SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Before authorities apprehended a suspect in the mail bomb spree, the case prompted all kinds of speculation about the motivations that could be behind it. Here's what a talk radio host, Michael Savage, had to say.
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MICHAEL SAVAGE: It's a high probability that the whole thing is set up as a false flag to gain sympathy for the Democrats to get our minds off the hordes of illegal aliens approaching our southern border.
SIMON: That kind of talk echoes back to another era in American history when bombs were a tool of political intimidation. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: In the 1950s and '60s, Birmingham, Ala., was known by another name.
JEFF DREW: Bombingham - Bombingham, Alabama - B-O-M-B.
ELLIOTT: Jeff Drew grew up on a street called Dynamite Hill because so many black families were bombed for moving into the predominantly white neighborhood.
DREW: It would push the furniture off the floor and break the windows and scare us all to death. So terrorism is nothing new for this part of Birmingham, Ala. We experienced it firsthand.
ELLIOTT: There were more than three dozen unsolved, racially motivated bombings in Birmingham during the civil rights era - mostly houses and churches. And Drew says there was a pattern after the attacks - authorities would accuse victims of planting the bombs.
DREW: That's the most inhumane thing you could think of. Who would bomb their own house?
ELLIOTT: But that rumor was widely circulated in white circles, says Diane McWhorter, who wrote a book about the Birmingham civil rights movement.
DIANE MCWHORTER: The understood motive was that blacks were bombing their own churches and buildings in order to raise money and get publicity for the movement.
ELLIOTT: She says it was repeated publicly by politicians, including Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace. Other common theories were that the bombings were ordered by Martin Luther King Jr., were part of a communist plot or orchestrated by the FBI.
MCWHORTER: It was repeated so often. I mean, I grew up hearing this from my own father. You know, I think they started believing it. And part of the reason they were able to believe it was that, until the 16th Street Church bombing in September of 1963, when four young girls were murdered, there had been no real fatalities.
ELLIOTT: Even after that deadly Ku Klux Klan attack, police at first zeroed in on the church's black janitor as a suspect. Historian Taylor Branch says conspiracy theories were rampant across the South as African-Americans pushed for equal rights.
TAYLOR BRANCH: It shows the lengths that people will go to not to acknowledge something that they don't want to believe.
ELLIOTT: For instance, what happened in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964.
BRANCH: Three of the civil rights workers were kidnapped by a sheriff's posse of Klansmen and murdered. And because the bodies weren't found, Mississippi officials denied that segregationists could have done this crime and said, first of all, they said there was a hoax. Senator James Eastland even told that to the president on the phone.
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JAMES EASTLAND: I don't believe there's three missing.
LYNDON B. JOHNSON: You got their parents down here.
EASTLAND: I believe it's a publicity stunt.
ELLIOTT: Branch says polarizing times, then and now, lead to an ideological climate where conspiracy theories thrive. It's a low point for the country, says Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama. He's a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Birmingham church bombers.
DOUG JONES: We are living in a time where words matter, just like they did back in the '60s. There were so many things that happened then based on the empowerment that public officials like George Wallace gave. Do people not understand what it takes to kind of tone down the rhetoric to make sure that things like this don't happen with some deranged fool out there who wants to try to hurt people, thinking that he's got the OK to do it?
ELLIOTT: Federal officials declined to talk about potential political motivations, but in a news conference announcing the arrest, Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged the suspect, quote, "appears to be a partisan." Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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