Today’s guest columnist is Jay Glass.
When you read about lynchings and the KKK in Alabama, you expect to be reading about incidents that happened 100 years ago. But this chain of events happened between 1979 and 1987–just 34 years ago.
Certain acts can have important unintended consequences.
An example of such a profound delayed effect with far-reaching social ramifications would have its origin in downtown Birmingham on the afternoon of November 29th, 1979 in front of Newberry’s in the 200 block of 20th Street North.
The Christmas shopping rush was on when a call went out over the police radio reporting an armed robbery at a savings and loan branch and which included a description of a Black male suspect. Sitting in his patrol car, Sgt. Albert Eugene Ballard, 46, and two days before being eligible to retire, saw a man walking on the sidewalk who fit the general description of the suspect. This man was later identified as Josephus Anderson, an individual with a long history of violent criminal activity.
Upon calling him over to his car, Anderson leaned into the vehicle and shot Ballard several times and then ran away. Police officers chased Anderson into an alley at Third Avenue and 13th Street North where a gun battle ensued and Anderson was shot multiple times and captured.
The prosecution of Josephus Anderson for the murder of Officer Ballard would then commence a long 5 1/2 year process which would include four trials, the first three of which would end in hung juries. This was likely related to the lack of positive eyewitness identification of Anderson as the person who shot Ballard and questions regarding ballistic evidence.
During each trial Anderson would be prosecuted and defended by two tenacious attorneys, David Barber, later to become the District Attorney of Jefferson County and by William Clark, who was likely responsible for Anderson not receiving the death penalty. Following his conviction in 1985, the jury recommended a sentence of life without parole.
So what were the “unforeseen consequences” of this story and how did they come about?
In 1981, shortly after the jury in the first trial of Anderson could not reach a verdict, several members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mobile reacted to this outcome by abducting a 19 year old Black man named Michael Donald. Donald was beaten to death and his body hanged in a tree.
Although several Klan members were later convicted of this crime, with one of them being executed for the murder, that would not be the end of this matter.
In 1987, Donald’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the United Klans of America. During that trial, a Klan member testified that the motive for the murder of Donald was that “The Klan wanted the message to get back to the black people of not just Alabama, but the whole United States, that we would not stand for a black person killing a white police officer and getting away with it.” Mrs. Donald won a $7 million judgement against the United Klans of America which bankrupted the organization, effectively leading to the cessation of Ku Klux Klan operations in Alabama.
In retrospect, these unforeseen consequences can be indirectly traced back to that incident years before when Josephus Anderson survived being shot multiple times by police officers in a Birmingham alley and which, in the end, would set a precedent for successful civil rights lawsuits against other racist hate groups.
Josephus Anderson, age 79, would die from natural causes in March, 2021, while serving his life sentence in Holman prison.
Jay Glass retired as Chief Deputy Coroner following 35 years of service with the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner Office. He is the author of the recently published book “Life and Death in the Magic City. A Coroner’s Perspective of Jefferson County, Alabama in the Early 20th Century.” The book provides a review of Jefferson County during the turbulent first half of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of the coroners, law enforcement officials and news media during that time along with statistical comparisons to our current community.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.