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Civil Rights Leader and Anti-Police Brutality Advocate Rev. C. Herbert Oliver Dies at 96

Civil Rights leader and long-time anti-police brutality activist Rev. C. Herbert Oliver has transitioned at the age of 96. While his death was announced over the weekend, his daughter shared that he died in November due to failing health.

Oliver died in New York City and his funeral service was held on Dec. 8. During the homegoing, his daughter Patrice Oliver did not share the specific cause of death, but stated that he had been struggling with several health problems.

C. Herbert Oliver (Credit: Wheaton.edu)

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on Feb. 28, 1925, this change agent dedicated his life to the freedom of Black people and the pursuit of justice. After graduating from the Class of 1947 at Wheaton College, he began his career as an activist in his hometown.

He served the Birmingham Inter-Citizens Committee as the executive secretary from 1960 to 1965. It is noted, in the Spring 2018 issue of Wheaton Magazine that in this capacity he “documented and disseminated over 100 cases of alleged police brutality in Birmingham,” learning how to record cases of police-involved violence by working with the FBI on his own cases.

“I would keep my eyes on the newspapers, and the newspaper would carry stories about people who had been beaten and arrested by policemen,” Oliver told his alma mater’s quarterly publication. “I would find the victim and ask them to tell us their story. Invariably, the stories the victims would tell us were different from the stories the newspaper would put out.”

He continued, “I would send out the story to our mailing list of a couple thousand. The list included policemen, Bull Connor, Alabama representatives, and those interested in the work of the Committee. We kept documenting these cases until we ran out of work. By 1965, there were very few cases, so we felt we had done some good.”

His documentation, he shared, had an influence on many politicians and clergy, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

“When Reverend King came to Birmingham, he requested to read the cases that were documented. After reading these cases, King was willing to accept the challenge that was Birmingham under the rule of Bull Connor,” Oliver recalled in 2018.

Carolyn McKinstry shared in her book “While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Ages during the Civil Rights Movement” that he was one of the persons to publicly address the bombing of the four little girls during a church service in his city and that he even reached out to the White House after the tragic event.

In a telegram to President John F. Kennedy that was republished in the book, he spoke about the church bombing.

“The savage, brutal, murderous, and ungodly bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Sunday morning, Sept. 14 [sic], has revealed to the whole world the evil of racism,” he wrote.

He continued, “Those few terrifying moments of the blast said what we have been trying to say to the nation for years, that there exists in Alabama the most unconscionable disregard for man and God on the part of some … Only the diseased mind can aspire to reach such depths.”

He further stated to the president that he was an eyewitness of the horror, sharing about seeing the blood and hearing members of his community crying. “I could not bring my mind to believe what my eyes saw. It still seems like a tale from some distant land where people know nothing about freedom and democracy.”

In addition to this event, he cited an additional 20 different racially motivated crimes committed by white men toward Black people in the city.

Oliver moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1965 and served as the pastor of the Westminster Bethany Presbyterian Church from 1967 to 1992. He led the local school board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn from 1967 to 1970.

In 1959, he wrote his first book, “No Flesh Shall Glory: How the Bible Destroys the Foundations of Racism,” which has been recently re-released in its second edition in 2021. His last book was “Cadmus and Europa,” a book on the contributions of Black people in the world.


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