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Monday, December 29, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 5/8/2004

Now, Virgil and Johnny's stories

BY ROSE RUSSELL

SO MANY current events demand comment, but I'm compelled to pause and consider a topic that's 41 years old.

A USA Today report on Tuesday captured my interest. It was about two other young black children killed the same day four girls died in Birmingham, Ala.'s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.

Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson also died that day, Sept. 15, 1963.

This issue is before us now because on Thursday, the body of 13-year-old Virgil Ware was laid to rest in a properly attended cemetery in Birmingham. His body had been in an unmarked site that looked more like a clearing in the woods than the resting place for an innocent victim of racial violence.

Newly placed street signs dedicated to his memory also now line the streets in his old Birmingham neighborhood.

Virgil was killed as the result of the outbreak of events that he knew nothing about. That Sunday afternoon following church, he and his brother James were en route to get Virgil a bicycle.

According to Time Magazine's report last September, 40 years since the church bombing, James and Virgil and another brother, Melvin, planned to deliver newspapers. Ultimately, they wanted to buy a car with their savings.

With James pedaling his bicycle and Virgil riding on its handlebars, the brothers were going to get Virgil a bicycle of his own to ride on the delivery route.

Neither one of them knew about the church tragedy. But Larry Joe Sims and Michael Lee Farley did. The white 16-year-olds were on Farley's motorbike when they ended up on the same road as the Wares.

Farley gave Sims a gun, and told him to shoot to frighten the Wares. Sims did, and closing his eyes, he thought he was shooting at the ground. But the bullets struck Virgil in the face and chest, killing him.

Farley and Sims were charged with murder, but given suspended sentences and two years' probation. That's no surprise, considering the era.

Civil rights activists' hoped that Virgil's mother, Lorene Ware, would become another Rosa Parks. But her grief was burdensome; Mrs. Ware died in 1996.

Johnny Robinson's story is different. He was among the protesters at one of the riots that erupted in Birmingham to protest the church bombing.

The New York Times wrote on Sept. 16, 1963 that when police arrived at a scene where kids were throwing rocks, "the youths fled, and one policeman said he had fired low but that some of the shot had struck the Robinson youth in the back."

We've heard that before. Can you say Cincinnati? I imagine that officer never went to court, and little else is known about Johnny Robinson.

While the church bombing and Virgil and Johnny's murders stir the usual emotions that surface in response to racial violence, part of the story about one of Virgil's murderers is captivating.

Larry Sims went to a white rally before the shooting. Peer pressure probably made him go, and from that standpoint, Sims was as innocent a victim as Virgil.

Although Sims' family was not active in civil rights, they sympathized with the movement. But the murder drove Sims to become a civil rights activist, and one way he tried to make a difference was to go to Vietnam.

He refused officers' training because, as he told Time, "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 said. He won a Bronze Star.

And Sims' compassion compelled him to successfully lobby to keep the other Ware boys from going to Vietnam. Farley, meanwhile, has been bothered that his own suffering all these years has not generated more attention.

Both men have telephoned the Wares to apologize, and apologies have been accepted by most family members. One sister, Joyce Ware Hampton, is still struggling with that.

I know it can't be easy. But it's time to let go.



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