Civil Rights and Law Enforcement
Director Speaks at Birmingham Conference
It was September 15, 1963 when a bomb exploded inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and injuring countless others before Sunday worship.
The racially charged attack at the African-American church drew national attention and marked a major turning point in the civil rights movement. It was this act of violence and numerous other atrocities that ultimately led to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provided the FBI with new federal laws to investigate civil rights violations.
Decades later, on the hallowed ground of the historic church, FBI Director James B. Comey recalled the discrimination African-Americans in Birmingham have faced during a speech today at the annual FBI and Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) conference on law enforcement and civil rights.
“Too many have forgotten what it was like for men and women of color—for black people—in this city 50 years ago. But many of you here today remember, because many of you and your relatives lived it. Separate schools. Separate neighborhoods. Separate lives,” said Comey. “You fought against racism and inequality and the tremendous inertia of the status quo.”
Comey’s speech ended the two-day conference, which focused on the need to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community, particularly in communities of color. As violent crimes increase in many parts of the country—including Birmingham, where 2015 brought on 88 homicides—Comey discussed how the lines between citizens and police are moving further apart. To change this trend, the FBI Director stressed the importance of developing a deeper understanding and a stronger connection.
“It is hard to hate up close,” Comey said. “It is hard to hate someone you know, someone whose life you have come to understand. And only by getting close to each other can we begin to arc those lines back together.”
Comey outlined several strategies to improve communication between the community and law enforcement, calling for better transparency, accountability, and partnerships. Birmingham, he said, is a good example of how the FBI works side-by-side with municipal organizations to stem violent crime.
For decades, the FBI’s Birmingham Field Office has worked closely with partner agencies on task forces to investigate cases, protect citizens, and train fellow law enforcement officials.
“The FBI has been a vital partner here in Birmingham,” said Don Lupo, director of citizen assistance for the Birmingham mayor’s office. “The local field office has been completely supportive of everything that we have attempted to do in the city. The strong working relationship between our police and sheriff’s department has been vital to the protection of our citizens.”
Along with its enterprise with the city police, the FBI has partnered since 2006 with BCRI to educate law enforcement officials and the community on the history of the civil rights movement as well as current issues impacting neighborhoods across the country. Through the FBI and BCRI’s annual conferences, the two agencies have built upon previous years’ discussions to maintain an open dialogue between law enforcement agencies, their personnel, and the communities they serve.
“We believe that these conferences build ongoing and lasting relationships,” said Priscilla Hancock Cooper, BCRI’s vice president of institutional programs. “Not only do we want to continue to engage law enforcement and community members in Birmingham, but I think we have something to offer to the rest of the country. Through our relationship with the FBI, we’ll look for ways to spread this effective law enforcement partnership with other cities.”
As Comey concluded his speech in front of a packed crowd at the historic Baptist church, he recalled the stories of every day people living in Birmingham during the civil rights movement who risked their lives to take a stand for racial equality—people like Bishop Calvin Woods, sitting in the audience today, who was determined to speak out against segregation despite being sentenced to hard labor.
“He said he kept marching, kept peacefully protesting because of his fellow citizens,” Comey said. “Because despite the beatings, the jailings, and the bombings, the spirit and determination of the black people of Birmingham could not be destroyed.”
As the FBI continues to root out hate crimes and color of law violations and protect civil rights, Comey stressed the importance of citizens and law enforcement working together.
“It will take all of us—every single member of every community—to fight for and deliver change. To fight for equality and fairness. To stop driving around the problem. To be agitators and insiders, in the best way—in the way Dr. King taught us,” said Comey.