Our understanding of the “good” has expanded beyond the lone-dreamer theory to embrace other activists, like King’s partner in Birmingham, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Yet the evil segregationist archetype is fixed in the popular mind as the villainous housewife of “The Help” or the cretinous mob of “Django Unchained” — nobody we’d ever know, or certainly ever be.
But the disquieting reality is that the conflict was between not good and evil, but good and normal. The brute racism that today seems like mass social insanity was a “way of life” practiced by ordinary “good” people.
According to the Southern community’s consensus of “normal,” those fighting for rights now considered mainstream were “extremists,” and public servants could rationalize plans to murder men like Shuttlesworth, confident that they were on the right side of history.
Consider new evidence about a plan by Connor to have Shuttlesworth assassinated. Under Connor’s orders, Detective Tom Cook found a black man vulnerable to the law, supplied him with a gun and planted him by the steps of a church where Shuttlesworth was speaking one night. The plot was foiled when a passing police car frightened the hit man away.
What distinguishes this from other officially sanctioned schemes to kill Shuttlesworth is proof that it was known by the state’s largest news organization, The Birmingham News, owned by the Newhouse family, which also sponsored extensive surveillance of local citizens.
Cook described the attempt to a young reporter at The News, Tom Lankford, who was considered “Bull’s boy” by the police he covered. He was also the protégé of the paper’s chief executive, Vincent Townsend, who had given him a sizable budget for surveillance equipment to fulfill his own desire, as the city’s power broker, “to know every word they’re saying,” according to Mr. Lankford, “10 minutes after they’ve said it.”
Logically, then, Townsend was also aware that the city commissioner he had supported...
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