October 2017

Labeling Terrorism: Public Responses to Racial Violence

Racism and oppression, like domestic terrorism, have deep roots in the United States. As modern Americans confront a seemingly endless barrage of racial violence and terrorism, the language associated with these crimes serves as an important marker of national values and beliefs.

by Adrienne Chudzinski

The practice of terrorism is not new in the United States. For centuries, various groups of Americans have used intimidation and terror as a means of maintaining power and control over subordinate populations. Yet, as recent events in Charlottesville make clear, terrorism is a powerful word in the American lexicon. It is also a label that has been deployed unevenly, especially with cases of racial violence, throughout the national past.

In 1963, two white teens riding on a motorbike in Birmingham, Alabama passed two black adolescents riding a bicycle, shot at the duo for sport, and killed thirteen-year-old Virgil Lamar Ware. Nearly fifty-two years later, in a similarly violent event, twenty-one-year-old Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and opened fire on a Bible study group. After killing nine of the churchgoers, Roof admitted to police that he hoped his rampage might incite a modern race war.[1] In recent months, interactions between white supremacists and those gathered to protest their presence in Charlottesville, Virginia turned violent when twenty-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a group of activists and killed Heather Heyer.

cville nazies
White supremacists surround counter-protesters in Charlottesville. Courtesy khou.com.

Though a comparable set of cultural values—including white supremacy—motivated each of these young men to take murderous action, the national responses to, and memories of, these three crimes of racial terrorism have been disparate. After the 1963 shooting of Virgil Ware in Birmingham, the local white community was dumbfounded and in denial. Washington Evening Star columnist Mary McGrory wrote, “The pastor of the First Baptist Church which both boys attended, the Reverend A. H. Thorpe, said he did not know why it happened. ‘I feel like they were caught up in many things in Birmingham and across the country.’”[2] Even the victim’s father was unable to find a source of blame for the crime. When asked why he thought the teens shot his son, the elder Ware responded, “I guess they just mean.”[3] Though the teens were tried for their crime and found guilty, neither served more than a few days in jail for their brutal deed; a judge suspended their sentences and gave them each two years of probation instead.[4]

In contrast, public outcry over Roof’s attack was swift and severe. After pleading guilty in court, Roof was sentenced to nine consecutive life sentences and three consecutive thirty-year sentences. The most recent event in Charlottesville produced responses of outrage and condemnation from many Americans, yet others, including the current president, have struggled to define this crime as an act of homegrown terrorism.

From responses to the attack in Charlottesville, it is clear that Americans have a more difficult time identifying instances of domestic terrorism.

These episodes of brutality and the public responses they elicited demonstrate the United States’ complex relationship with the chronic ill of racial terrorism. For much of the twenty-first century, discussions about terrorism in the United States have focused on religious extremists who target centers of Western culture and commerce; groups and individuals who kill innocent bystanders in order to send a political message that incites panic and spreads fear. Yet from responses to the attack in Charlottesville, it is clear that Americans have a more difficult time identifying instances of domestic terrorism. As J.M. Berger, a scholar of extremist behavior points out, “[t]he major problem we have in this realm is that there’s a de facto assumption that when a Muslim does it, it’s terrorism . . . And when a white guy does it, it’s mental illness or something else.”[5] This struggle is not new: the unwillingness to label acts of racial violence as terrorism has deep roots in the United States, which are clearly visible in the 1963 murder of Virgil Ware.

On September 15, 1963, mere hours after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four adolescent girls in Birmingham, thirteen-year-old Virgil accompanied his sixteen-year-old brother James to find a bike for the younger boy to ride on their newspaper route.[6] Unable to procure an additional bicycle for Virgil, the two boys rode home together on James’ bike; Virgil sat perched on the handlebars as his older brother pedaled down Sandusky Road. In the meantime, two white teens, Larry Joe Sims and Michael Lee Farley, headed home after attending a segregationist rally and purchasing a forty-cent Confederate flag at the local National State’s Rights Party (NSRP) headquarters.

school protest
Birmingham segregationists protest against admitting black students to whites-only schools on Sept. 12, 1963, just three days prior to the rally Sims and Farley left before shooting Virgil Ware. Courtesy AL.com.

On their way home, Sims and Farley spoke with fellow sixteen-year-old Clarke Robbins, who had been driving along Sandusky Road when something “struck the back of his car.” Robbins warned Sims and Farley “not to go down the road because ‘some Negroes down there are throwing rocks.’”[7] Farley reportedly responded, “We’ll see about that,” and handed Sims a .22 caliber gun.[8]

With Sims on the back, Farley drove his motorbike down Sandusky Road and approached the Ware brothers as they pedaled in the opposite direction. James remembered, “I was looking at them dead in the face as they passed.”[9] Ware saw Farley look back to his passenger and nod his head.[10] Sims raised his arm and fired the .22 twice in the direction of the Wares. Sheriff Melvin Bailey later reported that Sims told him, “I shut my eyes and I thought the gun was pointed at the ground.”[11] Either Sims had terrible aim or he was a crack shot who lied about his intended target. Despite his purportedly closed eyes, Sims managed to hit Virgil twice, one bullet entered his chest and the other penetrated his face. Virgil fell from the handlebars and James jumped off the bicycle and implored his younger brother to stand up. Virgil responded, “I can’t, I’m shot” and died moments later on the side of the road. Farley and Sims did not bother to stop and survey the damage they caused. They simply sped onward.[12]

Newspapers reported that the ‘defendants were neatly dressed. Sims wore a Sunday school attendance button and an Eagle Scout pin on his lapel.’

The next day, after speaking with several teens who had knowledge of the incident, Birmingham police officers arrested Farley and Sims. A preliminary hearing took place just four days later. Press coverage provided detailed physical descriptions of the accused and also of James Ware, who testified against the teens. Newspapers reported that the “defendants were neatly dressed. Sims wore a Sunday school attendance button and an Eagle Scout pin on his lapel.” In contrast, the same article mentioned that James Ware wore “a bright red T-shirt” to testify. Another reporter described the defendants as “two crew-cut youths” whereas he referred to Ware simply as “the dark-skinned youth.”[13] The reporters’ emphasis of Farley and Sims’ scouting affiliation and rank may have served as a veiled attempt to mitigate the teens’ crime and gain sympathy from white Birmingham. However, the fact that both teens were Eagle Scouts might have made their crime all the more shocking and appalling to local community members.

Despite the boys’ scouting affiliation and respectable appearances, many in Birmingham attempted to distance themselves from this crime. The civic organizations to which Sims and Farley belonged did not deny their segregationist stances, but they also assured the press that they were not responsible for the boys’ behavior on that day, as they never advocated for racial violence. After a reporter asked Reverend Thorpe if either of the boys’ families planned to speak to or “express sympathy” to Mr. and Mrs. Ware, he replied, “They wanted to do something. . . but the lawyers advised against it. They said anything that they would do would be twisted out of context by the NAACP.”[14] Aside from the fact that the NAACP had been outlawed in Alabama in the late 1950s, the lawyers remark here is characteristic of the city’s concerns over national perceptions of the region and the potential damage of “outside” influences that organizations like the NAACP represented.

The civic organizations to which Sims and Farley belonged did not deny their segregationist stances, but they also assured the press that they were not responsible for the boys’ behavior on that day, as they never advocated for racial violence.

The defense attorney’s warning about avoiding expressions of remorse or sympathy stemmed from more than concern over the possibility of external influences further damaging Birmingham’s reputation. His remarks at the preliminary hearing indicate that he failed to see the racial violence against blacks as a criminal offense. In fact, this defense attorney refused to call Farley and Sims’ offense murder or its result death. Instead, he referred to it as an “unfortunate accident” and lamented that his clients—“two raw, grieved untutored boys”—“had this unfortunate thing come into their lives at their age.”[15]

In Birmingham, local responses to this crime ranged from endorsement and rationalization to stunned silence, disapproval, and utter disgust. One resident wrote the mayor’s office to complain, “I see where they’ve arrested two white boys for shooting that nigger boy. The police should not be so diligent that they catch white people who try to run the niggers off.”[16]  As with the defense attorney’s comments, the writer combined his feelings about racial violence with his concern over outside influence as he encouraged the mayor to speak out against the civil rights activity in the city. He wrote, “You should condemn nigger Luther King for coming down to grab all the headlines he can, as usual.” Finally, the writer assured the mayor, “Blood is not on Wallace’s hands. It’s on the Supreme Court, Federal judges, Bob and John Kennedy and all other nuts pushing people on other [sic] against the law.”[17] Though the writer’s final sentiment is a bit unclear, it seems that he considered advocates of equality and integration to be the lawbreakers and that he encouraged the breakdown of justice—as long as is benefited the perpetrators of racial violence—in Birmingham.

National responses to Ware’s murder were nonexistent as this story was overshadowed in the press by reports of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. But unlike the children who died in the church bombing, the circumstances surrounding Virgil’s murder made his story much messier and, as a result, more difficult to position within a larger national narrative of the civil rights movement that emphasizes moments of heroic bravery and redemptive violence over instances of meaningless murder. The perpetrators in Virgil’s story raised uncomfortable questions about the character, and by extension culpability, of white Birmingham’s youth, the adolescents and teenagers who might one day lead the city. It was easy to disparage the misdeeds of a notorious group like the Ku Klux Klan for bombing the church, but it proved extremely difficult for local residents to digest the enormity of two sixteen-year-old Eagle Scouts, who were assumed to be virtuous and moral representatives of white Birmingham.

Indeed, Farley and Sims resumed their normal lives, married, and started families of their own. Although both eventually called the Ware family to apologize for the crime (Farley in 1997 and Sims in 2003), Farley refused to discuss the incident any further. Sims did not speak publicly about the crime until 2003, but he admitted it was life changing; “he decided to serve in the Vietnam War because he felt he still had a ‘debt’ to pay.”[18]

The perpetrators in Virgil’s story raised uncomfortable questions about the character, and by extension culpability, of white Birmingham’s youth.

Nearly fifty-two years later, on June 17, 2015, another young white man, Dylan Roof, attended a Bible study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and subsequently opened fire in a horrific attack that killed nine and left five survivors. Like Farley and Sims, Roof was arrested without incident the following day. But unlike the Birmingham shooting, this crime earned widespread national attention and sparked a public debate over the history and legacy of white supremacy and racism in the United States. In response to the shooting in Charleston, journalist David A. Graham concluded, “The immediate national reaction of sorrow and outrage, bringing with it a near-unanimous labeling of the attack as a racist hate crime, stands out from past incidents. So too does the united response across the political spectrum.”[19]

Though countless Americans were quick to condemn this egregious case of racial violence, many were uncertain of what to call the incident. When asked if the crime was an act of terrorism, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley wavered. “Whether he was a terrorist and exactly how you define a terrorist, I don’t know,” he said. “I put him more in the [category] of the shooter of the children in Connecticut, the shooter in the movie theater—they’re deranged people.”[20] Granted, at the time of Riley’s interview, investigations into the crime were ongoing and even President Obama refrained from labeling the shooting as an act of terrorism.[21] In their initial public comments, Riley surmised that Roof was “afflicted with the disease of racism” and Obama linked the shooting to other attacks on black churches and announced that the FBI would investigate the incident as a hate crime. Yet both leaders chose to underscore the problem of gun violence rather than racial brutality as a primary concern. Moreover, by drawing linkages to the mass shootings at Sandy Hook and Aurora, and by referring to Roof as a “deranged person,” Riley obscured the fact that Roof was also a self-avowed white supremacist who specifically targeted black worshipers.[22] White supremacy and racism are certainly mental poisons, but the explanation of mental illness as a rationale for racialized aggression often fails to account for the bigoted and intolerant ideologies that reinforce these violent impulses.

A protester holds a sign attacking white supremacy at an August 13, 2017 march in New York the day after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. Courtesy The Nation.

In response, numerous writers and activists asked why so many Americans were hesitant to label Roof’s crime as an act of racial terrorism.[23] Many rejected broad characterizations of the crime and asserted that Roof’s attack was more than an episode of random gun violence; it was an act of racial terrorism. More accurately, it was both. Scholar Jelani Cobb explained, “We have, quite likely, found at 110 Calhoun Street, in Charleston, South Carolina, the place where Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown cross with Baltimore, Ferguson, and Sanford.”[24] The nation’s troubled history of mass violence and racial brutality was exposed in Charleston. Still, questions over the language of terrorism lingered. Why are Americans reluctant to call young men who killed in the name of white supremacy domestic terrorists?

In recent months, this question has reemerged in public discourse as the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia sparked a nation debate over the characterization of racial violence in the United States. President Trump’s remarks—which asserted that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the confrontation at Charlottesville, and insisted that “blame” was to be shared among white supremacists, neo-Nazis, alt-right protesters, and the counter-protesters who opposed their presence—were met with an immediate backlash that crossed political lines and racial divisions.[25] If anything, the President’s equivocation on the matter only made others more adamant in their assertions that the murder in Charlottesville was an act of domestic terrorism.

Racism and oppression, like domestic terrorism, have deep roots in the United States.  As modern Americans confront a seemingly endless barrage of racial violence and terrorism, the language associated with these crimes serves as an important marker of national values and beliefs. Americans were unwilling to confront racial terrorism in Birmingham and reluctant to label it as such in Charleston. Yet, in the case of Charlottesville, the inappropriate and unsatisfactory response from the county’s leader seemed to awaken the nation to the fact that racial violence is terrorism. Given the divisive nature of contemporary politics and society, Americans must not naïvely believe that these types of attacks will cease in the near future. The nation must adopt a definitive vocabulary when referring to and describing acts of domestic racial terrorism. As past incidents demonstrate, anything less serves as a conciliatory salve that effectively contains and obscures the darkest impulses of brutal perpetrators of racial violence in the United States.

Chudzinski photoAdrienne Chudzinski is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She teaches modern U.S. history and specializes in the study of public memory, identity, and violence. Chudzinski has worked in several history museums and served for four years as an Editorial Assistant at the American Historical Review. Her current research explores racial violence in Birmingham, Alabama and the mythology of the civil rights movement in the United States.

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[1] Ray Sanchez and Ed Payne, “Charleston Church Shooting: Who Is Dylann Roof?” CNN, December 16, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-church-shooting-suspect/index.html.

[2] Mary McGrory, “Brotherhood, But. . . Question in Killing is Why?” Washington Evening Star, September 21, 1963, A-1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tim Padgett and Frank Sikora, “The Legacy of Virgil Ware,” Time Magazine, September 22, 2003, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,485698,00.html; “Boy Convicted of Shooting Negro Freed,” The Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1964, B9.

[5] Berger quoted in Mark Berman, “Was the Charlottesville Car Attack Domestic Terrorism, A Hate Crime, or Both?” The Washington Post, August 14, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/08/14/was-the-charlottesville-car-attack-domestic-terrorism-a-hate-crime-or-both/?utm_term=.78fc50124dfc.

[6] John Herbers, “Alabama Negro Tells of Slaying,” Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1963, 9.

[7] “Accused Slayer Was At B’ham ‘Bigots’ Meet Before Negro Died,” Chicago Daily Defender, January 16, 1964, 11.

[8] Jon Reed, “Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson: Families Want History to Remember Teen Boys, Too,” Al.com/The Birmingham News, September 14, 2013, http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2013/09/virgil_ware_and_johnny_robinso.html; “Accused Slayer Was At B’ham ‘Bigots’ Meet Before Negro Died,” Chicago Daily Defender, January 16, 1964, 11; “White Youths Charges in Birmingham Murder,” Chicago Daily Defender, September 19, 1963, 2.

[9] Leon Daniel, “White Boys Tell How They Killed B’ham Lad Without Provocation,” Chicago Daily Defender, September 25, 1963, 4.

[10] Herbers, “Alabama Negro Tells of Slaying.”

[11] “2 White Teens Admit Killing Birmingham Lad,” Chicago Daily Defender, September 18, 1963, 2.

[12] Virgil Ware’s wound described by Deputy Coroner W. L. Allen in “Accused Slayer Was At B’ham ‘Bigots’ Meet Before Negro Died”; Herbers, “Alabama Negro Tells of Slaying”; “2 White Teens Admit Killing Birmingham Lad.”

[13] Herbers, “Alabama Negro Tells of Slaying Daniel”; “White Boys Tell How They Killed B’ham Lad Without Provocation.”

[14] Mary McGrory, “Birmingham: Lawyer’s Queries Baffle One Witness,” Washington Evening Star, September 21, 1963, 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Earl [last name ineligible] to Mayor Boutwell. File DSC01594, Birmingham Public Library Archives, Birmingham, Ala.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Padgett and Sikora, “The Legacy of Virgil Ware.”

[19] David A. Graham, “How Much Has Changed Since the Birmingham Church Bombing?” The Atlantic, June 18, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/historical-background-charleston-shooting/396242/.

[20] Charlotte Alter, “Charleston Mayor Describes the Night of Church Shooting.” Time.com, June 18, 2015, http://time.com/3927465/charleston-mayor-joseph-p-riley-shooting/.

[21] Barack Obama, “Statement by the President on the Shooting in Charleston, South Carolina” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, June 18, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/06/18/statement-president-shooting-charleston-south-carolina.

[22] Alter, “Charleston Mayor Describes the Night of Church Shooting.”

[23] For more on this discussion and to see screenshots of the debate as it emerged on Twitter see:  Rick Gladstone and Karen Zraick, “Hate Crime? Or Terrorism?” The New York Times, June 18, 2015,


[24] Jelani Cobb, “Murder in Charleston,” The New Yorker, June 18, 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/church-shooting-charleston-south-carolina.

[25] To read specific reactions of various politicians see” Katie Reilly, “Republicans Condemn Trump’s Latest Charlottesville Remarks: ‘Stop the Moral Equivalency,’” Time.com, August 15, 2017, http://time.com/4902439/donald-trump-charlottesville-republicans-react/.

1 comment on “Labeling Terrorism: Public Responses to Racial Violence

  1. Pingback: Mapping White Supremacy – The Activist History Review

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