VanPac News History

Copyright 1989 The Washington Post  

The Washington Post

December 22, 1989, Friday, Final Edition

The Truth about the Murder


LENGTH: 1229 words

HEADLINE: Judge Vance's America

SERIES: Occasional

BYLINE: Patt Derian, Hodding Carter


When word came last Saturday that Bob Vance -- U.S. District Judge Robert Vance of Birmingham -- had been assassinated by a letter bomb, the first reaction was shock. Now, at the end of the 1980s? After so long? He had survived the 1960s, when his willingness to do public battle for political and social decency in Alabama had made him, along with so many of his fellow Alabamans who were black, and so few of his fellow whites, a marked man. He had survived, then overcome, and, in his appointment as federal judge 10 years ago, prevailed. A man who loved his nation, its Constitution and the promises it made to all its citizens had become the embodiment of all three.

First shock, then abiding grief, then outrage as it became increasingly clear that Bob's murder was racially motivated. The subsequent letter-Bomb killing of Robert Robinson, the black Savannah alderman and civil rights lawyer, made that conclusion almost inescapable. Two good men had been brought down by an reverberating echo from days we had hoped were gone forever.

For a long time in our region death was in the air, a palpable thing, a possibility if not a probability for people you knew and people you didn't know, friends and strangers doing what you were doing across the South. Race-related murder was almost commonplace. Bombs killed little children and old men. Mobs of angry men and lone gunmen inflamed by hate and condoned by the silence of the society around them killed housewives and seminarians, retired postmen and mentally retarded handymen. Those who represented the forces of local law and order, those who spoke as the elected representatives of the people in most of the states of the South, either averted their gaze or tried to justify the unconscionable.

And then it changed, changed because Southern blacks put their lives on line to force change, changed because the federal government finally threw itself behind change, changed because a growing number of South ern whites decided that "our way of life" was an affront to the teachings of their religion and the heritage of their country. Bob Vance was in the lead among them, not because he had to be there but because he loved both his state and his nation too much to live out his days in comfortable silence.

That wasn't all that Bob Vance loved. He loved his wife and two sons, nurtured and cherished them in ways that belied the notion that the family is a dead institution in America. He loved a good story, the latest gossip of courthouse and club, the intricate tall tales of Southern men caught up in old lies lovingly retold. His abiding passion was politics for its own sake, politics as a means to an end, politics as the daily embodiment of all the textbook virtues of good citizenship and constitutional arrangement. He fought George Wallace long and hard, won some of the big battles, lost some of the others and never forgot what the battles were ultimately all about -- a political system open to all and responsive to something more than expediency.

And he was a fine judge. Coming home from the funeral, a Reagan appointee to the federal court in Georgia echoed the same praise offered to us earlier that same day by the legendary U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson of Alabama. Bob Vance was a man who ruled as the law demanded and the facts warranted, not as he might personally have wished the outcome to be. He was respected by those with whom he differed as well as by those on his side. As U.S. Bankruptcy Judge R. Clifford Fulford said in his eulogy on Wednesday, "He saw and gave proportion to issues in terms of their possible solutions. He had the unique ability to draw his circles to include his adversaries and to join them in the search for common ground on which both could honorably stand."

There were always people who hated the idea of a common ground, not just in the South but throughout the nation. With segregation's rout, with the election of politicians at the state and national level who spoke firmly of the need for racial justice, of equality given life beyond easy rhetoric, they were forced into isolation and seeming impotence.

But they did not suddenly evaporate or vanish into thin air. They were there, pacing in the tortured jungles of their minds waiting for another day to hunt.

For whatever reason, during the past decade they have decided their day has come again. Some believe the explanation lies in their frustration and isolation. Having lost on all fronts, political and legal, the white supremacists "may feel like they have no other options left but violence," as Charles Wittenstein, Atlanta director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, has said.

Others see a different possibility. As Washington's commitment to equality took a back seat to other causes, as it became increasingly fashionable in high places to lament the burdens carried by racism's former beneficiaries rather than by its former victims, as grudging lip service to the notion of a common ground replaced fervent belief, the bigots sensed an end to their exile.

They began the hunt anew, little noticed because their targets were virtually unknown outside their communities. No matter whose figures you choose to trust, the increase in incidents of racial hatred went up dramatically from the late 1970s to now. The Community Relations Service of the U.S. Justice Department says such incidents went from eight in 1978 to 276 in 1986, according the Associated Press. A private group, the Center of Democratic Renewal, reports 3,000 racial incidents between 1980 and 1986.

Now, abruptly, the statistics are more than rows of conflicting numbers. They are faces of men who worked within our system of justice and politics, people who represented the triumph of the system's best tendencies over its worst: Robert Robinson in Savannah and Bob Vance in Birmingham -- alderman and judge, lawyers both, Southerns both, Americans both in a country far closer to living up to its promises than 25 or 50 or 100 years ago.

On the day Bob Vance was killed by a pipe Bomb in his home in the suburbs of Birmingham, an event he would have loved was taking place in Greenville, Miss., some 300 miles to the west. About a thousand people, black and white, attended a banquet at the county coliseum to raise money for a foundation established by Rep. Mike Espy, the district's first black congressman. The foundation is intended to raise the sights and aspirations of the district's young men and women, to give them a sense of the world around them and its needs. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) gave the keynote, a moving, personal testament to the need for each human being to look deep within and reach far outside to confront the racism that afflicts us all. He was warmly introduced by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). And Don Payne, the first black congressman in New Jersey's history, was there with greetings as well.

Only in America, you thought as you walked out of that remarkable evening. Still in America, came the mocking retort as we learned that Bob Vance had been struck down. But the killers are not the South and are not America, not anymore. It's hard to remember right about now, but Bob Vance would have been the first to say it, loud and clear.

The writers, both formerly of Mississippi, were long-time friends and political associates of Judge Vance.