliation. But when Birmingham talks of that Movement it is most often the one recorded in black and white, in newsreels and newspaper images of the 1960s, but not so much about what happened on that summer evening in 1979. Not so much about what happened in the sweltering days after police officer George Sands approached the car Bonita Carter was in, saw a movement, and without ever really seeing her, fired three bullets into her back.
Johnson: As young Black women screamed she was not the man he thought she was.
Archibald: As a white man screamed that she was.
Archibald: Nathanial Bagley was Bonita Carter’s friend. He walked to Hayes High School with her, sang with her in the church choir. He appreciated her enthusiastic alto voice — to a point — and enjoyed her company.
Nathaniel Bagley: “I’d been knowing her, you know, for years. ‘Cause we attended the same church, but also knew her in the neighborhood too. So just from my personal perspective, you know, she was mild mannered. She was a very friendly person, you know, got along with everybody. Wasn’t radical. Wasn’t a crazy type or none of that kind of stuff, but she was, she was cool.”
Archibald: He remembers learning of her death, it was emotional at the time.
Bagley: “It was afternoon and we got word that Bonita had been shot at Jerry’s convenience store. No one could believe that. So everybody wanted to run up there and see what was going on, trying to find out what had happened. And by this time a crowd had started building and, you know, police was on the scene.”
Johnson: A scene that would be in chaos for days, for weeks. There was so much anger, so much outrage, and that triggered even more outrage.
Bagleyl: “I remember there were cars with white men driving through the neighborhood, shooting the neighborhood. Now, I can’t say they were Klan, but my guess is, you know, they were. They didn’t look like me. They didn’t look like us.”
Archibald: Just talking about it takes its toll, .
Bagley: “Because of the shooting that occurred at Jerry’s store. I witnessed cars driving down the street and people shooting… It created havoc for the entire neighborhood and that lasted for, you know, a week or two, it was just crazy because everybody was all up in arms because of the death of Bonita, because she was somebody who we knew, who was one of us, excuse me. (wiping tears) But, uh, it was a unfortunate incident.”
Archibald: It’s still emotional for you. Nathaniel
Bagley: It is.
Johnson: There’s more after the break.
Johnson: The emotion, the anger, was not just limited to the east side neighborhoods surrounding Jerry’s convenience store, where Bonita Carter was killed. It spread across the city because Black people throughout Birmingham knew police oppression. Some intimately. Some frighteningly.
Archibald: It spilled into the streets and filled them up. Crenshaw remembers it. There was historical anger, cultivated over generations, but in that moment, Bonita Carter was the lens that focused all that outrage. Just a young lady. With a 10-speed, and a hat with zippers on the sides, and three bullet holes in the back.
Crenshaw: “I think part of it was, she was an innocent. You have a 20 year old woman, girl, frankly, by legal definitions, who had ridden here on her bicycle. She was not armed. She really should not have been involved.”
Archibald: But as Crenshaw said earlier, it was bigger than that. Bonita Carter would be the last straw.
Johnson: Birmingham City Councilman Richard Arrington, a Black man, was a mild-mannered biologist and college professor. When Bonita Carter was killed, he had spent eight years on the council speaking out against police brutality. Speaking out publicly.
Richard Arrington: “ I was probably the first real voice in city hall, about police, behavior—misbehavior—in the Black community. It was very rampant. It always had been. I grew up in Birmingham, we feared the police department. When I say ‘we’ I’m talking about the Black community. There were a lot of complaints about the police department. The police were given the tough job of enforcing all the segregation laws and keeping people in their places. And they were not especially well trained. And so the Black community always had a difficult relationship with the police department and there were some police officers—or just a handful of them maybe—that were very brutal. And so we had very few good experiences with the police department.”
Archibald: Arrington had taken to calling cops out from council meetings, talking about the complaints against them and demanding punishment, though it rarely came. He had managed to push through what was perceived by some as a dramatic city council policy that finally required the police to take injured people to the emergency room before they were taken to jail.
Richard Arrington: “I became the darling of the Black community because everybody in the Black community knew about the problem that we had with police.”
Johnson: So, the night of the shooting, the mayor and police chief asked Arrington to go to Kingston to help quiet the crowd. It was that night that Arrington found out the name of the officer who shot Bonita. He was already familiar with George Sands.
Arrington: There were certain officers that would arrest people and handcuff them and on the way to jail stop somewhere and beat them crazy and then take them on to jail. And we had to get rid of that kind of behavior. Then I realized that officers didn’t like seeing their names in the paper about negative things so I kept putting pressure on a lot of these guys until we got about 12 or so officers who were always being charged with misbehavior.”
Archibald: “Do you remember any of those names?”
Arrington: “Yeah, I remember some of them, but Sands was one of them.”
Johnson: The mayor of Birmingham in 1979 was a white man, David Vann, who was long seen as a friend of Black people, a progressive voice. He helped outsmart Bull Connor and his segregationist faction in the 1960s, pushing a new form of government – amayor and council format that stripped Connor of his power. Vann, a lawyer, made great strides in establishing voter rights in the Jim Crow South.
Archibald: Vann was clever and strategic — brilliant, some said — and decent. He was a man of great thoughts, and great appetites. Meet Richard Mauk, Vann’s campaign manager as his boss sought re-election in 1979.
Archibald: “Would you describe for people just David? His look, his attitude?”
Richard Mauk: “David Vann. Well, you know, the mayor loved to eat. And the mayor was quite large. Um, when I worked for him, I would, I would keep four or five shirts in the car for him and four or five ties. Because when he ate, he dived into his food. And if you weren’t careful, he would dive into your food.”
Archibald: Vann in many ways owed his position to that bookish college professor, Dick Arrington.
Arrington: “David had played an important role when the Young Men’s Business Club tried to change the form of government in order to get Connor and his kind out of office. David led that effort and, uh, he put together the whole plan for that and worked for it. So he was considered, I mean, he really was, he was considered moderate. Certainly, most blacks thought he was moderate. Whites thought he was liberal, too liberal. You know, they oftentimes criticized David and said he can’t be elected dog catcher in Birmingham. And he ends up being elected mayor. But I mean, that was what they said.”
Johnson: But the shooting of Bonita Carter drove a wedge in the friendship and in the trust the Black community had in Vann. Months before it happened, Arrington went to Vann, imploring him to do something about Sands. Vann said he would. But…well here’s Arrington:
Arrington: “ I mean the Sands thing is because David didn’t do what he promised me. He promised me he was going to move Sands before this came up. Sands already had a dozen or so complaints against him. He was working out of the North precinct. That’s a Black area. It’s 90 plus percent Black. And I would say to David, when we got an officer who works in an area like that and uses undue force and things of that sort. Let’s move him, just move him over, put him on the Southside. Put him out East, those were predominantly white areas then.”
Archibald: It was after he left Kingston with Police Chief Bill Myers, after returning to City Hall that he realized Sands was the man who shot Bonita Carter.
Arrington: “And he had told me about four or six months earlier that he was going to move Sands, but he never did. And it caught up with him the night Bonita Carter was killed. I was home and Bill Myers called me at home and said, I have a problem out at Kingston and wanted to know if I would go out there with him. So I drove back to city hall, got in the car with chief and went out to Kingston where there was rioting going on and all of that. And so we’d go out there and try to quiet the rioting down. We got us a SWAT team all out there and trying to keep the rioters away from across the street. It was a whole mess. And we go back to city hall and sit and talk with Vann. Bill Myers and I are talking with Vann about the situation. And so I just said, you know, ‘incidentally, who was the officer did the shooting?’ And Myers said, ‘George Sands.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, this was a guy that Vann was supposed to move and he didn’t move him.’ And now it’s caught up with him. That’s a sad story, but that’s exactly what happened.”
Johnson: Here’s Richard Mauk, again:
Mauk: “David was, you know, went to DC as a law clerk of Hugo Black. I mean, he was just brilliant. And he came back home and was hired by Bradley Arrant. And David was of the opinion that, Black people were people, they weren’t second class citizens. They deserved, uh, to be protected under the constitution. They had the right to earn a job. They had the right to live in decent housing. And David was of the ilk, you know, we need to, this needs to change. And more and more things were changing, and it was a national wave. And, of course, we in the South are very resistant to change of any kind—unless it’s our kind of change.”
Johnson: But what happened on that Friday night in Kingston made Vann’s allies doubt him and forget the things he did in the past. There was fury over Vann’s failure to act. It seemed like just another whitewash. A betrayal. He hemmed and he hawed. People questioned him, and their faith in him.
Archibald: It was clear that Vann felt the heat that summer, from all sides. Black people, led by the SCLC’s Rev. Woods, called for Sands’ dismissal. The Fraternal Order of Police, a powerful force in local government, insisted Sands had followed policy, and was just doing his job. Vann was conflicted, for he believed Sands acted in the way he was trained, even if he had been badly trained. That the officer truly thought the man who had been in a firefight at a convenience store was in the car and made a sudden movement that prompted him to shoot.
Vann was in the midst of chaos, in the midst of a re-election campaign. When SCLC national President Lowery led a march to City Hall, Vann was determined to march with him to show his support, to show who he was, even if it was just incredibly awkward. Mauk, his campaign manager, had no idea what to expect.
Mauk: “I was so scared. Oh my God I was very scared.
“I was at the Third Avenue office and he called me and said, ‘I need you to come down here. And it’s like, yes, sir. Uh, I want you to bring as many brochures as you can. And I had a big old box of ‘em and uh, there’s going to be a march and I’m going to meet them and walk with them holding hands. And singing. And I said, are you sure this is going to play well in Crestwood?
And he says, I don’t care. I’m going to show them that I’m still their friend. And he did. He went down, he walked down there and oh my God, I was so scared. Uh, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought maybe we might get hit, shot, kicked. Um, but I went with him and watched him do it. I didn’t join in. I was on the sidelines handing out brochures.”
Archibald: “And how, how were both of you received?”
Mauk: “Fine. We knew, we knew everybody. We knew everybody. And, and I think that they were pleased that we did it.”
Archibald: Vann marched the final stretch, actually singing along to “We shall overcome…”
Johnson: Black people wanted Sands fired. At least most did. They didn’t push for him to be prosecuted, simply fired. White people, many of them, did not want him punished at all. Vann satisfied nobody. What he did was seen as dithering. He asked for an internal investigation from the police firearms discharge review committee, but he also called for an ad hoc committee, a diverse committee of community leaders and clergy, to hold hearings about the shooting. That committee is the one that took all the testimony from witnesses, that allows us to re-enact the crime today.
Vann’s appointment of that eight-member committee — four blacks, four whites — was sort of remarkable in Birmingham. Almost radical. It was created, even if it would later seem ironic, as a way to reform the police department. Here’s Arrington again.
Arrington: “You have to remember before the Bonita Carter thing. We had a case where, uh, um, a young black fella named Buggs Chambers, Willie Buggs Chambers. He was really an informer for the police, but he was one of these guys who stayed in trouble all the time. But he also was killed, an officer shot him. Went to his home and got him one night and took him out. And then they shot him out there. David set up a hearing, he went on to say, well, under the mayor council act, you got subpoena power. So he set up a committee, used the mayor’s subpoena powers and created an eight member committee. We had a public hearing. You know, folks didn’t believe that could ever happen in Birmingham, Alabama. And he did that. And of course, that became a part of his political undoing because that committee that he appointed, would later on when the Bonita Carter case come up, you know, voted against the action that he didn’t take. But that’s another story”
Archibald: That eight-member committee was remarkable, really. The group of civilian men and women, four white and four black, included neighborhood presidents and the school superintendent, the Rev. Ed Gardner, a prominent civil rights figure, and Rabbi Milton Grafman, himself a progressive, but one of those clergymen Dr. King addressed and admonished in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in ‘63. The group took sworn testimony from subpoenaed witnesses and used it to recommend the officer’s fate.
Johnson: For days the committee heard from people like Tangie Rutledge, Chesley Jackson, Ray Jenkins, Tina Daniels and Wayne Crusoe. It even questioned young Milton Hubbard; he was only seven.
Unnamed Interviewer: While you were down at the store did something happen?
Milton Hubbard: “Yes.”
Interviewer: “Can you tell me what happened?”
Hubbard: “A shooting started.”
Interviewer: Were you in the store with your daddy?
Interviewer: “And what did you and your daddy do? Did you hide?”
Hubbard: “Yes, I hid in back of some potato chips and daddy went in the back room.”
Archibald: Dr. James Montgomery, a physician and member of the ad hoc was the first Black faculty member at UAB. He questioned the county medical examiner, Ronald Rivers, under oath, a powerful line of questions that prompted Rivers to finally acknowledge the three shots that killed Bonita Carter could not have come through the back window of the Buick, as had been described by police.
Dr. Montgomery hammered it home, raising questions that stayed with that committee, and the community.
Dr. James Montgomery: “She was in the front seat of the car. So the two things have to be put together, where the assailant was and where the victim was. Where could she have been really and got shot in all these three positions without any bullets going through the seat other than the fact that she was getting up with her back toward the right window and the shots coming from the right window? Where else could she have been?”
Archibald: If she was shot in the back, through the front window, how could she have been seen as a threat?
Johnson: The committee, seemingly designed to solve Vann’s problems, to help make Birmingham a less racially divisive city, in essence did the opposite. As the testimonies emerged, as stories from eyewitnesses were told, Vann’s inaction became his defining action. Through it all Sands remained on the force. Here is Crenshaw again, talking to Archibald.
Crenshaw: “Like you, I can’t get into David Vann’s head. I don’t know. But it certainly looks after 40 years that he made a judgment of, well, two things. He may have honestly felt that the officer needs to be given the benefit of the doubt, because that was just the way things were. And he didn’t want to make him the example of all time. But at the same time, one cannot deny that politically it certainly looked to be, as you put it the safer move for him to back Sands and not go after him.”
Archibald: Which I’m sure only fed into the, to the anger and the belief that this was still Bull Connor’s police department.
Solomon: “Essentially. Yeah. People believed and I’ve heard some say even recently that they believed that Vann was going to make it right. That Vann was frankly a white politician who they could trust. That they had backed him. They helped get him elected. He was friends with their council member, Richard Arrington. So they felt comfortable that he would do the right thing.”
Johnson: The city waited days for testimony to conclude, for the committee to issue an opinion, or a verdict, or a suggestion. Anything that would get Vann off his seemingly immovable perch.
Committee Member: Good afternoon. It is my responsibility to share with you the findings of our report.
Johnson: After more than a week the committee issued a summary of findings with the caveat that the committee had heard no testimony from Sands.
Archibald: It summarized its conclusions in a clear, succinct and emphatic statement.
Committee member: The car was stopped. The driver was not in sight, then came up off the seat with the back toward Officer Sands. We can find no evidence that any threatening actions occurred from the car other than a person moving. Officer Sands shot Ms. Bonita Carter.
Johnson: It was a brief and powerful summation. But what was the verdict, the conclusion? And what would Vann do with it? That last question still lingers with people like Crenshaw.
Crenshaw: “Well as a preacher’s kid like myself, you’re familiar with the spirituality. What profit is a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul? Did David Vann effectively politically lose his soul as a result of, of this?
Johnson: For the committee’s verdict, stay tuned to Unjustifiable, the story of Bonita Carter. Next time, generations of police killings that led to Nita’s death and to Black Lives Matter.