Civil rights leaders reflect on death of segregationist Stoner

Associated Press/April 28, 2005

Segregationist J.B. Stoner died without apologizing for bombing a black church and for promoting bigotry throughout his life.

The anti-Semite and white supremacist convicted in 1980 of the Bethel Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., died Saturday of complications from pneumonia in a Walker County nursing home, in northwest Georgia. He was 81.

For decades, he was suspected of the 1958 bombing, but he wasn't indicted until 1977. The church was empty at the time of the early-morning bombing.

A Georgia native, Stoner was one of the angriest voices in opposition to the civil rights movement. An attorney, he long fought to overturn the conviction of the Rev. Martin Luther King's assassin, James Earl Ray.

When interviewed last year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Stoner _ bedridden and partially paralyzed in a nursing home _ remained unapologetic and predicted God would bless him for his bigotry, saying, "a person isn't supposed to apologize for being right."

"He's one of the last unrepentant Southern racists to die," said Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups. "He was a spirited speaker, a good arguer and he believed what he said to the end."

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth said he was sleeping at his home across the street from the Birmingham church when Stoner's bomb went off 47 years ago. The blast shattered the church's windows but left intact the pulpit from where Shuttlesworth regularly empowered his black congregations.

He quickly contacted building inspectors and had them sign off that the building was still safe to hold church that Sunday.

"I was determined we would have church that day," the 83-year-old Shuttlesworth recalled.

Stoner and his ilk had hoped violence would snuff out the black man's will to be equal, but the 1958 bombing had an opposite effect because it was directed at a man who King called "the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South."

In 1956, Shuttlesworth survived a bombing that destroyed his home, and in 1957, the reverend was beaten by a whip-wielding white mob during his attempt to integrate a public school.

Stoner's bomb did not deter Shuttlesworth. Rather, it encouraged him to deliver his sermon even louder so his words could be heard through the holes that once were church windows.

"I preached to two crowds that morning _ one inside, one outside," he said. "I'm like little David. I ran forward to meet the giant. I had an insatiable thirst for action. They called me a fool, but I was a fool for Christ."

Stoner was not without his faithful. At age 18, he revived a dormant chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Chattanooga, Tenn. A few years later he headed the Stoner Christian Anti-Jewish Party.

In 1970, Stoner ran unsuccessfully for Georgia governor in a race Jimmy Carter eventually won. In 1972, he ran for the U.S. Senate. In 1974, he drew 73,000 votes, almost 10 percent, in a race for lieutenant governor.

In 1990, four years after he was paroled from an Alabama prison where he was held for the church bombing, Stoner again ran for lieutenant governor and received 31,000 votes.

Despite his supporters, state Sen. George Hooks said he doesn't think Georgia ever took Stoner seriously.

"He gave voice to a certain, very radical element _ he espoused a lot of the dark side," Hooks said. "I don't think any state, even in the '50s and '60s when segregation was such an issue, would have taken him seriously as a candidate."

Stoner never married, once telling an interviewer any woman "would be too dumb" for him.

Dees said he has seen Stoner speak live and on videotape several times, and the segregationist was a persuasive speaker in his day. Dees feels his charisma convinced many whites they had a duty to defend the white race.

"He probably conspired with or inspired Klansmen to kill a lot of people," Dees said. "Had he told everything he knew, I think you'd be surprised."

Shuttlesworth and state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a longtime civil rights leader, both said they forgive Stoner for his incendiary rhetoric, but they wish he would've atoned for his actions.

"It makes me sad because even George Wallace apologized for his racist acts before he died," said Brooks, referring to the former Alabama governor who attempted to fight integration with his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door. "It's sad that a man could live to be 81 years old and not realize racism is wrong, racism is a sin."

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