Bigotry Can't Roll Back History

IN the same human mentality, moral idiocy can cohabit with calculating shrewdness. This dangerous mixture produced the sequence of mail bombings and attempted bombings across the Southeast in recent weeks. Package bombs killed a federal appellate judge in Birmingham, Ala., and a black lawyer and alderman in Savannah, Ga. Similar bombs were delivered to the federal courthouse in Atlanta and to the Jacksonville, Fla., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but were removed before they exploded. Federal investigators say the bombs were expertly made, and that the mailings probably were deliberately included in the Christmas rush to make detection more difficult.

An anonymous letter sent to an Atlanta television station last week appeared to confirm investigators' suspicions that the four bombs were linked, and that the motivation behind the terrorism is racist.

In the letter, a group identified as ``Americans for a Competent Federal Judiciary'' claimed that the seemingly random bombs were acts of reprisal for the 1988 rape and murder of a white woman in Atlanta. Two black men have been charged with the crime. The letter, which railed against school desegregation and rape of white women, threatened further violence against NAACP officials, judges, and lawyers.

If the letter is authentic, as authorities believe, the bombers have chosen a perverse name. Violence is the antithesis of the rule of law, and the black robes of judges are a rebuke to the hooded white robes of the lynch mob. Murderous bigots are incompetent to evaluate the ``competence'' of the judiciary.

The two men who died in the blasts had no connection with the Atlanta case cited in the letter; it's not clear they had ever met. Yet in their own ways the white judge and the black lawyer were symbolic of the ``new South.''

Before he was appointed to the bench by President Carter, Judge Robert Vance had been Alabama's Democratic chairman, having entered politics to help wrest control of the state party from the segregationist forces of George Wallace; at the 1968 convention in Chicago, Mr. Vance headed the first Alabama delegation to include blacks. As a judge, he participated in important desegregation rulings.

Robert Robinson was active as a lawyer in civil rights cases, and as a Savannah city official he had, with quiet effectiveness and steady good spirits, become a role model for many local blacks.

Neither man was a firebrand on civil rights; in many respects each seems to have been soft-spokenly conventional. Yet it's worth noting that in today's South, what's ``conventional'' for people of good hearts and minds, white and black, is to believe in the breaking down of racial separation and in the role of law to bring about constructive change.

Happily, it's far beyond the power of a few terrorists to roll back the unfinished but still strong revolution that has forever changed US race relations.

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