Director Wray Speaks on Civil Rights at 16th Street Baptist Church

FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke at the historic church about the FBI's role and history investigating hate crimes on April 15, 2024, the first day of the Birmingham Civil Rights Conference in Alabama.

Video Transcript

I appreciate the opportunity to be here with all of you this morning and the significance of what this conference represents. And that’s not just all of the effort that went over the last couple months into making today possible but, more importantly—more importantly—the decades of work done here in Birmingham and throughout Alabama to advance the cause of civil rights.

As I stand here this morning, I’m reminded of how, on March 25, 1965, here in Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King offered words of hope to a weary audience. In answering his rhetorical question about how long it would take until the Civil Rights Movement would find justice, he said, "not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

Now, all of us are familiar with those words, and a lot of people have used that quote to talk about how civil rights causes have slowly improved, but the context of who Dr. King was talking to is often forgotten. He made that speech on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery at the end of the 54-mile march from Selma, 18 days after Bloody Sunday, March 7. 

Now, he was not saying justice is inevitable. He was saying the long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. And it does so because people—like those on that march, and those here today—act to bend it that way. 

And this morning, I can see both how far we’ve come and the reason that arc will continue to bend, because, in these church pews, we've got law enforcement agents and officers sitting together with civil rights activists and leaders—and not just sitting together, but working together, with a common purpose and a common vision of justice.

So, I’m grateful to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and to our FBI Birmingham Division for bringing us all together on this hallowed ground. And today, I want to follow the conference theme, looking at our past and present experiences together and looking into our shared future at how those who came before us bent the universe towards justice—where it’s pointed now—and how learning from our past can help us confront today’s challenges so we can continue to bend that arc of history towards a more just and hopeful future.

Past: History of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing Case

And there's nowhere better to start that discussion than the place we are now. Everyone here today is aware that this church—a place dedicated to faith and love—was the site of one of the most despicable acts of hate in our nation’s history.

On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, as church was about to start and the pews that you’re sitting in were crowded, 19 sticks of dynamite exploded, shaking the foundation of this sanctuary, sending glass and concrete flying, knocking most of the congregation to the ground, and killing—killing—those closest to the explosion.

Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley—all age 14—and Denise McNair, age 11, were in the basement by the wall where the bomb detonated. All four died horribly. At least 16 others were injured, including Addie Mae’s younger sister, Sarah, who lost an eye.

The FBI’s Birmingham office started its investigation immediately, and our bomb experts flew in—on military jets—within hours. As the horror of what happened here shook this community and our nation, it changed the Bureau, too. 

It took us five days to determine the bomb had been planted under the east steps of the church and was triggered with a timer device. And it took us 39 years to secure convictions for the last of the co-conspirators.

But let me take us back, for a moment, to 1963. We devoted dozens of agents to this case. We knew the Ku Klux Klan was behind the bombing and we had four serious suspects, but we were hampered by weak federal laws, by a lack of cooperation from those with information, by obstacles put in place by local authorities, and—to be frank—by FBI leadership at the time’s competing focus on investigating perceived Communist subversion, which, as many of you know, also led to the shameful wiretapping and harassment of Dr. King.

But, for our agents on the ground here in Birmingham, the case was personal. One memo from the initial investigation reads: “We've practically torn Birmingham apart and have interviewed thousands of persons. We have seriously disrupted Klan activities by our pressure and interviews so that these organizations have lost members and support. We have made extensive use of the polygraph, surveillances, microphone surveillances, and technical surveillances."

But, even with all that, witnesses weren’t forthcoming. Physical evidence was inconclusive, and—under federal laws at the time—our surveillance recordings were not allowed in court, so we closed the case in 1968, and the Department of Justice was unable to mount a prosecution.

For civil rights activists and African American communities here and across the nation, our closing of that case was tragic and unjust. And, for the FBI agents who’d been involved, it was crushing. They wanted justice for those little girls.

Three years later, in 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley started a push to prosecute Robert Chambliss for his role in the bombing, and the Bureau wanted to help. Baxley was able to convince witnesses to come forward, who testified that they saw Chambliss purchase the dynamite and plant the bomb. And, in 1977, the State of Alabama convicted the man who’d taken the most overt actions to attack this church and its congregation, and Chambliss spent the rest of his life in prison.

For most, that seemed like that would be the end of it. But the Bureau did not forget what happened here. Our initial investigation, if you remember, had identified four suspects. And more than 30 years later, only one of them had been prosecuted. One other was dead, but two were still free.

So, in 1995—even though more than 100 potential witnesses had died—our Birmingham office reopened the case, working with the Birmingham Police Department. For the first 15 months, FBI Special Agent Bill Fleming and Birmingham Police Sgt. Ben Herring scoured the old files for new leads. And in the course of their work, they found evidence to place one of the two remaining suspects, Bobby Cherry, at the store where Chambliss had bought the dynamite.

So, they interviewed Cherry for four hours. Afterwards, Cherry called a press conference to complain about what he called FBI harassment. Special Agent Fleming said that Cherry’s press conference was, and I quote, “the best thing to happen to our investigation.” Alabama, and our nation as a whole, was a whole lot different in the ’90s than it was in the ’60s. And, right after that press conference, our phones started ringing off the hook with tips from witnesses implicating Cherry.

At the same time, we were able to uncover audio recordings of our fourth suspect, Tommy Blanton, discussing details of the bomb plot. Now, you may remember I mentioned a few minutes ago that we were not allowed to use those recordings in court in the 1960s. But in the late ‘90s, we were able to argue that the recordings we’d made—enabled by renting the apartment next to his in the ‘60s—were legal and admissible. 

So, we used the old recordings and new evidence to build our cases, leading to convictions for the final two conspirators in 2001 and 2002. And, in the case of Tommy Blanton, the jurors spoke publicly afterward, saying that our recordings had convinced them of his guilt. 

And in 2002—39 years after the bombing—it was Birmingham Police Sgt. Ben Herring who said what everyone in the Bureau was thinking—and, I quote: “We finally got justice for the little girls.”

Present: Hate Crimes and Tops Supermarket

Across four decades, FBI special agents and law enforcement officers here in Birmingham took this case personally and saw it through to completion. Their dedicated work—and the dedicated work of hundreds of other agents on countless other cases—is part of the Bureau’s DNA.

Today, the FBI is the only federal agency charged with investigating civil rights violations, which include hate crimes and color-of-law violations. 

Civil rights violations have been increasing for some time, which is why, in 2021, the FBI elevated civil rights to a national threat priority. In plain English, that means the program receives more resources and that civil rights violations jump a lot of other investigations in priority at every field office. And, this year, we increased the number of people specifically committed to investigating civil rights crimes to 176 special agents, plus 57 analysts.

Nationally, we’ve seen a steady rise in the volume of hate crimes. In 2022, across all levels of law enforcement in the United States, more than 13,000 hate crime incidents were reported. About half of those were crimes motivated solely by race, ethnicity, or ancestry biases. We’re still collecting nationwide data for 2023, but just looking at our work at the FBI, our investigations led to more hate crimes charges last year than any year since the turn of the century.

Almost certainly, the most high-visibility ongoing case is the mass-casualty shooting at the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in May of 2022. The shooter posted online about his fears of what he called “white genocide.” He targeted a nearby community with the highest percentage of Black residents and then meticulously plotted, scouted, and prepared for a series of shootings.

He was ahead of his planned schedule when he stepped out of his car wearing body armor and livestreaming from a helmet cam. Yelling racial slurs, he shot four people in the parking lot before he entered the store and began targeting anyone who was Black. 

In just a couple minutes, he’d shot 13 people, and the 10 he killed were all Black.

As horrific as that was, it could've been far worse if Buffalo Police Department officers had not arrived within two minutes of the start of the shooting. They stopped him from reaching his car—where he had more weapons and ammunition—and from moving to a second location.

Now, I can’t talk much about the ongoing federal case, but those are all details from the shooter’s guilty plea to state charges of murder, terrorism, and hate crimes. In February, a New York court sentenced him to 10 consecutive life sentences, plus 75 years, without the possibility of parole. 

And our case has also led to 27 federal charges: 13 hate crimes charges relating to the people he shot, one more for attempting to kill other African American people nearby, and 13 firearms charges relating to his hate crimes, with that trial scheduled to begin late next year.

I know that case has everyone’s interest across the country, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that something needs to be a capital case—or even to include violence—for the FBI to get involved.

One recent case we investigated was up in Billings, Montana. In November 2020, a man walked into a church, hungry and needing help. The elderly woman working there gave him a gift card and wished him well. He should have just been grateful, but he didn’t like that the woman who helped him was Black. 

So five days later, he called the church and left a voicemail, claiming to be a church donor and saying he would donate a lot more money if the church would just stop employing African Americans—although the term he used was not “African Americans.”

After he made three more calls, the church contacted the local police. A detective spoke to the man, who promised not to call the church again. Three days later, he left another voicemail, apologizing. 

But, it turned out, he wasn’t done. Over the next year and a half—even after leaving the state—he continued calling the church, using racial slurs and making threats, so the FBI got involved and tracked him down. October of 2022, he was indicted on federal charges, arrested in Indiana, and held in federal custody. Last June, he pled guilty to harassment, and, in October, he was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

Now, that case didn't make national headlines, but those threats made a huge impact on that church and led a woman—who’d just tried to help someone—to fear for her safety. And we were not going to rest until she felt safe again.

Present: Color-of-Law Crimes  

Those two examples demonstrate that—six decades after a bomb was planted here at the 16th Street Baptist Church—we still face the threat of people motivated by prejudice and hate turning to violence.

These examples also demonstrate that hate crimes can run the gamut from a single act, carried out on one day, that devastates our entire nation to an agonizing series of harassments that grind down a person or a community over years.

In both examples, the victims turned to law enforcement first. But that’s not always the case, is it? And who do you call when the police are the ones terrorizing you?

Now, let me be clear here: I’ve spent most of my career working proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with law enforcement officers, the overwhelming majority of whom are in the job because they think of others before themselves, no matter the cost. They work long hours, don’t get paid nearly enough, and rarely get the attention or credit they deserve.

It takes something extraordinary for somebody to be willing to put their life on the line for another person—and I’m not talking about a member of their own family. I’m talking about potentially giving their life to protect a total stranger. And to do that day after day, year after year, for an entire career—on the job and off-duty, too? Well, it takes a pretty special person to choose that life, and, fortunately, departments all across the country are staffed full of them—which is why, when officers violate their oath and hurt the ones they’re sworn to serve instead of protecting them, it’s a discredit to those scores and scores of brave men and women who do the job the right way, each and every day. It’s why law enforcement at all levels shares an interest in holding those who stray accountable. And why investigating color-of-law violations is an absolutely essential part of our civil rights program.

Color-of-law crimes occur when an individual acting under the authority of federal, state, or local laws willfully deprives someone of their constitutional rights. That could be excessive force, false arrest, or obstruction of justice, sexual assault, withholding medical care, or the failure to keep an individual from harm. 

An investigation the FBI’s Jackson, Mississippi, Field Office conducted last year represents a particularly heinous example. In January of 2023, without a warrant or any exigent circumstances, six white law enforcement officers kicked-in the door of a home where two Black men were staying and subjected them to an hour and a half of pure hell. 

Despite having no probable cause to believe either had committed a crime, the six officers handcuffed and arrested the men, kicked and beat them, bombarded them with racial slurs, forced them to strip naked, assaulted them with a variety of objects, tased them—not once, not twice, but 17 times—and fired their guns to intimidate them.

But that wasn’t enough. One of the officers had the idea to stage a mock execution. So, he took his weapon and secretly removed a bullet from the chamber. He then put the barrel into one victim’s mouth and pulled the trigger, dry-firing the gun.

Then, he did it again. But, this time, the gun didn’t dry-fire; it discharged—sending a bullet into the victim’s mouth, lacerating his tongue, and breaking his jaw.

Can you imagine the abject terror those two victims must have felt? No human being should ever be subjected to the torture—the trauma—the horrific acts of violence carried out by these individuals.

And, as their gunshot victim lay bleeding on the floor, what do you think these six law enforcement officers—men who had sworn an oath to serve and protect—did next? Well, I can tell you what they didn't do: They did not render aid. Instead, they came up with a cover story and then took steps to corroborate it.

All of that—all of that—came out through the course of the FBI’s color-of-law investigation, worked in collaboration with our federal and state partners. And, as a result, all six pled guilty last August. And just a few weeks ago, they were given sentences ranging from 10 to 40 years—more than 132 years total for the six of them.

Present: Color of Law / Abuse of an Inmate 

Those six officers in Mississippi inflicted their cruelty on two innocent men who had done nothing wrong.

But it’s one of the foundational principles of our nation that criminals have civil rights, too—and color-of-law violations can be committed by anyone acting under their lawful authority, including public officials, prosecutors, and judges, as well as probation and corrections officers—which is why we also investigate color-of-law crimes committed against inmates, including a recent case from the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, just a half an hour west of here.

On February 16, 2022, a correction officer shift commander grabbed a 60-year-old inmate—who he outweighed by more than 100 pounds—out of a food line and sprayed him with a blend of chemicals. When the inmate fell, he yanked him back up, dragged him to the prison gym, and slammed him to the floor.

Security cameras recorded as he got the inmate back to his feet, dragged him to a holding cell, handcuffed him to a bench, and began beating him. He hit, kicked, slapped, and punched this older, much smaller man, who cowered on the ground—all while still restrained.

Between taking pauses to rest, the officer sprayed chemicals into the inmate’s open mouth. And, when the spray ran out, he beat his victim with the empty canister. Over the course of more than five minutes, the officer continued the beatings.

Later, video from the prison infirmary shows that same officer stalking behind prison nurses as they treated the inmate, including when he stepped in to yell at the inmate being treated, pushing him and grabbing his face. 

After the incident, the officer filed a report documenting their movements—but he omitted any use of force from his report. A week later, the inmate was found unconscious in his cell, and a report was filed saying he had fallen that day.

Two days later, the inmate was dead—with the cause of death listed as a head injury from the fall. But, in the week after his beating—before he died—the inmate wrote and mailed a letter detailing the abuse. That letter led to a trail of evidence. And, during our investigation, we found that not only did this officer have a history of abusing inmates, but he admitted to conducting a similar chemical and physical attack against a different inmate less than three months earlier.

We continued our investigation and, in September, he pled guilty to using excessive force and to lying in an official report to cover up his abuse. In December, he was sentenced to more than seven years in federal prison.

So, what do these two recent cases have in common? In both, individuals in positions of authority abused the authority entrusted to them. And when that happens—when law enforcement or corrections officers operate as though they’re above the law—they’re not just depriving victims of their civil rights; they’re degrading the public’s trust in everyone else in law enforcement, and in our criminal justice system as a whole, one violation at a time.

No one is above the law. And the FBI will continue investigating color-of-law abuses as one of our most important responsibilities.

Conclusion: The Future

Looking back across the 61 years since this church—and the ideas and the movement it stood for—were attacked by four men with hate in their hearts, I see progress towards a better present and a more hopeful future. 

I see law enforcement and community leaders, here and across the country, working together with a common vision of justice. 

I see that your work, and the work of many before us, has changed society—has bent the arc—so that when hateful acts occur, rather than obscuring that ugliness and protecting those who inflicted it, people instead shine a light on it, and we can move more swiftly to get justice.

But civil rights crimes are, unfortunately, not likely to go away—not hate crimes and not color-of-law violations. And, as we look to the future to combat threats like these, we've got to remember the lessons of the past and we've got to continue to learn from it if we’re going to continue to bend the world towards justice.

That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to me to have all our new special agents and intelligence personnel visit the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington, D.C., as part of their initial training. The course of study incorporates explicit discussion of [former FBI] Director [J. Edgar] Hoover’s request—and Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s approval—to wiretap Dr. King. 

That wiretap application was just five sentences long. It didn’t present any evidence but simply referred to, and I quote, “the Communist influence in the racial situation.” That is a far cry from the Title III or FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] applications that our agents now prepare for judicial review, which are sometimes hundreds of pages long. And every new agent and analyst today knows why that’s the case. 

Today’s FBI understands how our past led to our present, meaning we take incredible care to earn and to be deserving of the trust invested in us with the authorities we have and we make sure that we've got the capabilities to respond when hate rears its head in the future.

But this important visit for our new employees isn’t the only way we look to the future in protecting civil rights and upholding this part of our mission. We’ve also shifted from being merely reactive in this space to being proactive. We've got a whole host of efforts aimed at stopping or minimizing future civil rights violations.

Our Federal Civil Rights National Training Initiative—which our Birmingham office actively participates in—educates law enforcement officers on hate crimes and color-of-law violations. The training explores everything from defining criminal misconduct and describing the investigative process to discussing an officer’s duty to intervene, the implications of denial of medical care, and data supporting our use-of-force analysis.

Any law enforcement organization can request that training, and we'll come to you. This past year, when the Memphis Police Department requested color-of-law training, agents from FBI Headquarters and our Memphis Division worked together to train the entire PD [police department]—that’s about 1,400 officers, including command staff.

Our civil rights program also works to educate the public on how to recognize and report civil rights crimes, as a victim or as a witness. We make that easy with a phone number and a website linked to a QR code that can be posted anywhere, including on pamphlets and resource guides we've translated into 17 languages. 

We also provide funding so each FBI field office can tailor an outreach campaign to its area of responsibility. I know our Birmingham office runs monthly ads in publications like "The Birmingham Times," "Latino News," and "Southern Jewish Life" to raise awareness on hate crimes reporting.

We also work with Alabama A&M [University], Miles College, and Lawson State Community College, and meet—together with the U.S. attorney—with a committee of representatives from various multicultural groups here in Alabama. And we work with programs the Justice Department sponsors, including the United Against Hate program that Kristen [Clarke] talked about.

And, of course, things like this conference and your work this week are another critical part of bending the world towards justice, because this conference is not just aimed at reaching justice more quickly after tragedy, but at turning hate into respect—and in preventing tragedy from happening at all.

In that effort, I’m reminded of another quote—not by Dr. King, but by Frederick Douglass. He said: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." I think that’s the real goal of our work and the vision of justice we all share—one where our investigations aren't necessary at all. 

In the work you do, you all are continuing the legacy of the giants of the Civil Rights Movement, and I’m grateful for the work you’re doing together to bend the world towards justice, and know that the FBI stands with you in that effort.

Thank you.

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