Rev. C. Herbert Oliver, Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 96
He helped focus the nation on bombings and police abuse in Alabama in the 1960s and, later, on problems with the education of Black students in Brooklyn.,
The Rev. C. Herbert Oliver, a civil rights apostle who confronted the segregationist police commissioner Bull Connor in Birmingham, Ala., and challenged the way the public school system in New York City educated Black children, died on Nov. 30 in Brooklyn. He was 96.
His daughter, Patrice Oliver, confirmed the death. She said he had been admitted to a hospital about a week earlier with respiratory problems.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Oliver was the secretary on a board of Black ministers in Birmingham who created the Inter-Citizens Committee to document police abuse of Black citizens. They chronicled 98 cases of suspicious deaths in police custody, many of which had occurred under the watch of T. Eugene Connor, the police commissioner known as Bull, who declared to the city’s Black population that “as long as you live and as along as Connor lives, there will be segregation in Birmingham and in the South.”
The committee documented “cases of alleged rights violations, both official and nonofficial,” from 1960 to 1965 and widely circulated its reports in letters to public officials and journalists.
In one of the letters, Mr. Oliver recounted the scene he had witnessed from a porch across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963. Four young girls were killed in the bombing.
“Women seeing the covered bodies being brought from the church cried and screamed without restraint,” he wrote. “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.
“The savage, brutal, murderous and ungodly bombing,” he continued, “has revealed to the whole world the evil of racism. 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. If white supremacy consists in the wanton and brutal destruction of worshipers of God in the very house of worship, then I must confess that the church bombers are the most supreme murderers and cowards the world has ever seen.”
The litany of violence publicized by Mr. Oliver helped prompt an article by Harrison E. Salisbury in The New York Times that concluded, “Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state’s apparatus.”
Mr. Connor and other city officials sued The Times and Mr. Salisbury for libel. The commissioner was awarded $40,000 in damages in late 1964, but the verdict was reversed by a federal appeals court, which said that Mr. Salisbury and The Times had “exhibited a high standard of reporting practices.”
As police brutality in Birmingham subsided — which Mr. Oliver attributed to publicity generated by the Inter-Citizens Committee and the libel case — he headed north to a new posting in Brooklyn, where he became embroiled in a controversy that would divide Black and white people for years to come.
In 1967, he was appointed chairman of a new local school board in the predominantly Black Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, in what was called an experiment in decentralization and community control.
But the local board’s attempt to exercise what it considered its authority to transfer white teachers prompted a virulent backlash. The teachers’ union considered the transfers a fundamental threat to hard-won seniority safeguards and called a citywide strike. Many of the dismissed teachers were Jewish, leading to charges of antisemitism. The backlash ultimately led, in 1970, to the end of the experiment in community authority.
Mr. Oliver and members of the board were arrested when they refused to relinquish control, but they ultimately relented.
“There was a lack of good education, and the teachers and principals were not from the community or invested in the students,” Mr. Oliver told the magazine of Wheaton College, his alma mater, in 2018. “We were trying to settle the unrest of the community centered in schools.”
“I believe that was the interest of the parents on the governing board and all people serving on the governing board,” Mr. Oliver later said. “We were not extremists. There were extremists in the community who wished to take control of things, but we stayed to the issue of education.”
Claude Herbert Oliver was born on Feb. 28, 1925, in Birmingham, just a few years after the formation there of the Robert E. Lee klavern of the Ku Klux Klan and the legal segregation of the city’s streetcars. His father, Smith Oliver, was a dry cleaner. His mother, Blonden Oliver, was a homemaker.
He studied at the Missionary Training Institute (now Nyack College in New York) in the early 1940s and graduated from Wheaton, in Illinois, with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1947. He returned to Birmingham after the fatal shooting by police of a Black minister who had been registering Black voters.
“I went to the funeral home where the reverend was, and I stood over him in the casket,” Mr. Oliver told the Wheaton magazine. “I looked at him and thought, ‘If this is what they do to a minister, if something is not done to fix this system, then one day I will lie down like him, and it will be the end of me.'” (He said he himself had survived two attempts on his life.)
In 1948, when he was 23 and serving as pastor of the African American Church in Birmingham, he was arrested, along with several white civil right activists, for “allowing unsegregated seating” in his church.
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania; served for seven years as the pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church in northern Maine; and then returned to Birmingham, where from 1960 to 1965 he worked with the Inter-Citizens Committee and the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, an early associate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Mr. Oliver’s marriage to Ruby King ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, from that marriage, he is survived by his wife, Lorna (Silvera) Oliver; a son, Claude, also from his first marriage; and a grandson.
In Brooklyn, he was pastor of Westminster Bethany Presbyterian Church from 1967 to 1992 and did counseling for a year at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
After receiving his theology degrees in the early 1950s, he recalled in an interview with the Westminster Theological Seminary news site in 2013, “it was understood by the higher-ups in the church that there was no future for me being called to a white church. That’s when the call came to me to serve in Maine, and I accepted that and went there and served.
“But the racial divide in America is still as strong as it was in the ’40s and ’50s,” he added. That divide, he said, was “just more polite, but it is no less real, no less firm, and no less impregnable.”