Bus burner's son takes a different path
by Tim Lockette
May 11, 2011 | 11994 views |  1 comments | 71 71 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Portrait of Richard Couch, who is the son of Jerome Couch. Jerome Couch was one of the few people who were actually convicted of a crime in the Freedom Riders bus burning.
Portrait of Richard Couch, who is the son of Jerome Couch. Jerome Couch was one of the few people who were actually convicted of a crime in the Freedom Riders bus burning.
OXFORD — Richard Couch is, essentially, in the same line of work as Atticus Finch.

From a modest, spare law office in an Oxford industrial park, Couch has taken on a long list of defendants, often as a court-appointed attorney. Most of his clients are young, he tells me, and poor. Many of them are people of color.

When I ask why he keeps doing this work, he doesn’t mention his father — the man who, 50 years ago this week, joined a mob of Klansmen who attacked a Freedom Riders bus just outside of Anniston.

He talks, instead, about his experiences in an Oxford elementary school.

“You know, those schools didn’t integrate until the late ’60s or early ’70s,” he said. “When I was in first grade, there were just two black kids in the whole school. And those kids caught hell.”

Couch recalls seeing white students “beat the snot out of” a black classmate. No one lifted a finger to help. No one spoke out.

“If you want to talk about something that bothers me, that bothers me,” he said. “That’s really disturbing.”

If he’s bothered by what his father did half a century ago, he doesn’t have time to show it.

He has court appearances to make, briefs to file. And lately, he’s been getting calls from the media. He’s spoken with The Washington Post, with the Oprah Winfrey Show. And now he’s sitting down with me, here in his office, as his clients jangle the phones at the front desk.

The reporters all want to know about Jerome Couch, Richard’s father, one of the few Klansmen ever to be sentenced for a crime against civil rights protesters.

In 1961, Jerome Couch was a bespectacled, 25-year-old pipe-shop electrician who was on friendly terms with the local leaders of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. When they got word that a mixed-race group of protesters would be riding through Anniston on a multi-state protest against segregation in Southern bus stations, they decided to strike.

Jerome Couch cut the tires of the Freedom Riders bus as it was stopped at the Anniston bus station, his son says. And when the tires of the bus went flat on Alabama 202, FBI documents show, Jerome’s pickup truck was one of the cars that pulled up in front of the bus to bring it to a halt. What happened next — a bus in flames, bloodied protesters by the roadside — was captured in a photograph that galvanized public opinion in favor of the Freedom Riders.

Jerome and four others got probation on a charge of destroying a vehicle engaged in interstate commerce. A man named Roger Couch — no relation to Jerome — got a year and a day in prison. All of them pleaded no contest and were ordered not to associate with the Klan again. The jury, haunted by threatening calls and visits from hooded men, never had a chance to consider the case.

‘Klan robes in the closet?’

Richard Couch, Jerome’s son, spent his earliest years riding around the roads of Oxford in his father’s blue pickup — the same one shown in photographs in the FBI file.

Born two years after the bus burning, Richard doesn’t remember his father as a career racist. Instead, he remembers a family that teetered, for years, on the verge of divorce before the final split when Richard was 7 years old.

Richard won’t talk about the reasons for the divorce, except to quote the legalese: “incompatibility and irretrievable breakdown.”

Richard’s mother, Imogene Couch, was a teacher, a college-educated woman, respected by Oxford parents.

Jerome, Richard said, was less-focused, working by day at the pipe shop while trying his hand at driving an ambulance, becoming an embalmer and running for office as a hopeless, third-party candidate.

It wasn’t the life you’d expect, with a Klansman as a father, Richard said.

“People are asking me, did you ever see Klan robes in the closet?” he said. “They want to hear about burning crosses. It’s not like that.”

It was relatively easy for Jerome to blend back into society, Richard said, because white society in 1960s Alabama was as racist as he was.

“Sure, I heard racist vernacular,” Richard said. “I heard it at church, where the preacher would talk about ‘jungle music.’”

Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, Richard’s secretary, Cindy Graves, pops in. Every time she sees the two of us together, she breaks into a huge grin.

“I swear,” she says. “It’s like the Doublemint Twins.”

This interview is the first time I’ve ever met Richard Couch.

He’s my cousin.

They’re us

I found out about the Freedom Riders, and the bus burning, when I was in high school at Pleasant Valley. I was doing a paper on Martin Luther King Jr. In a history book, I came across the famous photo of the blazing bus. In the book, the photo was mislabeled — it said Klansmen had burned a bus in “Anniston, Ga.”

I took the book to my mother. Did you know there was an Anniston in Georgia?

She told me the story. That it had happened here. And that one of our cousins was involved.

It wasn’t something we’d covered in school.

My connection to Jerome is, admittedly, a slight one. We are, perhaps, third cousins. If I’ve met Jerome, I don’t recall it. It was less a familial relationship than a factoid, a single data point.

But like a negative balance on your bank account, it was a data point that changed the meaning of everything.

It’s one thing to know, in the way many white Southerners know, that there’s probably a Klansman somewhere in the family tree. It’s another thing to have proof.

It changes the way you look at other photos of the civil rights era. The white people in those pictures -— well-dressed, respectable white people shouting obscenities at ministers and women and children marching for their rights —- they seem more real. They’re not them. They’re us.

I always wanted to know more about Jerome Couch. Family members described him as a fairly normal kid, a fun-loving guy with big, horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like a bug. A kid from a religious family. Jerome’s father, Roy, directed the choir at church, clumsily, handing out candy to kids he’d accidentally stabbed with the baton. By all accounts, Jerome was not the guy you’d pick out, in a crowded theater, as a participant in an infamous crime.

What made him tick? What turns a seemingly simple country kid into a member of an angry mob? If you knew what missteps led him down that path, maybe you could avoid taking that step, forever.

‘You prove their case’

“I’ve wondered about that a lot,” Richard Couch said, asked about his father’s motivations. “Even if I agreed with their position on race — which I definitely don’t — what they did just seems stupid. It didn’t even serve their own interests.”

Richard’s best effort at an explanation is a two-parter. First, there was the racism that was endemic in the white community — racism that affected Jerome Couch and everybody else in his community.

“If you lived in a septic tank all your life, you wouldn’t recognize the smell of feces,” he said. “That’s the only way I can explain it.”

Then there’s the harder question: What moved this mob to go down to the bus station and beat people, when other people, raised in the same culture, were off celebrating Mother’s Day?

Richard is mystified by that part. The bus-burning photo showed segregation as brutal, and the Freedom Riders as heroic, he said. Even a Klansman could have seen that coming, Couch said.

“Even if you have an opposite position from a group of people, it makes no sense to attack them like this,” he said. “You prove their case for them.”

He’s pretty sure his father wasn’t thinking in such a big-picture way. Jerome just had a desire to “be involved in something,” Richard said, and the Klan gave him that chance.

Richard hasn’t spoken to his father in a decade, but he says Jerome lives in Opelika and works, or worked, at a funeral home.

Jerome seems to have blended back into society over the years. A 1971 Anniston Star profile paints him as a “fundamentalist, grass-roots Christian” who “transcends the more flamboyant, intolerant” aspects of his faith — a primly dressed Sunday School teacher who was deeply into bird-watching. There’s no mention of the bus burning, and it seems the writer was unaware of Jerome’s involvement in it.

I tracked down several numbers for Jerome Couch or J. Couch in Auburn and Opelika, but those numbers were answered by people who said they didn’t know Jerome, and were alternately bemused or frustrated.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s calling.

‘Shoveling smoke’

Richard’s been getting calls, too, but no one’s going to mistake him for his father.

A self-described liberal, Richard says he voted for Barack Obama in 2008. He beams when he talks about the fact that we have a black president, as if the election results came in yesterday.

And he’s no fundamentalist. He often mentions prayer and meditation, but he quotes Alan Watts and the Gnostic gospels at least as often as the Bible.

Asked how he became so different from his father, Richard takes the long view.

“I guess I’m really a Craft,” he said, referring to his mother’s family. After his parents divorced, his maternal grandfather, an Oxford cotton farmer, became Richard’s father figure. It was the grandfather who convinced Richard to go to college — by showing Richard his callused hands and telling him he didn’t have to work like a farmer.

The Crafts were Roosevelt Democrats, he said, open-minded on race, at least compared to other white Southerners of the time.

“My grandfather said, ‘Don’t ever stand to the side and let four people run over one,’” he said.

And there were others who helped along the way. Among them, Richard cites the FBI agent who befriended his mother during the bus burning trial. He kept Richard’s mother away from the news cameras, something that helped her move on with life after the trial.

Richard Couch keeps those things in mind as he works at his law practice, where on any given day he’s juggling a stack of criminal law cases. Quoting the famed jurist Learned Hand, he said his work often feels like he’s “shoveling smoke.” Even Atticus Finch lost that one big case.

But there are times when Richard Couch wins, and times when a judge sees to the heart of the problem, and gives a defendant a nudge toward community college or job training — something that will break the cycle.

“If you can get a child into a safe home, or if you’re able to help somebody who’s wrongly accused, it makes everything worth it,” he said.

That’s how Richard expects the story of racial justice to play out. He said the Freedom Riders are his heroes — braver and smarter than the mob that met them here. But behind the headlines and the photos was a movement full of people willing to inch forward, one little struggle at a time.

“It’s worth it to do it 100 times, to get it right once,” he said.

Contact assistant metro editor Tim Lockette at 256-235-3560.

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