Civil Rights Trials as Transitional Justice
posted by Brannon Denning
Yesterday’s conviction of a former Klan member in the previously unsolved killings of two teens in the 1960s is the latest in what seems to be a series of attempts to crack cold cases from the civil rights era before even more witnesses and suspects die off. My colleague at Cumberland, Don Cochran, was part of the prosecution team that secured the conviction of Bobby Frank Cherry, who was involved in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church here in Birmingham.
Don has written a wonderful essay about the trial, and his role in it, entitled Ghosts of Alabama: The Prosecution of Bobby Frank Cherry for the Bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, 12 Mich. J. Race & L. 1 (2006) (I can’t find a copy online). In the conclusion, Don posits that the Cherry trial, and civil rights trials in general can be understood as a form of “transitional justice,” a term taken from international law describing the processes (trials, lustration, truth commisssions, etc.) by which regimes transitioning from authoritarian to democratic governments attempt to expose, and come to terms with, the past. I think that the concept of transitional justice is a fascinating lens through which to view these trials, and I think it can help furnish an answer to the question Don says he frequently gets: “What is the use of trying and convicting these old men decades after these crimes have been committed?”