The Legacy of Virgil Ware

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COURTESY OF THE WARE FAMILY

THE VICTIM: He was just 13, a smart, skinny kid who, his brother says, wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up

As Virgil Ware, 13, soared down a lonely stretch of road outside Birmingham, Ala., perched on the handlebars of his brother's bicycle, he was happily unaware of the carnage downtown. It was Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963. At 10:22 that morning, four black girls had been killed by a dynamite bomb set by the Ku Klux Klan at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church was a focal point of Birmingham's civil rights turmoil that year, but that unrest hadn't touched Virgil and his coal-mining family, who lived in a modest, all-black suburb and rarely even saw white people. All Virgil had on his mind that day was the money he and his brothers were going to make with the newspaper route they had just secured.

Larry Joe Sims, 16, an Eagle Scout at Birmingham's all-white Phillips High School, wasn't preoccupied with the civil rights movement either. His family quietly sympathized with blacks' efforts to eat at regular lunch counters, attend integrated schools and vote without hindrance. His father, a manager at a Sears store, privately scorned Eugene (Bull) Connor, the police commissioner who turned fire hoses and attack dogs on black demonstrators, some as young as 7. Still, if the Simses lamented the injustices, they didn't challenge them. As a teen, Sims had girls, his guitar and the Beach Boys on his mind.

But by 4:45 that Sunday afternoon, as if caught on the billows of the church blast, Virgil Ware and Larry Joe Sims were hurtling toward another racial tragedy. Succumbing to peer pressure, Sims had gone along with friends to a segregationist rally that day—and now he was holding a revolver that his classmate, Michael Lee Farley, 16, had handed him as they rode home on Farley's red motorbike, its small Confederate flag whipping in the wind. As they passed Virgil and his brother James, 16, Farley told Sims to fire the gun and "scare 'em." Sims closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. Two bullets hit Virgil in the chest and cheek, hurling him into a ditch as the motorbike sped on. "I've been shot," Virgil said. "No you ain't," James said in disbelief. "Just stop tremblin', and you'll be O.K."

He wasn't. Instead, Virgil Ware became the sixth and final black person to be killed in Birmingham that Sunday. (Another youth had been shot in the back by police after he threw rocks to protest the church bombing.) Virgil was the last civil rights casualty of the summer of '63—when the defining social movement of 20th century America became a national concern and not just a Southern one.

Network television brought the season's atrocities into U.S. living rooms along with the triumphs, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington 21/2 weeks earlier. Northerners, including President John F. Kennedy and his Attorney General brother Robert, enlisted in the struggle that would lead to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 the next summer.

But Virgil Ware's death went largely unnoticed then and is hardly recalled today. And so it is with the stories of hundreds of other bystanders swept into civil rights traumas. Their tales don't involve the main characters of the day—villains like Connor or martyrs like King. But what these incidental players did and suffered—and how those actions may have changed them—is just as important a legacy of the movement as the key historic turning points studied in schools today.

The story of Sims and Farley and their victim's family did not produce a clean, redemptive outcome for all. Told that this month marks the 40th anniversary of Virgil's death, Farley twirls his fingers sarcastically and says, "Whoop-de-do!" But Sims, who like Farley got no prison time for the killing, says his indifference about civil rights died that day too—and friends say he told them he decided to serve in the Vietnam War because he felt he still had a "debt" to pay. "Virgil knows in heaven that positive consequences came from this," Sims told Time in his first-ever interview about the killing. "He knows that his death helped change society—that it changed me." As for the relatives whom Virgil left behind, they suddenly found themselves involved in a movement that had seemed remote before his death, and they drew strength from its nonviolent philosophy. "You can't hate anyone and call yourself a Christian," says Virgil's brother Melvin, who has since become an avatar of racial harmony in his community.

Birmingham in 1963 desperately needed change. It was the civil rights epicenter, a place where bombings of the black community were so frequent that the town was nicknamed "Bombingham." Most white families were apoplectic about federal court orders to integrate the city's public schools, and one of their champions was the Farleys' Baptist pastor, the Rev. Ferrell Griswold. Griswold (who died in 1981) was, ironically, an American Indian whose birth certificate read "colored," but he harbored a century's worth of Native American hatred for the Federal Government and spoke out for states' rights at segregation rallies—like the one Farley and Sims attended that Sunday. Virgil's killing "haunted him afterward," says Griswold's son Jon, 40, who teaches English in Birmingham to migrants. "He refocused." The older Griswold eventually stopped speaking at rallies, telling friends, "We have to change hearts before we tackle politics."

But even before Griswold's conversion, some whites were hearing a different kind of message from ministers like the Sims' Baptist pastor, the Rev. Ralph Jernigan. He often quoted Bible passages about Jesus' breaking down the "middle wall of partition," as code for racial tolerance. "You couldn't convey too much from the pulpit," Jernigan, 72, recalls, "because you could alienate the people you wanted to lead. But Larry Joe Sims and his family were not racist. That's why what happened was so amazing to all of us."

And it was also especially heartbreaking because it happened to Virgil Ware. A smart, skinny kid, the third of six children whose father and uncles worked in the nearby Docena coal mine, he had just entered the eighth grade at the all-black Sandusky Elementary School near his home in suburban Pratt City. An A student who played tight end on the football team, Virgil seemed the sibling "who was most likely to go to college," says brother Melvin, 54, a crane operator in Birmingham. "He wanted to be a lawyer. When we'd watch Perry Mason, Virgil'd always be the one who guessed who did it." He was also, adds Melvin, the favorite of their mother Lorene, a cleaning woman who died in 1996 still grieving for her son. When Virgil made an extra dollar or two delivering coal, "he'd come home and say, 'You need a couple quarters of this, Mama?'" recalls James, 56, a Birmingham truck driver.

In that late summer of '63, the three brothers had agreed to share a paper route delivering the Birmingham News—and to buy a car with their earnings. But Virgil needed a bicycle. So that Sunday after church, at around noon, he and James rode James' bike to Docena, where an uncle had a scrapyard. The church bombing had already occurred, but word hadn't reached their uncle's when, shortly after 4 p.m., they headed home after failing to find a bike for Virgil. The boys took a rural stretch called the Docena-Sandusky Road, flanked by pine and mimosa trees rising from a tangle of swamp grass and kudzu. As Virgil clutched the handlebars, telling his brother where to steer, James says, they laughed about the girls they would pick up in their new car.

Farley, meanwhile, was showing off the pearl-handled, .22-cal. revolver he had bought for $15 from a school friend two days earlier. Farley, like Sims, was an Eagle Scout, but now, wearing his gun in a shoulder holster, he looked more like an enforcer wannabe amid the anti-integration rally's crowd of 2,000 whites. To his credit, Griswold denounced the church attack and spoke against violence. But moments later, a youth strung up an effigy of Bobby Kennedy, and the crowd burned it.

Afterward, Farley, Sims and friends stopped at the offices of the National States Rights Party, a Klan-associated group. Farley bought a mini Confederate flag for 40(cent), and they heard reports of retaliatory rock throwing by angry black youths. A white teenager, Dennis Robertson, while returning from his job, was struck in the head with a brick hurled by a black teen; he would spend days in critical condition before recovering. Upset by the news, Farley headed out. Sims, caught up in the day's emotions, says he "went along for the ride" on Farley's motorbike.

Two of Farley's friends saw Farley and Sims about to head west on the Docena-Sandusky Road. The friends claimed that they'd seen Virgil and James throwing rocks, which James vehemently denied then and today. "We'll take care of them," said Farley, according to police documents. But instead he gave the revolver to a stunned Sims, who had never fired a gun. Farley still insists that the Ware brothers had rocks in their hands, but Sims says, "I guess we were just expecting rocks to be coming at us." Sims is righthanded; the gun was in his left hand. "I thought I was shooting at the ground," he says. "I remember pop-pop and then thinking, Oh no, I might have hit [Virgil] in the leg." He and Farley went to a friend's house and asked him to hide the gun under his mattress.

The next day Detectives E. Dan Jordan and J.A. McAlpine tracked down Farley, who initially denied involvement. They later found Sims at his home in suburban Forestdale. Sobbing, he confessed in front of his parents. Jordan, now 74 and retired, says Farley fumed, as if he considered Sims and the detectives traitors. But Jordan says he was unmoved. He had felt "demeaned—you know, having to obey Bull Connor, jailing up black children in cages. The civil rights movement was changing the way we thought about things."

Farley and Sims were charged with first-degree murder, but an all-white jury convicted Sims on a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter (to which Farley then pleaded guilty). A white judge, Wallace Gibson, suspended the boys' sentences and gave them two years' probation—scolding them for their "lapse"—which made Lorene Ware "break down in the courtroom crying and hollering," recalls Melvin. Says James: "You could get more time back then for killing a good hunting dog."

But, James adds, the ordeal "made our family realize there was a civil rights movement going on and we could make Virgil's death be a part of that." It didn't exactly work out that way. The movement wanted Lorene Ware to hit the stump, but because speaking publicly about Virgil's killing was too painful for her, his story faded away, an obscure, salt-in-the-wound footnote to the Sixteenth Street Church bombing.

Civil rights and racial reconciliation instead became a personal journey for the Wares. If not for the movement's nonviolent tenets, for example, Virgil's brothers say their rage might not have worn off. Melvin was the angriest, and although he thought for years about revenge, he eventually immersed himself in his Christian faith, encouraging whites and blacks to attend each other's church services. James too has long forgiven Farley and Sims, but he says he found real meaning in Virgil's death one night years later, in the '60s, when his car got stuck in a ditch on the same dark Docena-Sandusky Road. Two young white men pulled up and approached him, "and I thought, Oh, no, it's all gonna happen again." But the men helped him pull his car out. "I asked them if I owed 'em anything," James says. "They said, 'Just help the next guy.'"

Virgil's sister Joyce, 50, has not forgiven. "Lord knows I haven't," she says. "That was my brother." Nor does she wholeheartedly trust white people—especially considering that while Farley and Sims were free to finish high school, attend college and build middle-class lives, the Wares still live in much the same humble, segregated circumstances they did 40 years ago. Yet that too is changing. Four years ago, Melvin's daughter Melony, 26, became the first in the Ware family to graduate from college, and her younger sister Mindy, 19, is now a pre-med student at Alabama's private Talladega College. They say they have been inspired in large part by their Uncle Virgil. Farley, 56, remains bitter. He won't discuss his life since 1963, but friends and neighbors say he is married, has a son and is a desktop publisher who works at home in the affluent, white Birmingham suburb of Trussville. He also, they add, rarely comes out. Speaking briefly with Time, he complained, "No one seems to care about what I've suffered for 40 years!"

Sims, 56, was more remorseful from the start, though, he says, "I do still believe that what happened was an accident." He became a more active civil rights advocate and purposefully befriended the black woman who cleaned his fraternity house at Auburn University. But after graduating in 1969, he felt he still had "something heavy" to purge. He did it in part by going to Vietnam, even though his graduate studies could have kept him out of the draft. He also rejected the Army's offer of officer training, because "I was aware that it was people from poorer families, like [Virgil's], that were being sent to fight the war. I needed to see the war from the grunt's-eye view." He was awarded a Bronze Star for valor in combat. When told that Lorene Ware successfully petitioned the U.S. government to keep her remaining sons out of Vietnam, Sims says, his voice choking, "Thank God."

Still, it wasn't until 1997 that either Farley or Sims called to apologize—and, ironically, it was Farley who telephoned James Ware when one of the few articles to recall the tragedy ran in a local paper. Sims, married to a woman from Ohio and a retail manager on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, is a born-again Christian. But he claims he hadn't contacted the Wares because "I never knew how I'd be received, and I didn't want to hurt them more." Last month, however, he finally called to ask their forgiveness, "to let them know my sorrow—that I was a scared and stupid kid."

Birmingham's changes have also come in fits and starts. Although its schools were desegregated by the end of the '60s, they are 97% black today in a city whose population is 74% black. More than 75% of the city's residents live in nonintegrated neighborhoods, and 90% say their church or place of worship has no members of other races, according to research by Natalie Davis, political-science professor at Birmingham-Southern College. On the other hand, Birmingham's mayors since 1979 have both been black, and its current police chief is a black woman. According to a 2002 poll by the Birmingham Pledge Foundation, one of the U.S.'s most respected antiracism projects, the average Birminghamian eats lunch with someone of another race at least three times a month and invites someone of another race home for a social visit at least seven times a year. Also, more than half the respondents said they had been involved in a community project with someone of another race. "There is more discussion and action about improving race relations here than any place I've ever lived, North or South," says Lawrence Pijeaux, director of Birmingham's Civil Rights Institute.

That progress owes plenty to people like Virgil Ware. He still lies in a nondescript grave marked only by blue carnations and hidden in a thick roadside forest. Each Mother's Day, his sister Joyce clears the overgrowth. "When we hit the lottery, we're going to move you," she tells him as she works. In the warmest months, swarms of fireflies illuminate the site—innocent reminders of the larger conflagrations that swept through Birmingham in the summer of 1963.