Don Jelinek was a SNCC organizer and LCDC attorney in Mississippi and Alabama from 1965-1968.]
|Wall Street Lawyer Goes South||Paul Bokulich: The Battle Against All-White Juries|
|Civil Rights Lawyer For The Movement||"... More Important Than Sheriff or Governor"|
|Civil Rights Lawyer as a Civil Rights Worker||Southern Whites Attack Civil Rights Lawyer|
|Problems of a Civil Rights Lawyer as an Organizer||Fired by ACLU as a "Gangrenous Arm"|
|Second Chance: Going Home And Coming Back||Selma Underground: The Fathers of St. Edmund|
|Sex and the South: From Slavery to The Movement||SNCC: Vietnam, Israel, & Violence|
|White Lawyer in Black Power Selma||Fight For Food: SRRP Feeds Tens of Thousands|
|Blacks vs Blacks in the First Black Elections||Final Departure: Leaving the South|
Bruce Hartford: So how did a nice guy like you get involved in civil rights? How did you get involved in the Movement?
Don Jelinek: I was then 31, I came down to Mississippi for my three-week summer vacation and stayed three years. I was then working on Wall Street . . .
Bruce: As a lawyer
Don: As a lawyer. A lawyer friend from another firm had gone South in '64. And when he came back . . .
Bruce: When you say "gone South in '64," you mean for Freedom Summer?
Don: That's right, and when he came back from his three-week summer vacation work, he told me and other people what had gone on. I felt embarrassed because as between the two of us, I was supposed to be the "political" one. So, he connected me with ACLU; I called up and made arrangements to go the next summer: 1965.
Bruce: Summer of 65?
Don: Summer of 65. Once I decided to go, I told a number of my co-workers and the next thing I know, one of the Wall Street partners calls me into his office to tell me how well I am doing, that I was approaching partnership track, but that going South wouldn't sit well with a number of their clients. Not him personally, God forbid! but the ACLU communist thing, he said, made things "not comfortable." He said, coincidently, that in that same time period that I would be away, they are going to have a partnership meeting, concerning new partners, and I might want to be available. He was coming on very forcefully. I said that as tempting as all that is, I couldn't possibly not go South after having committed myself to going. I made up stories about how ACLU had rejected other people to accept me; Yes, I would like to not go but I cannot back out at this late date.
Bruce: This is a year in advance?
Don: Well, I had set it up with ACLU nine months in advance and then, on the eve of the summer, called to confirm it; I started talking about it a few months in advance. Wall Street was not alone in wishing I would not go. My parents were unhappy that I was jeopardizing my lawyer position to "work for the colored who don't like Jews anyhow." My law school friends all thought I was crazy, and accused me of turning radical.
And so the day finally came and I sat in an airport, awaiting a plane that flew to Jackson, Mississippi. En route to Mississippi, where the prevailing civic and cultural activity seemed to be the lynching of blacks and sympathetic outsiders like myself I felt a twinge of madness. At New York's John F. Kennedy airport, on August 15, 1965, waiting for a flight South to serve a three-week stint as a volunteer civil rights lawyer, I was proud . . . but mostly I was frightened. Frightened because the bodies of three civil rights workers had been unearthed the previous summer, because three others had already been slain this year, because a civil rights lawyer had been shot at only a few months ago, but mostly because, to me, Mississippi was Nazi Germany with a Southern accent and I was a Jew voluntarily flying to the crematorium.
Frightened but proud. I was joining the beautiful struggle . . . and beautiful was the word of the day. The Civil Rights Movement was beautiful: young civil rights workers clad in workshirts and blue jeans courageously defending the black sharecropper, an ageless yet aged farmer; the saintly leader Martin Luther King, Jr., leading his people to the refrain of the civil rights anthem, "Black and White Together, We Shall Overcome!" America the Beautiful was united in combat against the evil of racism.
But the black rural South I was about to enter was not as I envisioned it that day safely seated in a New York airport. Three years later when I looked back upon it I could still say it was beautiful, even up close, even after the stereotypes and cliches were stripped away. Yet it was not beautiful in any way easily understood by a citified Northerner. During those three years, I was to discover and rediscover an alien world, no, two alien worlds: one, that of the black sharecropper, the other that of the civil rights worker each in its own way fighting to overcome a caste system, conceived in slavery, reinforced by law and official acquiescence, and maintained by custom and violence.
The world of the black sharecropper, invisible to voter registrars and census takers, materialized for me in the form of families with as many as 18 children, living in wooden, dirt-floored shacks, the walls with gaping holes covered by newspapers and pictures of Jesus Christ, John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Freezing winters were relieved, if at all, by a pot-belly stove, the only source of heat as well as the sole implement for cooking. Sweltering summers were not relived at all. Medical care was virtually non-existent from birth to death, from no prenatal care to unattended demise. And medical care was desperately needed for nutritionally-starved adults and lethargic, malnourished children, the product of a diet of greens, cornbread, occasional pork parts drowned in thick gravy, Kool-Aid and coffee. From dawn to dusk the sharecroppers farmed, but at the end of the year, they were still in debt, with even less money for a decent home, decent food and minimal medical care the next year.
But despite (or because of?) the privation, the sharecroppers were wholesome, religious, caring people: caring, in fact, for large extended families including the babies of their children working in the North, and old folks who were never shuttled off to old-age homes. Serious crime and adultery were almost unknown, children were respectful of their elders, marriages didn't seem to break up, few farmers even cursed. Down to their last morsel (literally, their last), a sharecropper family would share their meal with another black family or a civil rights worker.
And the social rituals were striking. When I drove up to a sharecropper's home, introduced myself and offered a document for the farmer to sign, he would simply ignore my breach of basic friendliness and tell someone to run inside and "get this man some Kool-Aid." Then all the children would swarm around me as their elders asked questions: Where are you from? Do you have a family (meaning a wife and children)? What do you think of the South? Hot 'nuf for you? Have you seen so-and-so? Is this one out of jail? Has that one recovered from the beating? Isn't it horrible that another one was shot to death? Then neighbors would arrive and ask the same questions all over again. I would be expected to stay for dinner, play with the children (who intermittently searched for black skin under my whiteness) and probably stay overnight why not? since by then it was too late to see anyone else.
Representing the black farmer was a shock for a Wall Street lawyer accustomed to impersonal, professional relationships timed to the quarter hour. If Paul Revere had tried to warn black Mississippi, I thought to myself, he would have ridden up, shouted "The British are coming" and would still be at the first house talking about his silverware when the King's Men arrived.
Communication at first was nearly impossible. The black sharecropper would speak v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, forcing the visitor to grit his teeth to avoid interrupting and finishing the sentence; the words of the Northerner would be in the rhythm of a railroad train, roaring ahead, seemingly out of control the speeded-up abbreviated speech patterns overwhelming to the rural listener. Adding to the confusion each speaker would add regional accents, drawls, colloquialisms and style the latter a very serious matter since the white Northerner spoke with ironic humor, exaggeration and sarcasm, while the black Southerner, holding a very straightforward view of life, considered hyperbole a lie. A further complication was the tendency of some blacks, dating back to days of slavery, to tell the white man what it was thought he wanted to hear. To achieve even the semblance of communication, veteran civil rights workers were, at times, pressed into service as interpreters.
Even time and directions had their own language. Since few black sharecroppers used clocks or calendars, time was told by the sun (a few hours before sunrise, stop at midsun) or events (the day the candyman came, cotton choppin' week, the Sunday the Preacher came to town); directions depended upon nature (turn left at the big oak, then down a piece to the three cows and there would be three cows!); and appointments were made by the week (Will you be in your office next week? Good, I'll be by).
Culture-shocked while adjusting to the sharecropper, the Northern newcomer simultaneously encountered the world of the civil rights worker, a separate society with its own culture and rules for every moment of the day. Emulating the sharecropper, the civil rights workers dressed in overalls, workshirts and boots, and spoke a bastardized Negro language, saying things like, "The Peoples have a right to reddish to vote." Every black was referred to by the honorific "Mr." or "Mrs.", while civil rights workers, no matter what age, were called by their first names; the Southern white tradition of humiliating a black by calling him "boy" or by his first name (which had the same connotation), led civil rights workers to reverse the tradition in the extreme. And there was always the dilemma of how to refer to the former slaves: to the local whites the term was "Nigger," or, if they were progressive, "Nigra"; to the subjects themselves it was "Colored"; and to civil rights workers it was "Negro," with "Black" yet to come.
And how was one to deal with the exasperatingly endless acronyms of civil rights organizations: COFO, CORE, MFDP, NAACP, SNCC? Many a prosecutor regretted asking my clients, merely attempting to establish the outsider as a civil rights worker: "Aren't you with the N double A CP?" A wrinkle would creep up the brow of the witness as he began to explain that he had come down with COFO, joined SNCC, is at times attached to MFDP, but mostly just "works for the Peoples."
Distinguishing the civil rights workers from any other group of Americans was the need for rules to stay alive. Because civil rights was warfare, a breach could mean death for the rule-breaker, death for those nearby, and a whipping up of the bloodlust of racist whites. Even the savage Klan, the Movement believed, found it difficult to kill in cold blood. They needed craved! provocation; the Movement's avoidance of that provocation was credited with the relatively few civil rights deaths in a society where whites could kill with virtual impunity. To avoid provocation, there were the rules of nonviolence (If cursed, do not curse back; if pushed, do not push back; if struck, do not strike back) and the rules of behavior and dress (Avoid bizarre or controversial behavior. No face hair. Be neat). To remain alive in communities where the mere presence of the civil rights worker was a provocation, one had to follow the rules of survival:
--and many more rules.
Bruce: You know, to this day I still disable the dome light on every car I drive so it doesn't light up when I open the door.
Don: The death toll was kept low by following these rules. When a civil rights worker was killed, injured or placed in danger, it was often because he or she had broken a rule.
I learned most of the rules from one civil rights worker including the rule that saved my life:
BE CAPABLE OF DRIVING AT 50 TO 60 MPH ON WINDING DIRT ROADS WHILE JIGGLING THE WHEEL TO CREATE A DUST CURTAIN BEHIND
Shelby, 25, a black native of Mississippi and a veteran civil rights worker, taught me how to drive Movement-style. Each morning at 5 am, he would conduct classes.
"Remember," he would instruct, "these are dirt roads which the Man rarely uses. He don't know them. You will. There is more traction on them, and you can make sharper turns than you or he would imagine." Then he would execute a screeching turn as I alternately cursed and prayed.
"Now you do it!" he would say. "DON'T GRIP THE WHEEL, no, faster! turn on two wheels, turn, TURN! O.K. Enough for today."
I would be shaking. Shaking but pleased that I could execute a turn at 45 mph, and excited that Shelby thought I would ever need this dubious skill.
When I broke one of the rules
and took a shortcut to save time, driving Movement-style saved my life. Within moments of driving my vehicle through the off-limits community, I was spotted by three whites who immediately jumped into a pickup truck, with rifles in racks across the rear window. The chase began . . . Bruce, I'll discuss this later, in context.
The worlds of the black sharecropper and the civil rights worker would fuse in the year-long drives for voter registration, school integration and other civil rights goals. Organizing would be done in the open, sometimes in the Plantation Owner's cotton fields, other times at public church meetings, often on public roads and, in small rural communities, everyone knew everything that occurred. The sharecropper who listened, who gave a civil rights worker a bed to sleep in and/or food to eat, would be known to the merchant, the police chief and the Klan. The price was high and those who crossed that line could never return. Never have I known such courage.
Finally boarding a Delta flight to the capital city of Jackson, I remember my image that I would step off the plane into swamp. Also, in those days I was suffering from back problems and I wore a back girdle. I strapped it extra tight. You know, protection when they hit me. Then the plane landed.
A civil rights worker spotted me at the airport and said, "Are you Jelinek?" I said, "Who are y'all?" Trying to protect myself. He laughed, thinking I was just kidding. He drove me to North Farish Street and took me up to the ACLU office. And by this time, I was really glad I came. Really enjoying it.
I loved Steven's Kitchen across the street, where civil rights workers ate, related their experiences and relaxed together. At this point, I am not sure I had ever heard of SNCC, or knew that it was a separate organization: I thought there was Dr. King and that was it. Then I met the SNCC people and really liked them. So while the lawyers would hang out together, I would hang out with SNCC and attracted negative notice among the lawyers, who started telling me that "You really don't want to spend too much time with them. They are impossible, just lawbreakers, and they thrive on it. No discipline, all us lawyers forever wasting time getting them out of trouble, when we have bigger things, integration things, to be doing." I didn't stop "hangin" with SNCC but I was more discreet about it.
And then a case came my way: a young civil rights woman with a community group picketing "Piggly Wiggly" a grocery chain. While some white guys were hassling them, one pushed her and she lost her balance and brushed against him with a sign. So they arrested her for assault. That was my case.
Bruce: And this is in Jackson.
Don: Right, this is a baby case, a case only worthy for somebody as new as I am.
Bruce: Right, a short timer.
Don: We had the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which took mostly matters that had momentous consequences. Then there was the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, known as the "President's Committee?" Formed by President Kennedy because of embarrassment about Southern racism, seen by the emerging African nations. A high prestige group, they primarily represent civil rights leaders, Ministers, and other higher ups. Then there is us, the Lawyer Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC) of the ACLU. ACLU's role was to take care of the "little people," such as this community organization, so they give me the case. The difference between me and most of the others in ACLU was that I was coming from a high-powered law firm in New York. The others had been mostly operating small offices, like I have now.
Bruce: I thought LCDC was independent. I thought ACLU was different.
Don: No, no, LCDC was ACLU's civil rights wing.
Bruce: So LCDC was a subset of ACLU.
Don: Yes. Its formal name was the Lawyer's Constitutional Defense Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Bruce: And the LCRC, the Lawyer's Constitutional Right's Committee, was the one Kennedy set up.
Don: Lawyer's Committee for Civil Right's Under Law.
Bruce: Okay, alright. You know back in the day, you needed a f****** program for the acronyms.
Don: You sure did. So, back to the case. There were 20 demonstrators on the line.
Bruce: On the picket line?
Don: On the picket line. So I bring all 20 to the office. I am getting straightened out who was standing where, who saw what doing this whole Wall Street-type exhaustive preparation. But the ACLU lawyers are really annoyed, in part because ACLU doesn't have that much space in their offices, plus the noise, but mostly it was what they called "the silliness of it, since you can't win anyhow." They are really heckling me though I keep on doing the interviews but they are annoying me so much that I stop working out of the office. SNCC has a place and we work there and get it down nice and pat, until we are ready. Comes the day of trial, I started going up . . . You've seen the courthouse?
Bruce: No, I was never at the Jackson Courthouse. I never spent much time in Jackson.
Don: Well, it is a really massive, beautiful, beautiful, courthouse. Many, many, steps. So there I am with my young group. I am 31; they are all late teens, or early twenties.
Bruce: They were probably from the North Jackson NAACP youth group. Is that who they were?
Don: I don't think I ever knew. We start walking up the steps of the courthouse and we see police with rifles running up the steps ahead of us and one state trooper, his rifle held with military precision across his chest, standing directly in our path. My client frantically whispered to me that this had never before happened on the way to court. Mustering my deepest voice to mask my fear, the state trooper now a mere five paces ahead of me, I demanded to know why he was blocking a lawyer entering a courthouse in the United States of America.
Bruce: They had rifles, not clubs?
Don: The people who do courts use rifles. I'm trying to do my New York macho thing. But it appeared the trooper in front of us was frightened also; he is very young, very nervous. He says, "You can go, sir, but we don't want these demonstrators . . . " "They are not demonstrators," I said. "They are my witnesses." He says, "Really?" I said, "Really." Remembering this great respect for lawyers, I say, "I guarantee it. Everyone of them is going to testify. They are witnesses." The Troopers have a conference and decide it's okay.
Well, I made a big hit with my group, having gotten past this first obstacle. And so we go into the courtroom and see the judge already on the bench, seated between flags of the State of Mississippi and the Confederacy. If there was a United States flag, I didn't see it. They call our case and the "victim-thug" testifies about how he was struck by her. And then she testifies that he pushed her, and so on. Next I start calling the first of the 19 witnesses. The judge looks at the size of the group and he says, "Are they all going to testify to the same thing this girl did?" I say, "Yes, your honor." The Judge grunts, "Very well, Not Guilty. Pick up your bail money at the clerk's office. Next case."
In hindsight, I believe he did it because the case was going to take so long or perhaps to reward the naive lawyer who took his court seriously enough to bring 20 witnesses to a Southern civil rights trial. The client and witnesses are awed. You don't win cases here.
Bruce: Not in Jackson in '65.
Don: I don't think I won one for a year after that. So my witnesses leave and do the civil rights troubadour thing, telling everyone what happened. As they go to trumpet the result, while the client goes with me to the ACLU office.
The lawyers start to heckle me immediately, which is really getting on my nerves. And they say, "Well, congratulations, nice to see she is not in jail." I get really annoyed and I say, "Oh, yes, she's free," as I pull out the bail money in $10's and $20's, thumbing through them like a Las Vegas teller and ask innocently, "What do I do with the bail money?"
"What do mean 'What do you do with the bail money?'" someone says. The client says, "I was dismissed." I say, "No, the case was dismissed, you were acquitted." And they say, "Acquitted? That never happens."
Then they start a discussion about the significance of the acquittal ignoring my role and what it might mean about new Southern attitudes. So I leave and go outside. From this case, I develop some minor stature and, you know, SNCC is an organization which is really an "us" and "them." And "them" are the ones who aren't staying long in the South. But I kind of got a little closer because of the victory. And so now I am invited to parties, and I'm spending even more time with SNCC; at the same time they are saying nice things about me, which is spreading up to the Boss of Mississippi ACLU
Bruce: Uh oh.
Don: The Boss is really not feeling good about me and I even overheard him asking somebody how much longer I was going to be there. He calls for me and says. "I got a case for you in Holly Springs," which is about as far from Jackson as you can get . . .
Bruce: . . . without leaving Mississippi.
Don: That's right. And that will take care of the week I have left. So, I say goodbye to the SNCC people, figuring I won't be seeing them again. Somebody says we got somebody going up in that area. He's a divinity student. "Could you give him a lift?" I said, "Sure."
A guy named Peter came by the next morning and we drove up, having a grand time talking. Finally he says, "Alright, turn off here." That day I learned "Colored Geography." When the pavement ends, the colored man's dirt road and world begin. As my car hit the soil for the first time, the red dust splattered over everything from shoes to nostrils. Even closed car windows couldn't keep it out.
I asked, "Exactly where are we going?" He says, "I know where it is but I always get the name wrong: 'Okahola' or 'Okalona,' one of those Indian names." The names sounded familiar. Is one of them off limits? Where nobody goes anymore. Probably the other one.
We drive in and he introduces me to the workers. Now these are not SNCC workers, this is a Christian something or other, made up of very dedicated people. And they are all excited to see me because I am a lawyer. And they say, we never get lawyers up here, because and they name my Boss and then they stop in the middle of the sentence. Yes, this is probably the county he talked about. But what's the difference. I'm just dropping Peter off.
Then one of the Christians tells me, "We have a case coming up in a few days involving the black sharecropper leader." I said "It doesn't matter, because I got this case in the Holly Springs, very important. I haven't got the time." And mostly I want to get out of there. They say, "Well, at least you should meet him [the leader]." A trick I now know but didn't know then. The thing never to do.
Bruce: Yeah, definitely.
Don: So I go to his place and he is the first sharecropper I've met. This is first cotton I have seen. I hadn't been out of Jackson.
Bruce: You're in the Delta now.
Don: I am overwhelmed by the poverty I had not seen in the capital city of Jackson. I view a shack with no running water (just a pump), not even an outhouse (discreet bushes 50 yards away), no electricity, holes in cardboard-thin walls, a pot-belly stove for heat and cooking, and a large porcelain basin to squat in for bathing.
Then I see the children and hold back tears: open scabs and sores, flies sucking at the wounds, the children too listless to interfere, with distended stomachs I had only seen in newsreels of the starving youth of underdeveloped nations.
I shake hands with the local leader, he invites me in and feeds me. He never says a word about his case. Not a word. Just talking about me, life in New York, and what not. And then I say, "I'll represent you." He never even asked. I said, "I'll come back on the way from Holly Springs." I found out when the case is and I say the Boss must never find out. Everybody agrees.
I double back to the highway, then head north, then west a short way. I am driving through Oxford, home of writer William Faulkner and the seat of the University of Mississippi, which a few years earlier had been integrated by a black student, James Meredith, with the assistance of the federalized National Guard and the U.S. Army. Resisting the temptation to sightsee, I continue due north to my destination: Holly Springs, a sleepy Southern community where blacks work the Man's place on shares, and maybe earn a bit off season in nearby Memphis, Tennessee. Holly Springs is also headquarters for the North Mississippi Civil Rights Movement.
Late because of Peter, I meet Aviva Futorian for the first time. She is sitting on the porch of the Freedom House; atop its second floor I see a huge poster of black and white hands united across signs proclaiming "SNCC" and "MFDP." She's angry at me. She coolly explains that one of the reasons punctuality rules existed was to spare those waiting the need to wonder if you were dead. I apologized. Aviva then relaxed, asked about my background, and, of course, how long I was staying.
Next I met Rita and Sid Walker, who are just wonderful and they invite me to stay in the Freedom House that night. Rita was a gracious, lovely person and made me feel very much at home. She and Sid made sure I was introduced to everybody. Treated me, just treated me real well. And, I liked Sid, I liked all of them.
The next morning I stoutly demand: "Give me a large breakfast so I'll have enough energy for my one line in court today." Everyone laughed. This was a famous case. The local Movement newspaper, the Benton County Freedom Train, had called the black principal an "Uncle Tom." And he sued for libel. Of course, the famous Times v. Sullivan case [no libel against a public figure without malice] was already in effect but that didn't stop the jury which awarded a great deal of money against Aviva and 10 local black leaders. And a few of them, particularly leader Henry Reeves, had something to lose.
Bruce: As did Aviva's parents.
Don: The case would eventually be won. A talented Harvard professor had tried the case and laid the groundwork for a successful appeal. But under Mississippi law and many other places in order to appeal you have to first move for a new trial. And the reason you do that is so the judge could theoretically decide he was wrong. I was there to simply say "We move for a new trial!" The judge will say "denied" and then we win on appeal.
That morning in court, after graciously welcoming me, the Judge fired his first volley: "I fear, Mr. Jelinek, that I am not permitted to allow you to appear before me in this case no matter how much I would like to. You see, we allowed Mr. Bronstein and a distinguished gentleman from Harvard to defend this case without a license to practice law in our state, and we extend the same courtesy to you. But, only they are the lawyers in this case, and only they can participate unless you have their written authorization."
I had no written authorization, no one had thought of it, nor had such authorization ever been requested before. One civil rights lawyer replaced another all the time. Although the Judge was technically right, it was a technicality only applied to a civil rights advocate.
Don: "Could Mr. Bronstein authorize me by phone?" I asked, without hope. "No," said the Judge, mock apologetically. Fearing he wouldn't recognize Mr. Bronstein's voice, the Judge noted, (to the delight of the other lawyers) his problem distinguishing Northern voices. "You can have until the end of the court day" (three more hours and it was a four-hour drive from Jackson), the Judge offered, "to do something, or I fear I cannot hear or allow the Motion for a New Trial." With that disallowal would go the chance to appeal the verdict and save someone's tractor, someone else's cows, and the Benton County Movement. Panicking, I thanked the Judge for the three hours and stumbled out of the courtroom.
Some of the clients assumed the problem was my fault; a more experienced lawyer wouldn't have allowed this mess. I call the Boss and he seems to blame me also. He is really upset. This is terrible. He talks about chartering a plane, but the clock is ticking. And sitting outside on a bench, all the sharecroppers are facing me, looking at me. They don't totally understand what is happening but they know it's something bad. I am trying to calm myself down. I'm also very upset.
I start to think about lawyering in New York. The law, I had learned in the Big City, was a game in which you fudged a bit, sometimes stretched a point, or even cheated a little. The other side did the same and the smarter one triumphed. Today I was the smarter one. As I smiled to myself, I must have looked like a cartoon strip character with the light bulb going on over his head. Lunging for my briefcase and then walking quickly to where my clients huddled, I pulled out the legal papers with the title of the case (which named each client) and began calling roll. Each litigant answered "Here," none daring to defy the crazy lawyer who seemed to know what he was doing. "Ah hah! Everyone's here!" I exclaimed, and then laughed again; a few weakly laughed with me.
"Since you are all here," I now explain, "all you have to do is fire the other lawyers and switch me as your lawyer. Then I'll file the motion in my name." With a roar of approval from the clients, we storm into the courtroom.
As the judge saw me, he knew I had figured out a way to undo the problem. He could tell. I told him what we planned to do and he told me it wasn't necessary to fire the other lawyers; as a courtesy, he would allow me to appear and speak my magic words. I do and the day is saved. So now I tell Aviva to call my Boss and tell him the problem is over. She says, "Why aren't you calling him?" I say, "Well, I am stopping off somewhere along the way and I don't want to have to discuss it with him. So you call and say I just drove off."
"You sort of like this civil rights stuff, don't you?" she said. I nodded. "Not just the lawyer part," she added. And I say, "Yeah, I really do." "When you finish your time at ACLU," she says, "why don't you come back and stay a week? Work with us as a real civil rights worker."
Bruce: Wily woman, she.
Don: "Replace your suit with overalls," she says. "See what it is really like." And then she adds the clincher; I'm easy to read: "Of course, it's more dangerous then when you are a lawyer wearing a suit." She knew she had me and I said, "I'll think about it."
So I drive south to my next stop, still hearing the praise of Benton County in my mind. I get there after dark. The problem is they don't have any numbers on the doors. There are also no street lights, although I could have sworn there was a street light when I was last here. So I drive around to three or four potentials. It's very hot and I got the windows open. I pull into a makeshift driveway, tap the horn lightly and slide down into my seat to wait.
"DON'T MOVE!" a voice commands, as rifles are thrust through the side windows of my car. I don't move but whisper, "It's me, Jelinek?" my voice rises in a singsong, "the lawyer?"
A pause, then nervous laughter. "Sorry, Mr. Jerinekel, we didn't recognize you in the dark. You do have (snicker) very short hair (and a round Southern-type face, they gallantly left out) and we're expecting some trouble. C'mon in, we'll hide your car."
While they all laugh, my heart's pumping like crazy. And they say, "There's been a bit of a problem. They (the terrifying 'they') shot out the mercury light," the street light I was looking for. I ask, "Who is 'they' and why'd they shoot it out?" "It's the Klan and they shot it out because they found out that a civil rights lawyer is coming to court tomorrow."
I could guess some big mouth in this room showed off and alerted them. "They said they are coming back tonight. We tried to call you in Holly Springs to tell you not to come in till morning. But now you are safer here than leaving. We are going to put you in a back house. Sort of a wrecked house that nobody ever uses and they won't even know you are there . . . if they come; then if anything happens to us, you'll still be okay." I am thinking to myself, Yeah, right, you'll all be killed and I'll just drive in by myself tomorrow for the case. Yeah, right, great plan, but actually being hidden in the back house didn't make me feel so bad. So, I am in the back house, and I am remembering that I heard in Jackson from the lawyers that "civil rights workers are always buckling on their armor, always talking a good war, making most of it up."
Bruce: Wait, wait a minute, you said that to them?
Don Jelinek No, no. It was the lawyers in Jackson who said to me that you can't take them seriously; they are always bragging about danger.
Don: And just about the moment I had that thought, a ritualistic gun duel begins. Shots ring out and I can tell the shots are coming at the house in the front and from the house. At least it sounded that way to me. (Later I learned both sides were shooting high.)
It goes on for seconds, or minutes, I don't know. But, I am terrified. And then the shooting stops. The Christians could all be dead and now the Klan is coming for me. They have seen the extra car. They are coming around. Then I am hearing things, freaking out. I look out the window and I see white sheets: it's either laundry or the Klan. There is a broomstick in the room, and I am holding it as my weapon. I lie down on the bed springs, no mattress, as quietly as I can, about as frightened as I have ever been. I began what became my danger-mantra: If I survive tonight, I am going to drive right to the Memphis Airport sorry guys, I got work to do in New York. This is crazy. Why am I doing this to myself? I think I then blacked out. You know, hyper-ventilating.
And the next thing I know it's the morning and one of the Christians is waking me up and . . . and I felt so good. Even though no one had shot at me, I felt heroic. I just felt wonderful embarrassingly wonderful.
So I go inside with the Christians, have breakfast and we drive into town. I learn that the entire case involves my client purchasing something defective from a merchant. And my client wants to return it and get his money back. No black has ever challenged anyone before in this town. Even without a lawyer, he was going to do it himself, I mean, amazingly daring. And so we drive into town and I look for a courthouse. But what I see are a bunch of people on a porch.
I stop near the porch and somebody points out the judge. Of course, the judge is the town used-car salesman, because the circuit riding (real) judges only come every so often; in the interim, a non-lawyer, Justice of the Peace handles minor matters. The judge asks if I am ready. "Yes, I am, sir." And he says, "I hope you don't mind if we have the trial out of doors because it's very hot inside, not fancy like in your New York." (I used to wonder how they all knew I was from New York, but eventually I realized they just assumed everybody was from New York.) I respond, ingratiatingly, "New York is very stuffy, the courthouses are terrible there, it's much nicer here out in the air."
"Where will we hold the trial?" My question sets off some snickering among the deputies until one, with apoplectic laughter, manages to sputter: "We . . . usually use the space under that tree . . . over there . . . in case there be a hangin'." At this all the deputies explode with laughter. I inform the "judge" that the tree would be fine with me.
Although to say the least I'm apprehensive, I say, "Who is the merchant?" They point him out and I walk over to him and say, "This product (whatever it was) doesn't work, I'm sure you don't want to sell things that don't work." I am ignoring the civil rights aspect of all this. "Why don't you give him a new one or take 75 cents off?" or something like that. In no time at all he gives a discount. There is great surprise. The case is over and most depart.
The merchant, now the Southern gentleman, invites Peter and I to his store "for a cold bottle of pop to get the dust out of your throats." This was exactly the brotherhood that divinity student Peter was waiting for, so he accepts for us and I follow behind. As soon as we enter the store, which is directly opposite the "courthouse," the merchant's mood transforms into fierce belligerence. "Why didn't you stay and work in Watts and Harlem," he bellows. "How would you like your daughter to marry one? What about the Communists behind all of this?" His face is crimson as he challenges us.
Outside the window, I can see white toughs surrounding my car. In a day of folly, I had hit my peak. I turn to the merchant, not having answered any of his rhetorical questions, thank him for the pop and say I'd like to continue our conversation. Would he walk us to the car so we could exchange a few more words? He garbled something and walked out the door with us while I kept up a harmless Watts-Harlem discussion. As I hoped, the sea of toughs parted on the driver's side as he walked with us. Peter and I both enter the car. Promising to visit him again, we drive off.
Bruce: Now the divinity student is with you?
Don: Yes, and, in fact, he entered the car through the driver's side, because you don't want to walk around the other side where those guys are. We drive off to Jackson, where the Boss finds out and roars at me: "You've been nothing but a problem since you got here, just leave!" I tell him, "I am leaving Jackson, but to become a civil rights worker in Holly Springs." He says "No, you're not!" I respond, "I'm sorry, but I don't work for you any more. I can do what I want with my time." And he says, "That's not true," as he calms down a little bit. He adds, "Anything that happens to you, such as getting arrested, could jeopardize the fragile relationships between civil rights lawyers and the Southern Bar." I scoff at the prospect of being arrested. Then he offers a compromise: I can spend my week with Aviva if I wear a suit and tie the whole time. The Boss' intuition never ceased to amaze me. Realizing that I wanted to play civil rights worker, he knew that wearing my suit would keep me a lawyer and block my entry to the jean-clad army. I gave my word.
Later that day, as I telephone Aviva to say I'm coming, I imagine the Boss telephoning ACLU in New York, yelling: ". . . and don't ever send that schmuck to Mississippi again!" As I picture him in his animated monologue, I picture myself putting on coveralls and joining the Movement.
A SNCC guy who was going up to Holly Springs took me along, acting as both my guide and historian, as he told me about his years in the Movement. We found Aviva and she took me in her car, as I become a civil rights worker at least for one week.
Bruce: Now this is in Benton County or Holly Springs?
Don: In Benton County. I'm not used to anybody knowing Benton County, so I always call it "Holly Springs," the famous city, part of Marshall County, and next door to little Benton County. Aviva got me a nice place to stay, where the people had better accommodations than most, though not running water. Then she started introducing me around. Now, she tells me that my main job is to get 20 signatures for the Voting Rights Act. And I thought that should be easy.
Bruce: What do you mean?
Don: Under the Voting Rights Act (passed that year), when a community has a high population of blacks with few allowed to register to vote, when they get 20 signatures asking that the voting rights registrar be sent to that community . . .
Bruce: Right, then the federal registrar is sent. So, by now, this has got to be August . . .
Don: September. And apparently Registrars hadn't been sent hardly anywhere yet, because the Act was so new.
Bruce: We never had it in Crenshaw County when I was there. We didn't even know about that 20 signatures thing.
Don: Well, Aviva knew her stuff. And so I start doing it. I'm amazed at how long it takes to get a signature, because everybody wants to talk. And so do I. I meet my first family, which is the Steward's. So there's the Steward's, their kids and the grandmother. We talked for a number of hours. That's the first day I was picking cotton. I'm wearing my suit, as I've just driven up . . .
Bruce: You were picking cotton in your suit?
Don: No, no, no, no, no. I'm meeting them in my suit. And one of the kids asks me to pick cotton with them. And the grandma says, "How can he pick cotton wearing a suit?" And I said, "I have my work clothes in my briefcase." They thought that was very funny. So I put on my work clothes and spend the rest of the morning picking cotton with them, although most of what I claimed to have picked was put in my sack by the children. But my back was hurting real bad and I thought I would pass out from the sun.
"Hot 'nuf for you?" I was constantly asked with sly grins. Periodically, the grandmother answered for me that this 110 degree torture "could singe the eyebrows offa yuh." I agreed. After two hours I was almost faint, but I kept working, now sitting on the ground, with limited access to the plant. When they stopped after three-and-a-half hours, my sack contained enough to earn me about $1.25.
Finally, we go in for lunch. I sit down in a rocking chair and the next thing I know it's dark. They're back from the field. I hadn't eaten. I just fell asleep in the chair, fortuitously, having missed the second round in the cotton fields. So by now it's getting late, Aviva hasn't shown up, so I stay over, and Aviva picks me up the next morning. She says at this rate, I'll never finish. "But, at least you got three signatures," she says. "Oops," I say, "I forgot to ask them to sign."
Well, later that week there is a church meeting, and Aviva asks me to speak. I paraphrase something from the Bible which is rather well received. And I am just loving everybody. And it's really getting under my skin now. I hadn't wanted to come South, now I don't want to leave. But I have to.
Bruce: Why do you have to leave?
Don: Because I'm a professional, I work on Wall Street, I have a career, money to earn, you know, a life.
And so, as the week comes to an end, Aviva says to me, "Are you really going to leave without having gotten the 20 signatures?" Of course not being totally stupid I'm starting to realize that Aviva could have gotten the 20 signatures in about an hour. I'd already sent one telegram to Wall Street about finishing up an important case, and now I send the second one that I'm still in this big case, but I'll definitely be back by the end of this week. The second week was a continuation of the first, except something really dramatic happens. The "Uncle Tom" libel case struck again.
I'm visiting Henry Reeves, which is something we all did very often because we really liked and admired him . . . and he had one of the only showers in the county. I'm in the shower when his son, Sonny, runs to me and says, "Come quick, quick, the sheriff is here." So I pull on my clothing and run outside. The Sheriff tells me that something wasn't done in the "Uncle Tom" case, that as a result, they have the right to enforce their judgment, and so they're literally taking away his cows and everything he has.
Mustering my New York lawyer bravado, I look him in the eye and say, with the wrath of the righteous: "Listen carefully to me, Sheriff. Remove the stuff then, but take good care of it because you'll be bringing it back by the end of the week." The sheriff smiled, loaded the cows into his van, attached the tractor to the rear and drove off as Mr. Reeves joined the poor of Benton County.
Aviva told me that was one of the best things that I did up there, just standing up to him with those words.
I quickly called Jackson, the Boss was appalled, but it was a small problem an appeal bond due on a Saturday when the courts are closed, was filed on a Monday when the courts were open an issue quickly resolved in our favor. In a couple days the cows are back, and most erroneously assume that it's because of me.
Finally I got my 20th signature and the federal man will one day be coming to register the blacks of Benton County. While I was searching for Aviva to tell her my good news, she was waiting for me, to tell me her bad news: Aviva, who had been in Mississippi for over two years, had decided to leave and return home.
Leaving the Deep South for veteran civil rights workers ranked with the death of a loved one as one of life's most grievous moments. Yet the time came for almost everyone in the Movement when the urge to return to normalcy rendered civil rights work unpalatable, and the impulse to leave, uncontrollable.
Such was the state of Aviva the day I received my last signature. "I must leave. I have friends and relatives to be with," said a teary Aviva. "And I want to go to graduate school, maybe get married. I need . . . I need to live a normal life."
My mind was racing. It was not empathy for Aviva but fear that with the departure of my mentor I too would have to leave, although ostensibly I was leaving in a few days anyhow.
"I feel terrible," said Aviva. "I love them all and I won't be here when the schools integrate, I won't be here when the federal registrar comes, but I have to go and . . ."
She paused and stared at me. Here it comes, I feared . . . "and you have to leave with me!" ". . . and I want you to replace me," she said, instead.
The momentary joy that I could stay vanished instantly, replaced by momentary terror. Stay alone? Though I inwardly balked at first, in the next instant I was cautiously euphoric.
"I accept, but," I emphasized the escape clause I was about to propound, "but only on a week-to-week basis. Meaning (the lawyer added a definition clause) I might quit after the first week."
Bruce: Now you're going to be alone?
Don: Yes. Real scary. So I asked about all the training that I haven't had. She says "I've discussed it with everyone, everyone's in agreement." I go to Henry Reeves I told Aviva I've got to clear it with him because he is the ostensible leader of the county and I tell him about my obvious shortcomings, this isn't lawyering and I don't know anything about being a civil rights worker. He says, "Think of it this way, Don. Do you see anybody else applying for the job?" I shake my head no. And then he, of course, adds, "I think you'll do just fine." So I sent my third telegram to Wall Street, and they fired me within a day, which was a relief.
When the local folks in the county found out, I believe they were convinced that Aviva would never have left if I hadn't been there to replace her, and so they blamed me for her leaving. For a time I became the wicked stepmother.
And so Aviva leaves, and now I'm the civil rights leader in charge of little Benton County. In this moment, Aviva has changed my life forever. I am no longer employed as a Wall Street lawyer, though I am still paying my rent on my rent-controlled apartment in New York, which I did for six months, since I was never going to stay more than a few weeks.
I started off thinking I knew better than everyone else what should be done; I created the equivalent of a human telephone tree, a verbal tree, where I would be the pivot of a pyramid communications structure.
Bruce: Yeah, we tried that too.
Don: No kidding. I thought this was my original idea. Everybody just looked at me, and tried to go through with it out of deference to me, but they hated it, and in no time I gave it up.
Bruce: It was totally unnecessary.
Don: They managed all these years without us.
Bruce: Yeah. We tried that in Selma, I forget whose idea it was.
Don: And so I started doing more of the basic work. I made sure the Movement newspaper came out. I had this little office where I did my work, a sort of shack.
Also, to protect myself and others, I got a rifle. (I'm a crack shot, I don't know if you knew that. My father was a National Guard champion rifleman; he received the President's Medal as one of the 100 best shots in the United States and took me shooting most weekends. Later on with SNCC, they weren't unfriendly but they were razzing this freshmen. And they say, "This is a rifle. The bullet comes out of here. This is the trigger," etc. And I said, "Maybe we could cut this a little short. You got a bullet in the rifle I assume? Throw a walnut up in the air." And I shot it in the air.) So that's why I feel good having a rifle. Also, my sense of drama sets in, like in all the movies I've seen.
I get an extra mattress and place it on the floor, so that I can roll right off the bed and come up with my rifle. I was very proud of this, although most thought I was crazy. One night, a week or two later, the Klan attempted to firebomb my little office, but they didn't get the wick in tight enough, so it burst into flames and just singed the building. Someone saw a deputy sheriff driving away from the scene.
A teenager was sent to tell me what's happened. Bruce, I assume you had similar rules, that you never run into someone's house without identifying yourself first. Nobody is supposed to just barge in. I'm sleeping and I hear footsteps running towards my room and the sound is not stopping. I do my roll off to the mattress, get ready, and I decide I'm going to take them with me if they're coming to kill me. The boy bursts through the door, running in to tell me about the firebombing, and I have my rifle aimed at the door, ready to fire. I see him and yank the rifle up in the air before I fire. I was panic stricken; the boy saw the rifle and started crying. I realized how foolish this whole rifle episode had been. I said to the boy, "I'm sure you don't want to be embarrassed by people knowing you barged in, so why don't we just keep this to ourselves?" I got rid of the rifle after that; he didn't tell anybody and I didn't have to answer for myself.
I contacted the FBI for the first time, introduced myself and told them about the firebomb; they advised me to notify the local authorities.
Don: A lot happened after Aviva left. The voting rights registrar came down, one of the first in the South, along with the school integrating.
So here comes the federal registrar to Benton County, Mississippi. This was thrilling, although I understood it was because we were one of the smallest civil rights counties in the South, which meant that they could start small and work out the kinks.
On September 25, 1965, the Benton County Freedom Train issued a FLASH that the federal man was coming to town:
All you have to do to register is to come down and sign your name or make your mark. Everyone should be prepared to come down and register even if you have to leave your cotton-picking. This is a big day for Benton County.
We quickly learned that the county refused to make any building available for the Feds, so they used the Post Office building. The first day when I came by to meet the guy, a Southerner, he was shooting the breeze with the white power structure.
Bruce: The federal registrar?
Don: Yeah. And I was very angry at that. And I said that, "It seems to me that nobody should be in this room except people registering, and that includes me and everyone else," looking at the others, "because there's an intimidation factor and I think your credibility would be higher if you operated the office alone." He agreed to that, but he actually told me, "This is not the most enjoyable job that I could have asked for."
Bruce: Did he say why?
Don: No, but it seemed pretty clear; with the vote, blacks would take over part of the South. Now comes the organizing effort, and the Holly Springs SNCC workers join in to recruit the people and get them to be willing to do it.
Bruce: "Do it," being . . .?
Don: . . . come to town and register. A lot of people were understandingly afraid in the beginning. First, only the old ladies came, but little by little, people came out of the fields and it was really something. There was the usual price to pay: harassment, an occasional burning cross, threats of being thrown off their land, loss of credit but this wasn't the worst county in the South and things weren't as bad as they were in other places. And one day . . .
Bruce: You're talking September 1965. Nine months later we were in Grenada, which is about an hour's drive south of there, sort of over towards the Delta. A team of federal registrars came. And they set up in the Post Office, which was downtown. And at the end of the week they had registered five people. The reason was everybody was afraid to go downtown because of the Klan mob and all of that. So we eventually got them to move the registrars into the black community and to a black cafe called the "Chat and Chew." Then, of course, they got thousands of people.
Don: I asked that also, but it wasn't terribly practical in Benton County because it was so tiny. But it didn't take more than three or four days before we started having a decent number of people. It got to a point where we were doing it on arrangement, each group had a certain day, and I would tell the Fed how many and what hours, so he didn't have to wait around all day. He did his job quite well.
One day we were going to have a big group, and one of the SNCC guys from Holly Springs is driving everybody in an old school bus. But as soon as he gets out of the vehicle, some policeman tells him, "You're under arrest for driving without a bus license," which was true. It's amazing how they knew everything about everybody.
I'm standing a couple hundred yards away on the Post Office property, and I say, "Run over here. This is federal territory and they can't make an arrest here." Sanctuary, like in the "Hunchback of Notre Dame." And so he runs over and stands behind me. I say to the police, "This is federal property." The cop just swats me across the chest, knocks me down and arrests the driver. Later I found out they were right. The building was rented, it wasn't federal land at all.
Bruce: Well, it wouldn't have made any difference to them if it was.
Don: Yes, but we would have had a better case, because we challenged all these things.
Don: By now voter registration is going very well, but in the middle of this, all of a sudden, the appeals of an NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawsuit finally finish, and school desegregation is ready to be implemented in Benton County. Well, it couldn't have come at a worse time; now both projects were happening at once. The NAACP never participated in the on-the-ground work. So it was again all on our shoulders, and I knew nothing about how to do this or what you should do, and neither did the guys in Holly Springs, so we had to work it out ourselves.
Bruce: You mean Benton County, not actually Holly Springs?
Don: The school integration was happening in Benton County with great aid from Holly Springs. There was to be just one boy and one girl, to do it slow. The whites got really riled up. The Klan using the term "Klan" loosely. While there were some Klansmen, most of them were town hoodlums but you couldn't tell the difference. Two things happening at one time was just too much for the Klan; race mixing of their children was very serious to them, even though, in the long run, voting was more pivotal. The two students were nine, ten or eleven, like that. She was beautiful, I remember the little girl. And he was a great athlete.
And so the first day, the angry white parents and everybody else is following the integrated school bus, and we're following behind. I had arranged with the Justice Department to seal the exit after the bus went in, so nobody would be allowed in. And they did that, everyone was a good distance away, and the bus went in. And I remember feeling horror in the pit of my stomach. What's happening to them? We don't know.
Our kids come out later that day, and report back that he got pushed around a little bit, and got called "nigger"; she, all the white boys fell in love with. Then the boy complained, "We don't understand what they're teaching, we don't know these subjects at all." I hadn't even thought of that really. Obviously they were decent students, but being a decent student didn't mean much given what a bad education they had come from.
Gunnar Myrdal, in his classic work, "An American Dilemma," described white-dominated black education in the South in 1942:
The segregaged black schools were overcrowded, dilapidated shacks which, in one room, contained "the whole range of elementary grades taught by a single black teacher." The teacher, herself poorly educated, "poorly trained and poorly paid," burdened by a "grave lack" of basic school equipment (including books) performed janitorial duties in addition to teaching the entire 8 grade curriculum. And she was intimidated by "unusual outside [white] pressures" which defined the curriculum to be "industrial" as opposed to "classical" (bookish) education. Because Negroes, the whites insisted, were "servants, farm laborers, and industrial workers, their education should be commensurate with humble status, daily duties, and the building up of character" in other words, learning the relative distance between two rows of cotton, not the distance between two planets.
Little had changed 23 years later. In the time of the Civil Rights Movement, it was generally agreed that only by sitting alongside white students could blacks obtain an equal education.
Bruce: Because school budgets and curricula were controlled by the all-white state government and all-white local school boards. Public education in the deep south was woefully underfunded for all schools, but schools with white children were given much larger budgets than Black-only schools, and most white schools did make an effort to teach academic subjects. So the only hope a Black child had of attending a school with minimally adequate facilities and an academic focus was through school integration.
As it turned out, many white parents refused to send their children to an integrated school. Private, white-only "academies" sprung up across the South to handle the flood of white students being pulled out of public education by their parents. As the number of white students in public school declined, funding for education was cut even further. Today, in many southern counties with significant Black populations, the "integrated" public-schools are now almost all Black with budgets that are far below even the minimum needed for adequate education.]
Don: So we called for help. Holly Springs had a professor and we called through the state to get people to come up for a day. I even made phone calls into the North and a good bunch came down, delighted to help. But we really needed grammar school teachers, and we finally got a couple who stuck around for a while. While we didn't teach our kids enough to really make a difference, we gave them confidence, and they felt a lot better. He told me that the white kids stopped bothering him; actually, as soon as they had physical activities, the other kids were impressed with what a good athlete he was, and he was on all the teams.
One day, I would always be there when they got out of school, along with everybody else . . .
Bruce: What do you mean, "Along with everybody else?"
Don: All the whites and all the blacks, I mean, everybody is standing at this gate to see the school bus go by and the like.
Bruce: Were the whites jeering or angry?
Don: The parents? Yes. The children were delightful. And one day, this day when they go to get on the bus, a white boy is holding the hand of the black boy. They're actually holding hands.
Bruce: Oh Lord.
Don: And his parents, they've just seething, they're screaming. The white boy dropped the black boy's hand as if it was burning hot. He was going to get hell at home. It was revealing though, how little it took for the children to adapt. It got very good after that, except for the school bureaucracy, which started internal segregation: trips to the bathroom by race, never enough school books for us, and we sat in the back of the school bus, you know. All those little things going on. I would call the NAACP, which would go back to court. It was like a hydra. As fast as we got rid of one, two popped up. But while that went on for a while, it wasn't serious . . . and soon came to an end.
Don: My presence was unique in that while I looked at myself as just another SNCC field secretary for a little county, other civil rights workers took note that a civil rights lawyer was close by; usually the nearest lawyer was four hours away in Jackson. So I got a lot of calls via Holly Springs.
Bruce: Why would they go through Holly Springs?
Don: Telephones, they had telephones.
Bruce: You didn't have a phone in Benton County?
Don: There was a phone or two in the county but there were very few phones, and not much electricity.
Bruce: You know, few people realize that in those rural counties, most of the homes we were in did not have electricity, plumbing and certainly not phones.
Don: And no light to read at night and no refrigerator.
Bruce: A lot of them had kerosene lamps.
Don: Not easy to read by, and not even outhouses in many of them. When I talk about those times, I see the shack in my mind but often I neglect to describe it. I grew so used to it that it doesn't jump out of me.
So we didn't have the phones. So somebody, Sid Walker, would drive over and tell me something's going on, and I'd drive over to Holly Springs, call back and ask what it is and get the timing of it. Then I'd arrange to go. And I'd get the lawyer suit out and I'd go to wherever I was needed, and handle the problems they had. And it wasn't that hard, usually a one shot case to work something out, to get the bail, get dismissals, probation. It was rather easy to do.
Bruce: Now would these be Movement-related cases, or would these be cases of just people caught up in the system?
Don: Well, it's a difficult line, because you can be arrested for, let's say, drunk and disorderly that others were doing, but our people would be arrested if not [ostensibly] for civil rights. The arrest was Movement-connected.
Bruce: The presumption was you weren't there to provide legal help unless they had some sort of Movement connection?
Don: That's right, usually, and these were the Movement activists, occasionally there were SNCC workers arrested but more often it was the local people. And then I'd arrange for Sid to keep an eye on Benton County as if they needed me, to make me feel they needed me. Wherever I had travelled, I'd stay a couple days, stay over with some sharecroppers. I never stayed in the Freedom House except in Holly Springs, I always stayed with the people. And whatever SNCC was engaged in, I would join them, and then I'd come back.
Don: The only time I was shot at the entire time I was in the South occurred when I was staying over out of town. This was a double. I was staying in a place that had invited me, and from there I had gone to another place that needed a lawyer.
Bruce: Do you want to name these places?
Don: I'd be happy to but I can't. I traveled so much, I have no idea. I know it's Northern Mississippi, and I know it's all within an hour, an hour and a half, of Holly Springs, but I have no memory of the names. Or they'd blur, I can't remember one from the other. So I'm at this second place, and I'd done a relatively minor thing, but it took a long time. The drive was long, and so I'm coming back to the people at the first place. They had warned me that driving through town was real bad, but nobody ever told me quite not to do it; however, there was a long way around to avoid going through town, like an hour and a half, as opposed to like fifteen minutes straight through.
Bruce: You mean going through a particular town?
Don: That's right, it was their town, the white town nearest to where I was staying. I really took these things seriously, but this day I was very tired, very lonely, very hungry I couldn't eat another Oreo cookie and I was looking forward to a hot meal and companionship . . . so I cut through the town. I mean just the edge of town. But then I look in the rear view mirror and I see people jumping into a red pick-up. And there's one guy standing in the back, what do you call that, the bed of the truck? And there's another guy in the passenger seat, and they have shotguns, or rifles, I didn't know at that moment.
Somebody named Shelby had previously taught me how to drive on these dirt roads. I had felt he did it to be dramatic, kind of like James Bond, you know, to make these hair turns, and most of the jiggling and dust, and the whole time he told me this will save my life one day. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. I always felt he was showing off, but I did it.
Well, now this had become vital information. But I still don't really believe that this is anything more than them an attempt to scare me which is succeeding. Then suddenly the back window of my car just blows out; I touch my head and I'm bleeding profusely. I assume I've been shot in the head and maybe I'm about to die. But I keep driving . . . And then there are shots, which don't hit, some hit the bottom rear of the car. Now I'm jiggling the wheels, which means they have to brake because they can't see the road.
Bruce: You were swerving to throw up dust?
Don: That's right. They're slowing down and I'm able to make faster turns. I'm getting reasonably ahead, but they're still shooting: shooting into the dust; they can't see me. Then I see a break in the brush to my right I'm actually too frightened to keep driving much longer and so I pull into the brush. My greatest fear is that there will be something, an obstruction, and I wouldn't get the car all the way in and it will stick out, but I went in all the way. And then they kept going straight ahead, shooting, continually shooting, into the dust.
While waiting, I realized the blood on my head was not from being shot but from glass that splattered over me. I stayed there for about four hours. I didn't want to go out, but I knew I wasn't very far from my destination. I waited until it got real dark and then I drove without headlights and made it there. Then I got out of a car that looks like something out of a bad movie, with bullet holes all throughout the rear of the car. No, it wasn't bullets, it was shotgun pellets . . . and, of course, the blown-out window. It hit the back window, went straight through.
At my destination, the lady I'm staying with, this wonderful big-boosomed lady, rushes over to me, pulls out a blanket, places it and me on the ground and then puts me into her arms against her bosom like a baby, and she sings to me, and rocks me, while the others are pulling out the glass and pouring peroxide and whatever else over me. That's the last thing I remember, I fell asleep in her arms and I woke up the next day in bed.
Bruce: This was after the Selma march? So '65, and you're in Benton County . . .
Don: I'm in Benton County for about three months and this happens somewhere between September and December.
Bruce: So Fall. It couldn't be too late in the Fall because you had dust on the roads rather than mud.
Don: It was very warm. Probably within a month of my getting there.
Bruce: I don't know if you read my interview, but we had a big car chase too.
Don: Yes, I did read it. Real scary. This was the only shooting at me, the only time I was ever shot at. So I'm back in Benton County. Then I'd be away doing legal work, and then I'd be away doing civil rights work. Back in Benton County it was the same: civil rights work there, legal work (and fun) in Holly Springs.
Don: A strange thing was happening. I became a local lawyer. The other civil rights lawyers never stayed in one community, they moved all over the state. But suddenly I'm the regular lawyer, I know everybody. I know Judge Sam ("call me Sam") Coopwood and I know the prosecutor. I know the bailiff, I know the Sheriff, the Chief of Police, and I know them well because I'm there so regularly. I'm only a few months out of New York, and that camaraderie of the bar thing is still instinctual to me. So, to some extent, on some level, I become part of the white power structure, which is good and bad, certainly bad if anybody sees it and is aware of it. I was careful about that.
Bruce: "Anybody" meaning?
Don: Anybody in the Movement or local. And I even told the local lawyers a couple times that I won't exchange any familiarities or shake hands or anything while the folks were there. And once they tried to embarrass me, called me "Don" loud, and I said "one more of these and I'm a stranger to you." After that they didn't do it. But, because I knew them, I got good dispositions.
Bruce: You got people out of jail?
Don: Got them out of jail at least, I even could work it out on the phone. The lawyering went real well. But I didn't stay to be a lawyer; I wanted to do civil rights work. So I now was handling one demonstration.
Bruce: What do you mean "handling?"
Don: You know, If there's going to be a sit-in or a desegregation, someone's going to be in charge of it and make all the...
Bruce: Oh, you mean, like picket tactics?
Don: That's right. There was only one movie theater, and so there was a regular integration that went on at least some of the weeks. And I figured that would be an easy one.
Bruce: People weren't getting arrested back then because the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had passed?
Don: Yeah, but you got beer cans thrown at you, you got threatened. You got a lot of shit, but we were legal. So this one Friday night I even remember the film, it was "Harem Scarem," this terrible Elvis Presley film, really terrible.
Bruce: Well, he was very popular in Northern Mississippi, he came from there.
Don: I'm about to tell you why I remember the film so well. I knew the theater owner because I had been there a couple of times when there were problems but, nevertheless, because I was the respectable one, I would chat with him afterwards. I was running very confusing dual relationships. He took it in his stride; he understood this goes with the territory.
And so this night, where I'm very visibly the leader, sort of showing off about it, we go in, and then the whites throw beer cans and what not at us. Then they all leave and get their money back. As I'm leaving, I see the theater owner, and he is red in the face. And he'd been through a couple of these, so I don't see why he's so upset. I walk over to him and say, "What's wrong?" He glares and yells at me: "You did this on purpose, because you know my biggest money maker is the opening night of an Elvis Presley film; you chose this night to hurt me financially." He's screaming at me. And I tell him I didn't even know what was playing, but he says, "You'll regret this."
Next night I'm in the Holly Springs Freedom House, we're out of whiskey and everyone's complaining. You know that Mississippi was then (theoretically) a dry state. And suddenly the Sheriff comes through the front door, not even pretending to have a warrant, and somebody comes in through the back door with a jug of whiskey that they'd just "found." They arrested Sid for illegal possession of alcohol, because it was his house. The next day we're in court.
Bruce: This incident took place...
Don: In Holly Springs, still in the Benton County period. I had finished my three weeks with ACLU and now I work for SNCC. So, I'm in the courthouse for Sid's hearing, and I brought all the witnesses there; we have a really legitimate defense: there was no whiskey in the whole place; I know because we wanted whiskey and searched for it. Not that it was going to do us any good, but at least we were righteous about our position. And suddenly the Chief of Police comes over, turns to one of the women and says, "I'd like your account of what happened last night." I say, "You can't do that, we're about to have a trial, these are my witnesses. Besides, they were all there and they can take the 5th Amendment if need be." [ie., not testify against themselves]
Then he takes out a piece of paper and reads: "Are you instructing these people to resist lawful enforcement of the laws by a peace officer in the course of his investigation?" He had all this written out. "Uh oh, it's a set up." I say hold on, and I go to the phone and call the ACLU Boss. Well, he is pissed off because, as he says "I told you this would happen." I change the subject and ask: "He doesn't have any right to do this, does he?" He says "No, but you're going to be in jail within five minutes, anyhow. He's going to arrest you unless you direct your witnesses to cooperate with him and I know you're not going to do that. And then we're going to have all kinds of shit to deal with." So I said, "Well, thanks for the support."
So I go back, he asks her again, and I say, "I instruct all of you not to answer any questions put to you by the Chief." He says to me, "All right, you are under arrest," and handcuffs me.
Bruce: Just to clarify this, you meant they were not to answer any questions until such time as they're on the stand under oath?
Bruce: It's not the "you have the right to remain silent" . . .
Don: . . . we didn't need Miranda [requirement that police read you your rights]; we knew our rights and that included not speaking to him on the basis of the 5th Amendment. So a couple of deputies come out, take me to the jail, and then as they ask each one of the people, five or six or seven, they all refuse and they're all arrested. So when Sid's case comes on, he's out of his cell and we're in the cell. They tell him what happened: that the lawyer's in jail, the witnesses are in jail. He says, "Well, I'm not going to proceed without my lawyer." So they bring him back, and now we're all in the same cell. The Boss then removes the cases to the Federal Court, you know about that, right?
Bruce: That was under what law?
Don: Under a Civil War Reconstruction statute [Title 28 USC 1441 et seq]. As Northerners or Yankees were coming into the South after the Civil War, they'd be arrested, possibly killed, and there was no way to get a Judge's signature in time. So Congress passed a law that allows a lawyer to have the power without a judge's signature. There's nothing else in the law that a lawyer can do by himself to effect a result, except Removal. The lawyer's signature removes the case to federal court, nothing else like it.
Bruce: Does that law still exist?
Don: Yeah, yeah. In fact, I advised Ruchell Magee, one of the survivors when George Jackson's brother was killed in a California Courthouse shootout to free Jackson. Magee was using Removal and I was advising him how to do it.
Now what Removal meant in Mississippi, as a practical matter, is that you didn't leave the jail. There was no federal jail to go to, but the cell became a federal cell, and anything that happened to you would subject them to federal law. So the case was Removed and the Boss is howling at me, "When are you going to leave the South?" I say, "Soon, soon."
So when I get out, I go to the prosecutor, who I was friendly with. I say, "What's happening?" And he says, "You shouldn't fuck with a man's livelihood." I say, "You mean the movie, the Elvis thing?" He says, "Yes. He is convinced you did it on purpose." I asked, "Can you intercede and tell him that I swear to God I did not know what was playing and I wouldn't have done it to hurt him financially. That wasn't the goal at all." He agrees to try.
During the next two or three days, many SNCC workers were arrested one guy who hadn't renewed his driver's license, or was using his out-of-state license after 30 days just all kinds of chicken-shit arrests. Then it died down. I ended up apologizing again to the theater owner and this time he accepted my apology. Which did teach me something: that race separation was not as important as the economics.
Bruce: At least for many of them, not for all of them.
Don: Bruce, you've talked about non-violence, and/or conversely the danger of violence or not being non-violent. Well, the lawyer version of being violent is a humiliating cross examination. It was understood that I wouldn't do that because it would hurt my clients, but once I got carried away. The case was strange in that everybody was a witness: me, the judge, we were all there. It was a total civil rights (drunk & disorderly) harassment: a nice young black couple who I knew very well, ate in their home, slept over, played with their kids. Now they are both in jail and I'm angry and there was a problem caring for the children. I lost that detachment that's needed for the job; I also lost track of how to help then. My goal was to injure the bad guys and humiliate the structure. I came in loaded for bear.
The judge says, "All right Don, are you ready to start?" I say "Yes. My first order of business is to ask you to remove yourself from the bench, because you were an eyewitness and we are going to call you to testify in this case." That was taken very badly. For one thing, to find another judge creates all kinds of commotion. Then I started cross-examining the cops. I said do you have a...
Bruce: Wait a minute, didn't the trial stop at that point?
Don: Oh yeah, until they got a new judge.
Bruce: Well, could you have allowed him to testify without removing himself from the case?
Don: No. Nobody can testify, be cross-examined and then be an impartial judge. But I didn't need him as a witness. That was just to do a number on him. First I cross examined the cops. I say, "Did you give a sobriety test?" And they didn't know the word "sobriety." And then I explained what the word meant and I asked, "Did you do this test? "Did you do that test," and "Did you ever have any training in any of these tests?" I went on and on, and then I put the judge on. I said, "You saw what was happening?" He said, "I heard somebody yell 'motherfucker.'" I said, "But you don't know who yelled it." He says, "It could have been you." He was really pissed. So the result is they get convicted, with a heavy sentence. And when I walk out of court, I realized that my affection for them hurt them.
The next day I'm in the same court, waiting for my turn, when the judge calls for the prosecutor, who is not available. Judge Sam looks my way and calls me up to the bench. He says: The prosecutor's unavailable and I'm appointing you as substitute prosecutor for these purposes," which any judge can do.
Bruce: In the case that you were also the defense attorney?
Don: No, this was the case before me.
Bruce: An unrelated case?
Don: Yes. And I look around and see the defendant is the mother of one of the civil rights workers, who I know very well. I say, "I can't do it because I know her," and what not. He says: "Now looky here, I'm giving you all the courtesies as if you were a Mississippi lawyer, and if you want these courtesies, you're going to have to follow my instructions and do what I tell you to do. You have to earn your keep here." Of course, he knows that this is going to put me in a very embarrassing situation because of who the defendant is. But the mother comes up to me and says, "Do it, we can't afford to lose you as our lawyer." And so I quickly get one of my clients in the next case to run out and tell the son, so he won't find out second-hand, and then I plead her out for a suspended sentence.
Afterwards, the judge invites me into his chambers and now he feels kind of better, because he got one on me. I say, "I'm sorry about yesterday. I was out of control. Would you lower the sentences to probation?" He says, "All right." I really was part of the white Southern power structure, with my own duties and obligations. It was very tricky.
(A year later, I'm in Alabama, and the Beatles are coming to Memphis, which is 30 miles from Holly Springs but a long way from Selma. And I have a girlfriend who is flying in to go with me. So I call up Judge Sam Coopwood and I say, "Sam, you know the case I got coming on in a month or two, one of the old cases that I'm still handling? Would you advance that to this Friday?" And he says, "Is this some civil rights trick?" I said "No, actually I want to trick the ACLU into paying my air fare to get me from Selma to Holly Springs, so I can drive to Memphis to see the Beatles. I'll have my girlfriend with me.")
Bruce: And you were in Alabama when you made this call?
Don: Yes. And he laughs. The thought of . . .
Bruce: Tricking the ACLU. . .
Don: Yes. So he agrees and moves the case up: I introduce my girlfriend to him and he tells her what a rascal I am. And to make an impression, he gave me an acquittal. He gave me a win to let me make an impact on my girlfriend. It was all very bizarre.
As December of '65 rolled around, I began to see the pitfall of what I had considered a powerful combination for the clients: the suit and the coveralls.
As a lawyer I was compromised. On one extreme, my strong personal feelings for my clients: for example, the black couple blinded me in court and actually hurt them (though I undid it, this time); on the other end, I had friendly feelings for their worst enemies, which could inhibit me so subtly I might not even recognize it.
As a civil rights worker I compromised my community. Even with the Voting Rights Registrar and the School Integration, had the SNCC leader not also been credited/blamed for all the accomplishments, there might not have been a firebomb, less shootings at lights, and a lot less tension. I was told by a local confidant that the people those I thought I was helping wished I was gone. They feared something worse may yet happen. No one asked me to leave but I now could see I had overstayed my welcome.
So I decided it's time for me to leave, go back to my normal life.
Not surprising, there was little protest. The black community balanced the many advantages of having a live-in civil rights lawyer with the increased violence brought about, it was believed, by the presence of that same lawyer. The verdict was against me. While the sharecroppers were not prepared to ask me to leave, my departure was not resisted.
But I was also popular in black Benton County, my arrest, because I was a lawyer, having eliminated any doubts of my commitment. So, with ambivalence, I was given a Church farewell evening with laudatory speeches about my accomplishments, most of them exaggerated, some even the achievements of others. Many sharecroppers told anecdotes about how they had watched me driving about lost in the county, my failures at cotton-picking and my (I thought disguised) abhorrence of the vegetables they served me nightly. Some praised me as an educated white man who lived with and treated them as equals. One recalled the violence during this period, as if to remind the congregation not to overdo the praise for fear I might change my mind and stay.
Not without ambivalent feelings myself, I rose to speak. I told them my life's adventure was over and that I would always remember them. Then, in a deliberate change of pace, I ended on a self-deprecating note of much truth:
I have given you something that not even Aviva ever gave you. Because I was so incompetent, you now know you no longer need an outsider to lead your Movement.
Amidst laughter, one ingrate loudly mouthed: "Amen!"
On my last full day, I visited Holly Springs to say goodbye to the SNCC workers who threw me a grand, drunken party. Here there was no ambivalence. They liked me and the excitement I generated. Besides, they expected everyone to leave sooner or later . . . and a lawyer, all the sooner. After also bidding farewell to Judge Sam and the prosecutor (continuing the camaraderie that had compromised my work), I was driven to the Memphis airport for my flight to New York and my resumption of a normal life.
Bruce: When did you leave?
Don: Shortly before Christmas of '65. Although I was very sad to leave, the other side of me said, "Well, now you've done it. In New York, you can live on these memories forever. It's absurd being down here instead of advancing your career."
Bruce: So you lived basically in Mississippi for about four months?
Don: That's right. So I go home and all the friends greet me, they're excited about me . . . but quickly they become uncomfortable with me. My very best friend actually said it: "You've become the kind of person that we used to go together to hear people like you." He's saying, in effect, we're no longer peers. That was pretty shocking, we had gone together to high school, college, worked summers together everything.
Bruce: He thought that you were somebody he would go to hear at a lecture, in other words, you were above him?
Don: Yes. That's how he felt. My lawyer friends thought I was a freak for giving up the Wall Street job and doing this bizarre stuff. I didn't want to do any more corporate work. I would have liked to go back to ACLU but they were furious with me. So I used an "in" I had with a Justice Department lawyer and tried for a job with their civil rights division in D.C. I sat for the interview, my friend praised me (which in court always means you're about to lose), and then he sits me down with somebody who has the interview sheets. He starts off: "Let me ask you a question, Don. If you saw a crowd of Klansmen beating up Sid Walker, what would you do?" "I would break it up, of course." He says, "You understand now why you can't be in the Justice Department? Because we're not allowed to do that. We can't physically interfere." Which is true: they investigate but don't intervene.
Bruce: That's their rules?
Don: Yeah, that was their instructions. And he said, "You would never be happy with us." And I said, "Yeah, I guess that's so." Maybe he let me off easy instead of being rejected. I went back to New York and I knew it was a waste of time to call ACLU because the Boss was furious at me for everything that had gone on: the hanging tree thing, getting arrested in Holly Springs, not leaving so I called the New York ACLU guy, Henry Schwartzchild the boss of my boss. I asked him, "Is there is any chance?" He said, "They'd never take you." And I said, "I assumed so."
Bruce: Was your boss only for Mississippi or for the whole Southern region?
Don: He was the whole Southern region because ACLU worked in only one Southern state.
Bruce: He covered all the Southern states?
Don: Yes and no. There was that image, but we didn't then have resources to do more than Mississippi. The only place we every traveled to out of state was to the Fifth Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
So about another week goes by, and suddenly Schwartzchild calls me; he says, "Somebody who was supposed to stay in Mississippi during the Christmas holidays can't do it now, there is nobody to do it and everyone's vacation is going to be destroyed . . . unless you would be interested in coming down for a couple of weeks, temporarily, just for a few weeks." I said, "And that's OK with the Boss?" He says, "He'd be very grateful if you came; he's divorced and was looking forward to seeing his children. Everybody would be very grateful." And I said, "You're going to pay my air fare and some salary?" I was broke by this point. "Yes," he said.
Don: So I go down and the Boss is very happy to see me, tells me I'm in charge, "but don't worry because nothing happens during the holidays." I decide that this is my chance to make an impression on him as to how good a lawyer I am, get rid of my "wild man" image. Then he might change his mind about me. So I start upgrading all of his legal work: lawsuits, forms, notices, lists everything they did, I redid: Wall Street style. Good stuff.
After a couple of days, it's Christmas Eve, and those in the Movement who had stayed in Jackson which was mostly those that didn't have any money to go anywhere were preparing a big party, to which I was invited.
At 6 pm on Christmas Eve, while I was in my office anticipating the party and wrapping up the day's activities, I receive a phone call: Mass arrests have begun in Canton!
The Boss had told me of the "Black Christmas" boycott against white merchants in Canton, a city about 20 miles northeast of Jackson. Though there were as many blacks as whites there for lack of registered voters, Canton was controlled by the whites. The control was economic as well, and blacks, long relegated to menial work, were now boycotting for responsible positions. Black children would face empty stockings on Christmas morning but the white merchants would face insolvency. The picketers were at their posts outside the shops, neither side had yielded, and the white reaction was now beginning.
Bruce: This was the CORE project, right?
Don: No, it was SNCC. They arrested the whole picket line, and as more people came out to replace them, they also were arrested. On Christmas eve, they called ACLU and I called the people from the party to say, "I'm afraid the party's off, we're going to have to work through the night doing Removals." In the 1960's, we only had slow mimeograph machines and there are going to be over 100 petitions to prepare. And so I'm getting all kinds of reserves, and then...
Bruce: Getting all kinds of reserves?
Don: Reserves, people that are going to type through the night, bring in typewriters, do it all night. These were mostly SNCC workers who didn't usually do legal work.
Then I went down to Canton to talk to the folks and look over the scene. I told them the legal work is under control though I wondered. While I was there, I met the local SNCC leader and then went back to Jackson, after also recruiting some of them to help. We worked literally through the night. (We got them out in a few days.)
Worrying about the safety of those arrested, I invoked a Movement stratagem: "The Walter Cronkite ploy!" It was the Movement's premise that the glare of public attention often neutralized even the most violent antagonists. Telephoning the jail, I affected a TV commentator's non-accent and, purporting to be the world-famous TV anchorman, Walter Cronkite, inquired about the Christmas Eve arrests which "the whole country is aroused about." As Cronkite, I was told that everyone was safe, received a complete list of those arrested and learned the general nature of the charges and bail. The deputy told me that he watched my show as often as he could, that coverage of the South did not tell the whole story and that I (Cronkite) should visit myself to see what is really happening. I told him that I would.
There were additional phone calls to make: to apprise the real media, to reassure the families of those in jail but not to call the Boss. I was determined to show him I could handle a crisis on my own.
So the case is coming on quick; they do it real quick in the South, within five days or something like that. I go back to Canton and get the basic information. They're being held under an anti-boycott law, which actually were anti-union laws.
Bruce: Yeah, I remember.
Don: I went to one of the deputy sheriffs, and I asked for bail, a delay, and some documents; the guy was just livid. "Do you realize how many children (he meant white children) are not going to have toys because of this boycott? And how rough life is for these (white) merchants because of this boycott."
Now, all I had to do was prove my clients could not obtain a fair trial in a Canton court. Easy to prove in conversation on North Farish Street, but not under stringent rules of evidence in federal court: a single set of arrests is not sufficient proof of a pattern of racism. I had to show more.
Initially my plan had been to exhibit a racial pattern by showing that racism had also occurred the previous year. But as I interviewed blacks in Canton and found them referring to incidents years, and at times decades back. (In one interview, a 90-year-old man told me of incidents in the l9th century.) I considered tracing racism in this one city all the way back to the end of the Civil War, if possible. My proposal involved a massive task that would require interviewing virtually every black family in Canton, investigating almost a hundred years of court records, and requiring the support of the entire black community and almost every SNCC worker.
I worried about the demonstrators but I recognized an opportunity for myself. This was my best chance to remain in the South. The Removal Hearing offered me the chance to impress the Boss into hiring me. Maybe, I thought, there was a role for me beyond being a civil rights lawyer who moonlights as a civil rights worker. I had seen the problem of me being in charge of a community; I had seen the problem of getting too close to my clients and too close to the court personnel.
But what if instead of lawyer alternating as a civil rights worker, it was one lawyer combined with a civil rights worker me using both skills at one time. A legal-political approach to win in court while using the case to help organize communities.
The civil rights worker in me saw implications in this lawsuit larger than merely acquitting the defendants. Here was a political issue that could further embolden the black community, get media attention and educate Northern supporters and place significant pressure on the federal government to intervene in matters like Canton: a legal-political approach.
I conferred with the SNCC workers, who agreed along with the local folks to the Canton experiment and began a door-to-door oral history of Canton, while I subpoenaed virtually every book, record and public official in that city. Excitement spread as memories led to memories, and documents were found behind newspapers covering holes in walls and ceilings.
Bruce: To block the chinks in the wall so the wind doesn't blow in.
Don Jelinek. Right. While shuttling back and forth between Canton and the Jackson office, I coordinated this effort. I also prepared legal papers to attempt to convince the federal courts not to Remand (return) the Canton cases back to the state courts.
The key to success was not to have the burden of proof. If the evidence is equal, the loser is the one with the burden of proof. The burden of proof is not reasonable doubt, it's just more likely than not. But if they had the burden that would be different. So, to the language of a 1962 court decision which held that "the State of Mississippi has a steel-hard, inflexible, undeviating official policy of segregation," I added a legal maxim I had often used in New York: "A state of facts once found to exist is presumed to exist until proven otherwise." The burden, I would argue, rests on Canton whites to show no discrimination, while we offered our evidence to the contrary. The hearing was to be in Vicksburg, the scene of a major Southern defeat in the Civil War.
Bruce: And this doctrine had been concluded in a case?
Don: Yeah, in a case about the entire state of Mississippi, not just one place. It was probably a Justice Department case. And people asked why does that matter? I said because the burden shifts, the crackers would have to show no discrimination while we showed actual discrimination, which would be impossible for either side to prove. And I said...
Bruce: Why would it be impossible for you to prove discrimination?
Don: Because they'd just have people say the opposite.
Bruce: They would just lie.
Don: Yes. This could actually be a major case if we pull up a history of discrimination in Canton and use it as a springboard for that presumption, that would get a lot of publicity, the boycott was difficult, and the Movement needed a boost.
Bruce: So if you establish the presumption of a history of discrimination, that would invalidate the arrests or it would justify the boycott?
Don: No, neither. But it would keep the case in the federal court, where some federal trial judges were good and, if an appeal was necessary, there was our wonderful, pro-civil rights, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. At this point, I subpoena all the officials, especially the sheriff.
Bruce: If you're talking about Madison County, which I believe you are, his reputation, he was a notoriously bad sheriff is what I remember. He was one of the famous ones but I can't remember his name.
Don: I visited his office and it was clear that there was no way to hand him the subpoena. SNCC had an idea. They got a local guy in town, dressed him up as bad as they possibly could, and sent him in to the sheriff's office. He says, "I want to file a complaint because one of the deputies called me a nigger." And they all laughed and said, "All right, sit down." So then I come back with my pretend-subpoena and say, "I am here to subpoena the sheriff, I demand he come out." They say, "He's not even in town," and what not. And so I walk out, and as soon as I walk out, the sheriff comes out and they are all laughing; our guy gets up and hands him the subpoena with the money for fees. And do you know what the reaction was? "Who would think they'd trust a nigger with five dollars?" That was their reaction. Now the sheriff was forced to come to court.
All of Canton would be there to see if Vicksburg history would repeat itself: local blacks in rented buses and community-organized car pools, white city officials under subpoena, and, of course, the accuseds.
Bruce: The bus was for bringing your witnesses?
Don: No, mostly spectators. We had done the TV thing, Stokely had taken care of that.
Bruce: Meaning getting press?
Don: Yeah, and the media were there because it was a whole town and news is slow during Christmas. I've been staying in Canton and suddenly the Boss appears. He's back, he's seen the work I've laid out for him, and everyone is talking about Canton. So he came out to see what's happening. And since I'm trying to get this job, I say, "Why don't you do the honors and I'll be your second chair (assistant)." And he thought that would be fine. So, he's talking to the cameras and giving statements.
When the case is called, I rise to speak but the District Attorney cuts me off. "With all due deference to this court," he began in a slow, deferential drawl, "I am obliged to inform you that the People of the City of Canton have dismissed all the indictments and there are no criminal cases for review by this court."
I was overjoyed that my clients were all free of these charges but also disheartened that the evidence would not come out in this trial. The Canton folks were heavily discouraged, so I made a little speech to get people to feel better. I said, "Look at the victory," and little by little the awareness of their victory and the impact it would have on their lives in the future took hold. Meanwhile, the Boss was giving statements to the press. And I go out and . . .
Bruce: Wait a minute. Did they drop it because they knew that you were going to win?
Don: Oh yeah. As you know there're no secrets in the South the subpoena on the sheriff made it very clear, but also I'm sure there were black people in town who told them what we were doing. So I went out for lunch with the leader in town, Stokely and some others.
I said, "I made a decision. If I can get a job with ACLU, I would like to do variations on "Canton" again. But if I don't get the job, I would like to be full time with SNCC."
Stokley and the others agreed.
That night the Boss invited me to celebrate with dinner at his home, and announced that he had directed Schwarzchild to find the money to hire me as a staff attorney. He then formally offered and I formally accepted the job.
A few days later, I flew back to New York to give up my rent-controlled apartment and deal with my belongings. For reasons not clear to me even now, I rid myself of most of my material possessions in order to be safer in Mississippi, as if I could run faster and duck quicker if I did not have a sectional sofa, three lamps and pounds of books waiting for me in New York.
Then, ending a career of upward economic mobility, I return to Mississippi to stay as a full time, minimally paid, staff lawyer for ACLU, working on mass integration suits and criminal defense . . . and for SNCC, whenever I am on the road. Since I still get all the Holly Springs area cases because I know everyone. I am always moving around the state.
Don: One horribly hot day in Jackson, I'm with a SNCC guy named Mike Higson and my dog. We recklessly decide to go to the Ross Barnett Reservoir (named for the ex-Mississippi governor, who, in 1962, touched off a riot when he defied a federal court order and refused to admit black student, James Meredith, to the all-white University of Mississippi). The Reservoir was off-limits to civil rights workers because hostile white gangs gathered there. But since there was no other beach nearby, needing to cool off, we foolishly decided to take our chances. So we are on the beach, and my dog runs off to play with another dog.
When the owners of the other dog walk to us innocently to talk dog-talk, they take a look at us, especially Mike who has a beard. I don't know why I didn't focus on his beard. They say, "You're nigger-loving Yankees," and you're this and that. Mike is British and using his accent, says, "No, I'm a tourist seeing your wonderful state . . . ." The biggest of them turns to me and gruffly says, "What about you?" I hadn't spoken yet. I say, "I'm a civil rights worker." To this day, I can't imagine why I said that. And the guy punched me in the jaw, knocking me unconscious, standing up. I didn't fall but I was unconscious. How do I know? Because I had bruises all over my upper torso that I had no memory getting, Mike told me they punched me in the chest. But I was just unconscious on my feet, and they apparently pounded away at both of us and we were really bloody.
Finally, our tormentors finished with us and ordered us off their beach; we hobbled off, not running in order to maintain some dignity. Once in the car, we checked each other's injuries and then drove to Mike's girlfriend for peroxide, sympathy . . . and condemnation for visiting the Reservoir (a refrain I would hear for many weeks afterward). Mike, in the midst of telling her the story, all at once remembered my "confession." In a hysterical manner, laughing, then choking, then aching at pains made worse by the laughing, Mike roared, "Why did you say we were civil rights workers?" His woman, not sure which of us was the craziest, shook her head in disbelief.
Bruce: Sometimes you know, you just...
Don: Can you figure it out?
Bruce: You don't always act from logic, I mean, I remember one time in Selma early on, I had only been in the South a few days, I moved from CORE to SCLC. I was walking with this guy, maybe a SNCC worker, I don't know who, but an old hand. A white guy comes out, points a shotgun down at us, and starts going into the "I'm going to kill you," routine, and the guy I was with says, "Motherfucker, if you're going to shoot, go ahead and shoot, I don't give a fuck. Go ahead and shoot." He's taunting him, "Shoot! shoot!" And the guy didn't shoot. See, that's the thing about both the South and nonviolence: In the South everything was much more personal as opposed to institutional, so often you were dealing with the enemy as individual people, as opposed to when they were all lined up in their swarms, like the police phalanxes.
Don: That's very profound.
Bruce: So it's much more personal than any of the confrontations in the North. In the South, the people even some of the bad ones react as human beings rather than as units of a military entity.
Don: I remember while they were beating us up, one of them said to the other, "Should we kill them? The sheriff said that we can do anything we want and we wouldn't get in trouble." And the other said "Nah, just beat them up some more." Now they were probably just talking. But there was a lot of truth to what was said.
Bruce: Lot of truth.
Don: So anyway, soon afterwards I get a major case from the Holly Springs area: not allowing people on the ballot in the primary unless they take the pledge.
Bruce: What pledge?
Don: Oh, hating the civil rights laws, etc.
Bruce: The pledge for segregation.
Don: I thought you'd want to hear it, verbatim:
I pledge condemnation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I favor separation of the races and I declare that integration is a direct threat to Southern womanhood, children, and all that is right, good and true.
Bruce: Now this is summer of '66?
Don: No, spring of '66.
Bruce: This story about the reservoir, when was that?
Don: Just before.
Bruce: You came down first in the summer of '65, so now this is early in '66 with this Pledge? I don't know about Mississippi, but Alabama had local elections in May of '66, so maybe they were on the same schedule. So this was preparations for the local elections?
Don: Yes. Anyway, so Bill Kunstler has a case to stop the elections from taking place, altogether, on the grounds that the Voting Rights Act hasn't had time to take effect. The Boss had the feeling that Kunstler's case was so bizarre that it would have a negative effect on ours, and I agreed with the Boss. So I called Kunstler, who I'd never met, but I had been to his speeches in New York. I told him our basic feelings. Although, he needed us to find test case plaintiffs for him, and I felt bad, it seemed like the right thing to do.
Kunstler is so charming, he said, "Not a problem, but it's a pleasure talking with you, I've heard such wonderful things about you," and he's telling me how terrific I am, and what not, and how he'll make it somehow. Seduced, I wilted and said, "Well, maybe we could figure out some other way. Such as we could disassociate ourself from your case. So we'll have companion cases." We agree to that. I get my case ready but it's always my fate that they drop my best cases. As I begin, the lawyer for the State of Mississippi interrupts me and says they're not going to use the pledge. And the judge promises me if they change their mind, he'll issue the injunction I requested.
Now Kunstler starts his case. Where my papers had been logical and precise, he was dramatic and emotional, crying for justice and compassion, recalling centuries of slavery and the need for amends. His witnesses were heart-rending, his final statement, sprinkled with biblical and classical references, so persuasive I found myself wondering why I had opposed his lawsuit.
Of course he lost! But he was just magnificent. As I told him how impressed I was, he said, "I think we will win on appeal, don't you?" I said, "No, it can't win on appeal, and that would be a terrible precedent." And he said, "Oh, I'll consider that." But he and his colleagues always went straight ahead. It was the first time I'd seen the powerful emotional approach, which really antagonizes, especially in the South. But he reaches the audience and even the judges. He was wonderful.
Bruce: Was it sustained on appeal?
Don: Oh no. It was bizarre to think that the federal system would enjoin state elections from taking place. It was absolutely outlandish. But very wonderful, and for every ten such cases, they'd win one or two, and really change the law.
No society was so damned by sex as the South primarily flamed by a worshipping of the Southern White Woman: that paragon of virtue,
the lily-pure maid, the South's Palladium . . . the shield-bearing Athena gleaming whitely in the clouds, the standard for its rallying, the mystic symbol of its nationality in the face of the foe . . . .
The White Man worshipped his "paragon," but lusted for the black female slave and took her at his pleasure and, for over 300 years, impregnated her with abandon. The foreseeable result: mulatto babies, raised by their black mothers on the same plantations as their white stepbrothers and stepsisters, and tolerated by white society, even Southern wives, if discretion was observed.
And what of the black male slave? Often he was both a cotton picker and a stud for "nigger-breeding" according to Southern folklore, an irresistible super male, endowed with a colossal sexual organ . . . and the cause of great concern to the protectors of White Woman chastity.
I have always understood that a Negro who touches a white woman must die. It is something we learn in the South without knowing how or when or where. (A White Southern Man, in 1934.)
For a black man, or a 14 year-old boy (such as Emmett Till), to be charged with alleged sexually provocative behavior with a white woman: flirting (real or imagined); touching, even accidentally; whistling; sensuous smiling or "lascivious looking" could lead to a court-imposed execution or mob-imposed lynching.
I encountered this pathology in the case of State of Mississippi v. Alfred Windom. A note handed by a frightened black woman to a SNCC worker, who then passed it on to me, brought the first word of a black man's plight: "Al Windom didn't do nothin' but he in prison cause a white woman say he rape her."
"Be careful," I was warned. "It happened just north of Pearl River County Mack Parker's county. You know, where he was lynched." A call to the court clerk confirmed that an "Alfred Windom" had in fact been sentenced to life imprisonment after confessing to attempted rape of a white woman.
It was a full two months before I met Alfred Windom, born in Mississippi, raised in Chicago and street-wise enough not to be awed by this white lawyer or awed by a white woman either, which was why he was chopping cotton in prison for life.
After a few pleasantries, I asked him to tell me about the rape charge.
"Nothing happened," he said in response. I gave him my best "Don't- bullshit-me-Man" look. "Nothing happened!" he repeated indignantly. "OK," I said, half-heartedly. "Tell me why they charged you."
"You see," he began, "I'd been working for Mrs. "Margie Moore," the wife of a Plantation Owner, and one day, when I was drinking, I went over to her and said: 'I'd like to be with you.'"
"You actually said that?" I winced in fear, as if the lynch mob would come for him now, even here in prison. "Yes," he answered, blushing. "And . . .?" "That's it. She said, 'Don't be silly, Alfred. Go home and sleep it off.'"
"And then what happened?" I asked. "That's all!" "No touching, tearing clothes, threatening? That's all?" "That's all!" he said. "So why . . .?" He didn't wait for me to finish. "They said confess or you'll get what Parker got. Mack had been my friend. I 'confessed.'"
I told Windom we'd do something. When I returned to Jackson, I headed down North Farish Street to the offices of Jess Brown, one of the few black lawyers in Mississippi, one of the most fearless people I've known and the former lawyer for Mack Parker.
"He was innocent," Brown began, responding to my request to hear the story again, "but they murdered him." Mack Charles Parker, he told me, was a black man falsely charged with sexually assaulting a white woman. Although both lawyer and client knew the accused would never be acquitted by an all-white Pearl River County jury, they hoped that by holding a trial, the record would reveal his innocence and Parker would later obtain a reversal.
One evening, after preparing for trial all day, Jess Brown was asked by the judge if he was staying in town overnight. A strange question, Brown thought in hindsight. "I usually did," Brown recalled, "but that night I had to go back to Jackson. I told the judge I would return in the morning."
That same night, Parker was taken from his cell. Local blacks still tell the story of seeing his "head clanking down the long stone steps of the Pearl River County Jail while he was dragged away by a lynch mob. Although he pleaded his innocence, his body was riddled with bullets." The next day Brown's client was dead, the lawyer alive only because other business had required his departure the night before.
When I told Jess Brown about Windom, he cautioned, "Don't handle it alone. Get your friend, Bruce Rogow, to work with you."
Agreeing, I walked to the ACLU office, obtained Bruce's agreement to work alongside me, and began preparing for the hearing. Windom's defense would not be innocence. How could we prove it? And who would we convince if we did prove it? Rather, the issue would be racism in the court system, the exclusion of blacks from all county juries and, as concerned Windom, the Grand Jury that indicted him.
Needed were local blacks to review the lists of names on jury rolls and tell us what we already knew but had to prove: that the names were of whites only! Arriving in the county a few days early for that purpose, we solicited aid from the black community. But so pervasive was fear in this county that no one would help us, not even Windom's family.
So we were forced to change our strategy, overnight. Somehow we would have to show instead that he didn't do it, because it didn't happen. With only minimal preparation for our new defense, on a torrid, shirt- drenching morning, Bruce and I drove into white downtown and parked in front of the courthouse. As we walked up the stairs, we were greeted by angry white citizens with cries of "Nigger-lovers!" and "Commies!" As we entered the court room we were introduced to Judge Sebe Dale and two prosecutors: Maurice Dantin, the county District Attorney, and an elderly gentleman, a personal lawyer for the victim, there to protect her from Yankee lawyers.
As if to justify their concern, I called the "victim," Mrs. Margie Moore, as our first witness. The Grande Dame of the county's largest plantation, a handsome woman, probably in her 40's, walked from the spectator's bench, as everyone, even the judge, rose in deference to her prominence, her whiteness . . . and her shame. As she walked past Windom to the witness stand, there was an intake of breath from the audience, as if she might be raped all over again. Raising her right hand and reciting the oath, she was almost drowned out by cries of indignation that the wife of the county's leading citizen should be forced into the court room by a "nigger," especially the man who did her in; that she should be forced to describe his black penis invading her white privates.
Mrs. Moore was attractive as a witness, neither hostile nor tense. I began by asking her what preceded the "incident." Alfred, she said, ordinarily a good worker, was doing his chores that morning, when he suddenly approached her under the carport.
"He said, 'Mrs. Moore, I want to be with you.'"
The audience sucked in its breath at this outrage. This was crime enough for the spectators.
She continued, "Then I said, 'Alfred, you're drunk, go home.'"
I had been letting her just talk on but now she stopped. Here it comes, I thought. She'll say he refused to leave and attacked her. "And then?" I ventured.
"Then he left and I went inside," she said calmly.
"That night I told my husband."
I held my breath, Bruce was pale. Mrs. Moore had repeated Windom's version. She was not accusing him of a crime. I looked to Bruce for advice. He shrugged his shoulders implying, "It's up to you."
I decided to continue.
"Mrs. Moore, I apologize in advance for these questions, but I have to ask them. Did Alfred (I violated serious civil rights protocol by referring to him by his first name to ease the strain) touch you at all?" No. ". . .above the waist?" No. ". . .below the waist?" "No." ". . . attack you in any way?" No. " . . .rape you?" No. " . . .do anything but say those words, 'I want to be with you'?" No.
I looked at Bruce, who motioned me to stop.
"Thank you, Mrs. Moore. No further questions."
I looked at Windom, who showed no emotion. I looked at District Attorney Dantin, who was visibly surprised and wildly whispering to Mrs. Moore's private lawyer. I looked at the sheriff, who seemed equally surprised. No one had known the truth, I later surmised, except Mrs. Moore and her powerful Plantation Owner husband. With a confession and a plea of guilty, there had been no trial, no evidence, and no need for Mrs. Moore to testify.
"I have no questions for the witness," said an uncomfortable District Attorney.
Addressing the judge, I moved to dismiss the charges "because the victim says no crime was committed."
"Denied," shouted Judge Sebe Dale, who, although also surprised, had heard a description of a crime as serious as rape.
The Prosecutor then proceeded to introduce his evidence: Windom's confession. I jumped up and protested: "This is a confession to an act the victim admits never occurred!" But the judge accepted the confession as evidence of the attempted rape that never occurred.
During this Alice-in-Wonderland proceeding, Bruce had slipped out of the court room and called ACLU in Jackson to narrate a capsule version of what had happened, and to relay our fears that with what we presently knew, we might not leave here alive. Now that he had returned, I decided to take the offensive to protect ourselves and our client.
The D.A. was about to introduce some additional evidence when I interrupted. Feigning more confidence than I felt, I warned the Judge that a full report had just been made by phone to the FBI (he glared at Bruce), and that any injury to Windom (I left us out why give anyone ideas?) would result in the prosecution of the Judge in a federal court of law. I demanded that the Judge assume personal responsibility for the safe return of Windom to prison after the hearing, so that he would not "become another Mack Parker." I also demanded that the Judge secure the stenographer's record, guaranteeing that no one tamper with it.
All this was more than Judge Sebe Dale could stand. Over the advice and strong objection of his prosecutor, he insisted on recounting what he called "the true story" of this case, and how justice works in the South. Before I could totally grasp what was happening, Judge Dale walked down from the bench (leaving it unattended), and took the oath! to testify! in a case he was judging! He then began, as recorded by the official county court reporter:
As the presiding judge in this case on the day that this defendant was brought into court [for the original trial] he was treated with the utmost kindness, and caution and care as any human being can be given and when he came into court he made the statement that he wanted to plead guilty.
* * * * *
He was advised then that he could not be sent to the penitentiary until some ten days after court was adjourned. He insisted that he wanted to go [to prison immediately. This was true, Windom feared a lynching after the sentence] and only one thing did he request and that was that he be permitted to see his family and we thereupon made arrangements for him to see his family, and talked to him as kindly and gently as any human being has ever been talked to. Not one single time was he ever referred to as a negro or his color ever mentioned. . . . It was as quiet, and orderly and a decent proceeding as has ever been held in any man's court whether the Civil Rights outfit and the Civil Liberties Union likes it or not or believes it or not.
* * * * *
Of course what happened outside of the court room I have no knowledge [referring to the threatened lynching] and I don't intend to say what happened but I do know what happened in the court room and I don't intend, regardless of what any court does about it, to be insulted about being that kind of crook and criminal to let a District Attorney tell a man "We are going to send you to the penitentiary, negro, and that is it." It just didn't happen and it has never happened in my court room and it has never happened in any courtroom that I have ever been in, in my life. It just doesn't happen down south regardless of what they say about it.
"Now," looking at me, the Judge challenged, "do you want to examine me about any of it?"
While I had been listening in awe to him, I had wondered whether he would consider himself a witness and subject himself to my questions after he concluded his self-serving oration. To my delight, he was offering me the chance to cross examine him. In so doing, he provided me with the opportunity to obtain, as I could in no other way, the evidence that no blacks ever sat on juries in this county.
After preliminary questions about his background, I hurried to the no-blacks-on-the- jury question before the prosecutor convinced the judge to return to the bench. Judge Sebe Dale answered directly and arrogantly:
" . . . no negro has ever served on any jury in this county since I began practicing law in 1924!"
That statement guaranteed us victory on appeal. And with Mrs. Moore's testimony, we could, theoretically, acquit Windom in a new trial. But I didn't stop. This opportunity would never repeat itself.
I asked the witness if he would have dismissed the case if Mrs. Moore had told the trial jury the facts as related here.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "I think I would have let it gone to the jury."
Then, suddenly, he seemed to anticipate my next question an attack on the "confession" and thereby his old friend, the prosecutor, to whom Windom had admitted a crime which had not occurred. Impulsively, the Judge began a rambling testimonial to the former District Attorney:
He and I rode to the criminal courts in this district for twelve years together. . . . he is a high tone Christian gentleman and he accepted his duties and responsibilities as district attorney as a public trust. . . . I just can't conceive of any officer in any of these counties doing the things he [Windom] says has been done.
"Do you think," I asked, playing with the Judge's sensitivity for his friend's reputation, "the officers in Pearl River County [where Mack Parker was lynched] are as high quality as [the former D.A.]?"
The prosecutor objected: "This is not Pearl River County."
Ignoring him, I continued: "Has it been your honor's observation that negroes in the south charged with crime involving white people, particularly white women, have not received as fair a trial as white people under similar circumstances?"
"I think they get just as fair a trial," the judge said. "I think a negro can get as fair a trial in Mississippi . . . as he can anywhere in the world. And I think another thing, one negro is not going to let another negro sit on the jury to try him. If you want to know the truth about it, we are having that experience because they know they can good time a white fellow a lot quicker than they can one of their own color."
"Do you think," I persisted, "that a negro can get as fair a trial as a white man without any negroes on the jury?" Yes. "Do you think negroes in your circuit have been intimidated to say the least by what happened to Mack Charles Parker?" No. No, I don't. "Do you think," I raised my voice, "a negro arrested for a crime involving a white woman would not be in any way influenced by what happened to Mack Charles Parker?" No, he would not, flared the Judge, angry at the repetition of Parker's name.
The prosecutor tried to stop the testimony: "Your honor, this is all outside and is going into the record."
Judge Dale now turned his wrath on his own District Attorney.
"It is all outside, but I would just like for the Supreme Court of the United States to know something about the truth about what is going on down here."
Then turning back to me:
The crime rate is no worse in this state and the criminal condition is no worse in this state than it is [in] your state or any other state in the union the Supreme Court and [U.S. Attorney General Nicholas] Katzenbach [sic] notwithstanding.
* * * * *
Anytime a circuit judge, or a presiding judge, gets so doggone scared of the Supreme Court ruling that he is going to cowtow [sic] to them then he ought not to be circuit judge . . . I started out [ruled] on five cases [during] one court [session] and the Supreme Court reversed me five times in a row and when the sixth one came up I held the same thing and they affirmed it. Sometime maybe they will come to their senses.
"Are you ready for me to rule?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"I don't believe that any human being in the history of this County has ever been dealt with any more fairly and kindly than this defendant has and it was all done in open court and open and above board and nothing hid from the public anymore than this hearing right now is being hid from the public
merit and I am, therefore, going to deny it."
Judge Dale then proceeded to resentence Windom to life imprisonment for a crime the "victim" said never happened.
Bruce and I wished our client good luck and reluctantly left him in a jail not unlike that from which his friend had been dragged and lynched. For our own safety, we drove swiftly out of town and later that night learned that Windom was safely back in prison.
Over a year later, the federal courts finally freed him.
Bruce: You told me about a girlfriend and racial problems. . .
Don: Yes, but ironically, it was a white civil rights worker who I fell for.
I was returning home from a never-ending junket between Holly Springs and Jackson. While in Holly Springs, the Boss called to ask me to respond to a message from a civil rights worker. Using the WATTS line (the unlimited telephone call linkage from the rurals to Jackson), Molly had called ACLU for lawyer help. "Agricultural discrimination," she had said, and though no one knew what she meant, I was assigned to offer encouragement but to emphasize there was little we could do in matters outside traditional civil rights channels.
Once in her county, driving first on concrete, then asphalt, and finally on dirt roads, I pulled up in front of a tiny cabin, so small from the outside, it seemed you'd have to walk sideways once inside. In front, wearing the traditional civil rights uniform of blue jeans and workshirt, yet looking more a Southern Belle than a civil rights worker, stood Molly, a fair skinned blonde in her twenties.
"I'm Don . . ."
"Yes, I know," she interrupted. "I'm Molly. I was told you were on your way. You're from New York and you got beat up at the Reservoir." She caught her breath and laughed at my obvious surprise that she knew so much about me. "I'm from California," she raced on, "and I came down for the Mississippi Summer . . . and I guess (she laughed heartily) I just stayed on."
Her father, fighting for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, had been hit by shrapnel and eventually lost a lung. Though Molly was raised to concern herself with the plight of others less fortunate, when she decided to Go South in 1964, her father, bitter over his debilitating injury, urged her not to repeat his involvement in other people's causes. Nevertheless, as a MFDP/COFO volunteer, she went . . . and stayed. Now, two years later, she had trouble defining her status: she was no longer a part of MFDP, and COFO barely existed. Like many of her counterparts, she was an unpaid staff member of a county-created freedom group, spending her time on such projects as voter registration and integrated schools, while the farmers toiled in the fields and joined her when their work was done. Rallying behind her as their contact with the outside world, the sharecroppers believed that somehow this lovely young woman with blonde silken hair could deliver them to a better life.
Less than a half hour had passed since I had driven up but I, and seemingly she also, were already in love though, in hindsight, perhaps more in love with what the other represented than with the individual. Molly was starved for the familiar fast exchange of words, middle-class education, discussion of books and ideas, even whiteness; I hungered for the innocence of the "Molly's" of the Civil Rights Movement, the brave, dedicated idealists I wanted to hold and protect, and to live with happily ever after, while fighting for a noble cause.
We were interrupted by two black women and a black man; they were Molly's age and members of her local Movement. They walked over, ignored me and said hello to Molly. We were all introduced but my greeting was responded to with coolness. I hoped that if they knew more about me, knew that I was a full-time civil rights lawyer, the trio would accept me and become friendlier. So I dropped some names and events, but to no avail until I mentioned my beating at the Reservoir. Only then did I get a reaction: contempt and laughter! Oh yes, they knew about that. "Boy, were you dumb," one of the black women said, looking at the others instead of me as she spoke. Molly was speechless so I tried a different line of conversation: "Did you all come down, like Molly, for the Mississippi Summer?" The Wrong Question!
"No, Man," the black male scowled at me, the first official notice of my presence. "We were always here. We sent for you whites. That was our mistake." (He rushed on as if I had insulted his ancestry.) "We needed more civil rights workers, but mainly white workers . . . to die! We knew you Yankees (as he pronounced "Yankees," his sharecropper dialect faded, replaced by an accent that marked him as a Northerner, probably a New Yorker) would care only if your own children 'children of privilege,' he added with scorn "were beaten and killed . . . like us."
"And that's exactly what happened," one of the black women burst in. "Two white boys died (she left out the local black who died with them, to better exaggerate her premise) and 'Oh, My,'" she mimicked, "did the liberals ever get upset. And then it came to pass (now she parodied a biblical story) that much money poured into the evil State of Mississippi . . . and civil rights laws were passed . . . and federal G-men appeared . . . and more white civil rights workers appeared, all because two white boys got hurt. As if we hadn't been killed and murdered for centuries!" she near screamed at me. Backing up involuntarily as if I was about to be struck, I wondered what I had done to bring on such bitterness.
Molly finally chimed in, but in defense of herself, not me: "Many of us," she said plaintively, "came because we believed in your cause, not for kicks or out of guilt . . . and we worked and still work very hard."
"Yes, child," the black woman responded, as if she were an ancient sharecropper instead of Molly's age. "Some of you did good work. Hear? I don't deny it. But if you cared so much for our cause, and not yourselves, why, when we asked y'all to leave after the Summer, did you refuse?
Many had in fact refused to leave.
According to a civil rights worker-leader: "[We] made a cardinal mistake, a disastrous miscalculation. We did not anticipate that the volunteers would either want to stay or that they would stay . . . ." Nor was it anticipated that even when asked to leave, the whites would refuse. 150 whites like Molly, entrenched in small Mississippi and Alabama communities, barely subsidized by grateful local blacks, remained. And worse, they brought down even more white volunteers by inviting their friends and recruiting on campuses (and by soliciting those on hand such as a white civil rights lawyer).
By 1965, only one year after the Freedom Summer, white faces could be found in major Movement communities, white civil rights workers: many untrained by the early black Movement, many unwanted by the black Movement, all shielded by the usually passive black sharecropper, the "People" of the civil rights adage: "Let The People Decide!" who decided that their white friends should remain. The black civil rights workers backed down, although with bitterness. In the aftermath of the Summer of 1964, the lingering resentment was painstakingly ignored by the whites who revered the Movement while defying it.
As Molly was about to answer the question about refusing to leave, the black woman who asked the question shifted gears: "But we like you Molly," she said, "except (here she paused until she found a big smile) when you try to steal our boyfriends."
The two black women laughed heartily. The black man, suddenly very uncomfortable, changed the subject by asking me for gossip about friends in Holly Springs and Jackson. After listening to my half-hearted token answers, the three departed without the traditional invitation for me to return.
Molly, upset and embarrassed, apologized for her friends. "They're not usually like that," she assured me, as she watched them walk away. "All three were in Alabama recently with Stokley Carmichael and they came back crazy. Everything 'white-this,' 'white-that,' 'honkey' even. Has anything like this ever happened to you here?"
"No," I told her, but I could not expend too much energy on the three that had just departed; I was too smitten with the one that remained. But how to cross that line from civil rights co-workers to romance and what to do about my special problem?
"Why don't you come into the house?" Molly suggested. "I have gonorrhea," I blurted out. She might have said indignantly: "I didn't ask you to sleep with me!" but instead Molly said sweetly: "Come in, anyhow." "Actually, I'm all better," I added, making things worse. "All I have to do is visit Dr. Poussaint once more to be sure."
When she didn't renew her offer, I asked if I could still come in. At this she burst out laughing, "Yes, come in," she said, "but don't touch anything."
This time I laughed also and I walked into her little house, so small that there was no place to sit except the bed. "Sit down," she invited me nervously. As we sat as far from each other as the short bed would allow, Molly broke the silence by asking, "Are you living with someone?" "No," I answered, "but I was spending a lot of time with someone until recently. That's how . . . " "I know how you get gonorrhea," she interrupted, with a mock look of exasperation. "Anyhow, I'm not seeing anyone now," I said. But I'd like to be seeing you now, I thought but didn't say. "How about you? Are you seeing anyone?" I felt I had a right to ask, given the drift of this conversation.
"No, it's too risky," she responded, explaining that the only available men in this community were black. But when a man showed any interest in her, the black women got angry, even if they were not interested in him themselves. So she just gave up.
"How about your girlfriend?" Molly inquired. "Was she . . .?" This was the first time in the South that I had discussed the problems of white people in the Movement with a white civil rights worker though I didn't appreciate the significance at the time. "Yes, she's Negro," I answered the question before it was completed. "But we never had any problems. She and I went to Movement parties all the time, went out to 'black' theaters, ate in 'black' restaurants . . ."
"Probably because you're a lawyer," she interrupted. "You get special treatment because you're so needed, but not me. There are more than enough white civil rights workers to go around."
At that I smiled, and she asked why I was smiling.
"Maybe you could make everyone around here happy if you went with a white man." "Maybe," she grinned. "Do you know anyone?" Nope," I countered. "Just being theoretical." Seated on her bed, I pulled her to me and kissed her. "How about your gonorrhea?" she chided me. "Don't laugh," I growled, annoyed at life's little joke. "Well, get better soon," she teased. "I will," I assured her.
I drove away, imagining when I might see her again . . . after I saw my doctor.
Dr. Alvin Poussaint, 32, a black psychiatrist from Harvard, was the resident sawbones, shrink and father-confessor to civil rights workers. In his role as Southern Field Director for the Medical Committee for Human Rights, a civil rights doctors' organization, he provided free medical and psychiatric care for all civil rights workers in Mississippi, maintained a medical presence at demonstrations (bringing in doctor-volunteers as needed), desegregated health facilities in the South by filing complaints under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, in his spare time, set up community-run, lay health care systems in the counties. Also, he sent battle-fatigued civil rights workers out of the South, often to be the house guest of a friendly doctor, who would both minister to the civil rights worker and provide him or her with a safe, friendly home to recuperate in.
Licensed by the State of Mississippi (which hesitated at first but then capitulated), Dr. Poussaint also ran his own pharmacy, providing medicine and filling other doctors' prescriptions without cost. The black doctor was well known in the Movement for treating venereal disease with his "one-shot-penicillin," ("More was better but one would do!"), which he would administer anywhere, even behind a bush during a demonstration.
Dr. Poussaint was treating me for my problem: I hoped I would be pronounced cured on this visit.
As he was examining me, I asked if there some recent racial conflict between blacks and whites in the Movement?"
"You're right as to the conflict," he looked up, suddenly serious, "but you're wrong if you think it's recent. It's been going on since the first whites appeared in large numbers in 1964." (Dr. Poussaint later wrote two provocative papers on the subject, each highly controversial within the Movement, in no small part for their titles: "Black Power: A Failure for Racial Integration Within the Civil Rights Movement" (co-written) and "The Stresses of the White Female Worker in the South," which I will freely quote here.)
The problem, Dr. Poussaint explained to me, was one of duality, of love and hate. The young civil right workers were the first whites the local blacks had ever socialized with, ate with, much less lived with. At first the whites were adored for having come South. But in time the good feelings lessened as blacks began to whisper about the whites' lack of commitment: that white civil rights workers could always leave and go home to the relative safety and security of the North; that the whites could take chances because if things got hot they had a place to go to. Not so the blacks.
And after still more time, anger consumed the blacks as the white civil rights workers were seen as the children of those who had jailed them, murdered them and enslaved them over centuries.
Even the skills of the whites were viewed with disfavor. The paper-wise, detail-wise, office-wise whites acted, or were perceived as acting, "superior," accused of becoming instant, self-appointed experts and authorities on all matters concerning the Negro and civil rights.
They did most of the talking and very little listening to the local black people. They were said to be impatient and to begin quickly to direct programs and run the project office, thus taking over from black people. They were accused of being paternalistic and condescending in their relations with blacks, and of acting as if they felt Negroes had little intelligence or capability.
The whites couldn't win. If a white man taught a black man to use the typewriter, he was the teacher, flaunting his education and superior abilities; when a crisis occurred, if the white (who typed at least twice as fast) took over the typewriter, he was accused of "taking over" from the blacks.
The white civil rights workers accepted the abuse heaped upon them, but they admitted their unhappiness to Dr. Poussaint. What can we do, they lamented, when some Negroes ask us to do their civil rights work, especially office work, and "abdicate leadership to us?" There was nothing they could do. As time went on, Dr. Poussaint concluded, "when white students were around, [black] civil righters seemed to do less and the whites to do more."
The anger of the blacks was further fueled by a handful of reckless whites (many of whom felt guilty for their privileged "white" lives), who caused breaches of security that threatened the safety of both themselves and the black community.
For instance, a few seemed to wish to be beaten or jailed as a badge of prestige and movement membership. Sometimes, in flaunting their new-found sense of racial brotherhood, white workers endangered entire communities. For instance, a white girl worker while walking down a Mississippi dirt road might reach out and affectionately take the hand of a Negro male worker in front of a Mississippi Highway patrolman or local white toughs or both. In Mississippi this may well be considered a "suicidal gesture" on the part of the girl. It could also in effect be unconsciously a "homicidal gesture" toward the Negro man who might easily be lynched under the circumstances. When, for example, such a pair was stopped riding in a car by local officials, the Negro fellow would receive a severe beating, but the white girl would escape with an admonishment and an epithet. This disregard by whites and also blacks for basic safety and security measures frequently angered Negro workers and was interpreted again as a lack of caring and respect for the black community.
But most problems paled in comparison with the most explosive issue of all: the white woman civil rights worker herself. Black female workers were becoming more and more angry, in spite of the fact that this was the way the world was supposed to be: integrated! black men and women with white men and women. But the black women hadn't expected to be rejected by their men for the white woman.
The Negro girls were often resentful and jealous of the attention which Negro men showed to the white girls, and vice versa. The black girls were sometimes frantically jealous of the white girls and in a state of panic because they feared that they would lose their boyfriends to white girls. (During the summer a number of local Negro female workers came to see [Dr. Poussaint] acutely depressed because they were jealous of their boyfriends' attention to white girls. These young ladies were extremely bitter and hostile toward white girls and frequently attacked them verbally.)
* * * * *
The black men seemed totally preoccupied with their relations with white female workers. They were acutely aware of the fact that by associating with white women they were violating the most sacred Southern taboos. Therefore, in nearly all sexual situations with white women, they were constantly plagued by ambivalence as well as a mixture of feelings of fear, hate, suspicion, and adoration for the white girls. (One young Negro fellow blurted out to [Dr. Poussaint], whenever I'm around one of these white girls, I don't know whether I feel like kissing her or punching her in the mouth!]
The black men joined in the attacks on white civil rights women, albeit often halfheartedly. Black leaders with white girl friends were embarrassed, felt guilty and were accused of selling out; their white girlfriends accused of manipulating them, conducting "bedroom politics." Even Dr. Poussaint himself was at times labelled an enemy of black people because he, by his medical care, helped whites remain in the Movement.
Anguished by what I was hearing, I related the incident about Molly's friends, concluding with Molly's remark that as a lawyer, I was immune to the problems and didn't see it. He agreed that as a lawyer I had been given special treatment . . . but that I shouldn't expect it to last. "Look out," he warned. "There is a love/hate relationship with civil rights lawyers also. It's out there but rarely expressed because lawyers are vital to the Movement. Remember," he told me, "almost all civil rights lawyers are white, obviously highly educated and capable of earning sizable incomes. . . . The poor and uneducated blacks are grateful to you, but angry also at lawyers: at the white Southern lawyers who have used the laws to cripple them."
"The tide is turning," he told me. "Anyhow, you're cured but watch out for those interracial relations."
The day to drive upstate finally came. For once I did not begrudge the early-rising, long, tedious drive to Holly Springs, because halfway I would detour to see Molly. In record time, I arrived at her little cabin, beside myself with joy when I spied her seated out in front.
Walking into her cabin, closing the door behind us to keep out the sun, we sat down once again on the little bed. Uncomfortable and struggling for conversation, Molly asked me what was new. In response I launched into a recitation of my three days away, leaving out the Dr. Poussaint discussion: a minor trial, a vigorous telephone argument with a Klan lawyer, a decision in the mail announcing victory in a major voter discrimination case. I was acting out a fantasy, coming home to the little woman who asks what heroic deed I've lately performed, the dragons I've slain. Now, more confident, I began to gently pull her down on the bed, when suddenly my eye was struck by a ray of light, then a second beam, then a third. The beams were coming from the door, or rather through it.
"What are those holes?" I asked, but she didn't answer.
I got up and walked to the door. I stared at chest-high holes that hadn't been there during my first visit. Then I stared at Molly, her eyes filling with tears, suddenly sobbing as she told me what had happened only a few hours after my departure. She had heard a car approaching the shack and had walked to the door thinking it might be me, having turned back. Then she heard the first shot. Averting death by seconds and inches, she dropped to the floor as bullets sprayed the door.
"That's the whole story," she said. "They drove off without ever stopping."
Returning to the small bed in the little shack, I held her tightly, the rays of light as a reminder of how I might never have seen her again, or, had I remained that afternoon, died with her (or perhaps even died alone, since my reflexes would have been a lot slower than hers).
We didn't speak again of the shooting until dinner that night at a nearby Holiday Inn restaurant, my idea of celebrating Molly's survival. Seeking a total release, we consumed the "New Orleans" cuisine, overdid the alcohol and concluded with an extravagant dessert. Bloated, we retired to a poolside table where the waiter brought us a pot of coffee, and we sat, holding hands, watching guests swimming and splashing. But I couldn't blot from my mind the thought that I might have driven here, only to learn from one of her harsh friends that Molly was dead, slain at the hands of white men.
"Why," I blurted out, breaking the festive mood, "why you? They don't usually go after white women."
Bruce: This was after Viola Liuzzo had been killed during the Selma March?
Don: Yes, terribly tragic, a brave woman but she wasn't a civil rights worker, living in a community. That was mass murder. I never heard them go after any woman in the Movement, the staff Movement, ever.
After Molly calmed down, I asked, "Tell me what you have been doing lately that's different?"
"I really don't know," she answered solemnly, "but it could be the 'agriculture thing' I first asked you to come up about. You see," she continued, "some of the sharecroppers are entitled to money, allotments, from the agriculture office as payments for planting less than they could, or something like that. Anyhow, one farmer complained to me about not receiving any money and I went to the office to write up a formal complaint for him." For her efforts, Molly received a more hostile reception than any she had encountered before, even from voter registrars. "Anyhow, I thought it strange . . . and excessive," she added. "So I called ACLU."
Listening carefully, envisioning the bullet holes in her door, I couldn't imagine the significance of some pittance paid for leaving an acre or so unplanted, but I assured her I would investigate.
Serious discussion ended, arms around each other, we walked about the motel grounds, looking at the moon and mumbling to each other. I stayed over and the next day we ate again at the Holiday Inn, this time a Southern-style breakfast: heaping portions of tasteless grits, seemingly alive and threatening to overpower the eggs and bacon it surrounded; on the side of each plate, corn muffins shaped like lizards. We laughed and loved the meal. Dreading leaving her, I suggested:
"Could you find time to come with me to Holly Springs while I handle a case, and you could meet my friends at the same time." Before she could answer, I sweetened the pot: "Only for two days and I'll bring you right back."
She smiled. "No, I don't have the time . . . but, Yes, I'd love to come."
Molly told her co-workers that she'd be away a few days and we drove to Holly Springs and had a magnificent time, but when we returned to her county, a contingency of her black co-workers, gathered in front of her home. Without preface, the black male I had met on my first visit fired the opening guns. Molly was told she was a dilettante who dabbled with the poor by day and lived the good life at night . . . and the next morning; that she deliberately excluded her friends by picking eating places which were either unsafe for them, or beyond their budget (they had learned of our Holiday Inn excursions); and that she was a racist for preferring a white professional over a black man.
The black woman who had "joked" about boyfriends, returned to that theme: "First you try to steal our boyfriends," she screamed at Molly, "then when that don't work, you pick a fancy white man to show you're better than us . . . or so you think." "And now," another black woman piped in, "I assume you'll leave us for him, just as you gave up your work to take a joyride with him."
Neither Molly nor I spoke. She cried and the black civil rights workers turned their backs on us and walked away.
The illogical mixture of anger and dependency rendered me speechless. It was obvious now that I shouldn't have flaunted my money and my whiteness by taking her to eat in the Holiday Inn. Dr. Poussaint had mentioned that discussions and quarrels over black-white relations consumed so much time that, in some places, all work was stopped and many projects dissolved. Was that happening here? But I'm white, she's white. This is not the Poussaint thesis.
Sixteen years later, on a visit to Dr. Poussaint in Boston, he explained the phenomenon that had bewildered me in the intervening years. He told me that the white civil rights worker, especially the white female civil rights worker, couldn't win! If she was romanced by a black male, she slighted her black female co-workers. If she rejected him, it was because he wasn't white. ("You'd sleep with me if I wasn't a Negro.") If she chose a white man, she was reverting to her superior class and wealth and of course color. Whites couldn't do enough to prove their loyalty; the black was always waiting for a sign of the inevitable betrayal, especially the ultimate disloyalty: abandoning them by leaving.
Dr. Poussaint said it over and over again, shaking his head in sadness, remembering the pity he felt in those days: "The white woman couldn't win, she just couldn't win."
As for Molly and me, the new lovers, everything had gone bad. There was nothing to say at that moment, so we said nothing for the better part of an hour. Then I left for Jackson, not staying the night as I had planned.
We never got back together.
Don: Arriving back in Jackson, I was only one step inside the door when I was advised that Henry Schwarzchild wanted to talk with me, immediately. I immediately called the New York ACLU administrator and agreed to meet him for dinner at a nearby motel restaurant. There I learned that ACLU had obtained additional funding which would allow them to spread across the South. For now, two new offices: one in New Orleans, Louisiana, for which a high level corporation lawyer from Washington, D.C. had already been hired; and one in Selma, Alabama . . . for me to head, if I was willing.
Bruce: When was this?
Don: This is now definitely May-June of 1966.
Bruce: Just before the Meredith March?
Don: That's right.
Bruce: They haven't had an office in Selma all during the height of the Selma Movement? They didn't have anybody?
Don: Nothing, nowhere. Schwartzchild told me that a main reason for choosing me was that I could get along with the dominant movement presence, the SNCC people SCLC having come and gone.
While I was absorbing the message, he added: "You will be in charge of the whole State of Alabama, with your own staff . . . and your own budget but the Boss will still be in charge overall, as chief of the whole operation. Well?"
U.S. Highway 51 running from north to south, cuts Mississippi in two. In June of 1996, Highway 51 also cut the civil rights movement in two: the old integrationist movement, and the new Black Power Era of Stokely Carmichael. Almost symbolically, that same date, I was driving against that thrust, as I proceeded from west to east across that very same highway.
At the same time on the same day, Carmichael, the new head of SNCC, was marching down the Highway 51, leading the Meredith March.
Bruce: From SNCC's point of view, Stokely was leading the march. But that view was not necessarily shared by the SCLC and CORE people who were also on the march.
Don:In the midst of that March occurred an explosion that drew a line through race relations in America. Stokely, who had been plucked from the March by a deputy sheriff, placed behind bars and only just released, proclaimed:
"This is the twenty-seventh time I've been arrested and I ain't goin' to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over. We been saying "Freedom" for six years and we ain't got nothin'. What we gonna start saying now is "Black Power!"
"BLACK POWER!" the civil crowd roared in unison.
"What do you want? "
"WHAT do you want? "
"WHAT DO YOU WANT? "
"BLACK POWER!!" "BLACK POWER!!!" "BLACK POWER!!!!"
But unaware of any of this, I drove over the infamous Selma Bridge where Sheriff Jim Clark brutalized nuns, priests, local people and civil rights workers and galvanized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Further east was Montgomery where Rosa Park would not move to the back of the bus and where Dr. King's prominence was launched with the Bus Boycott and where the Civil Rights Movement began; north was Birmingham where State Troopers attacked demonstrators with police dogs and fire hoses and where four black children were bombed to death in their Sunday School; northeast was Anniston where a Freedom Bus had been torched.
Crossing the Selma Bridge, a five-block drive led to the Civic Square of Selma, wherein labored the civil rights combatants: on one side of the street, the offices of Sheriff Clark, his jail, the police department and City Hall; on the other side of the street, a three-story building: on its top floor the Alabama headquarters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), on its bottom floor, Miller's Funeral Parlor. Sandwiched between was my ACLU office-to-be, the former SCLC office.
Bruce: Oh, yeah, the old SCLC office.
Don: And I was now moving in. I bounded up the stairs to a stark office, and said "Hi ya" to a small greeting committee of black sharecroppers, one of whom said: "You the lawyer? Call Mr Schwazman in N'York."
"Don't even unpack!" Henry Schwartzchild ordered. "Not until we find out what Stokley Carmichael has in mind." He then briefed me about reports from the March that "Black Power" meant that whites would no longer be allowed in the Movement, and, he guessed, likely not in the SNCC headquarters building. "Just wait," Schwartzchild advised me, "until the dust settles. We may pull you back to Mississippi."
What do I do while I'm waiting? I asked, but Schwartzchild had no ideas. So I sat down in one of those high-back, judge-type swivel chairs and swiveled in a slow circle, smiling nervously at the black sharecroppers who looked no different to me than their counterparts in Mississippi . . . and seemingly untouched by the New Order. They smiled back in return, signalling their willingness to wait until I was ready to work for them. A further swivel positioned me to stare out the window at the sheriff's office and finally to the cluster of my office supplies strewn on the floor.
In the midst of my swivels, through my office door came Charles, a black SNCC civil rights worker I knew from his visits to Holly Springs. "Hi, D__," he blurted out, caught himself and literally ran out the door, back upstairs to Black Power country. I sighed, depressed that Henry Schwartzchild might be right.
Charles returned 15 minutes later, now without enthusiasm, and sat down next to me. "You heard about it?" he whispered, as if the words "Black Power" should not be uttered in my presence.
"Yes, but what does it mean?" I asked, also afraid to use the word but hoping for some interpretation that would allow me to stay.
"I'm not sure," he responded "but it doesn't seem to mean," he cracked a weak smile, "just 'power for black people'."
He paused and I knew he was about to tell me why he had returned to my office after his hasty retreat.
"There's, uh, a sign going up, uh, outside your door . . . at the stairway to our floor . . . and I told the folks upstairs that we should tell you about it first."
I couldn't guess what the sign would say but I knew it wasn't "Welcome Don."
"It says," he continued, now staring out the window, "NO WHITES ALLOWED UPSTAIRS WITHOUT PRIOR APPROVAL!"
He swallowed hard and I gasped. "Oh," I mumbled, looking away. The black sharecroppers sat at the rear of the office, still waiting for the lawyer to help them, looking at my face and knowing something bad was happening but not understanding what it was.
"Can I talk to them?" indicating the sharecroppers.
"I don't know," he answered in despair. "No one likes this happening, especially to you, but until Stokley comes back from the March . . ." He stopped and burst out: "I'm going crazy. The press is calling non-stop: 'What does Black Power mean?' 'Are whites excluded?' and I don't know what to say." Then like Henry Schwartzchild, he warned me to stay out of trouble and he'd try to keep me posted.
I smiled, grateful to hear a black utter a friendly word. Deciding that it was best not to talk to the sharecroppers, I muttered a few words to them about how it's too soon to start lawyering, that I had unpacking and such to do first. Then I left the office and drove to my newly-rented ACLU residence, plopped down onto a newly purchased, second-hand sofa to watch my future on the used 12-inch, black and white TV set I had also purchased.
The Meredith March was the story on Southern TV, seemingly played over and over again with new analyses, updated analyses, inside analyses: What did Black Power mean? they all asked.
The story that was shown and discussed on TV began 11 days ago on June 5, 1966 when James Meredith began what he described as his "March Against Fear" down the heart of Mississippi to dramatize what he called "that all-pervasive and overriding fear that dominates the day-to-day life of the Negro in the United States, especially in the South and particularly in Mississippi." Meredith was well aware of Fear in Mississippi. His integration of the University of Mississippi three-and-a-half years earlier had been accomplished over the resistance of the Mississippi Governor and a lynch mob; his own survival (two died and 160 were wounded) had rested with a few hundred U.S. marshals and 20,000 federal troops.
Now, accompanied by a dozen friends, he set out to march down Highway 51. The next day, barely 10 miles into Mississippi, a white man stepped out of the roadside underbrush with a shotgun and fired 75 pellets at Meredith. Initially reported dead, he soon was recovering in a Memphis hospital as civil rights leaders rushed to his side and then took up the March at the spot where Meredith had been shot.
Figures from the past of the Civil Rights Movement led an assembly that at times numbered 1,500 There was Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, victor of the triumphant Brown v Board of Education, which was the beginning of the end of legalized segregation. Marching alongside was James Farmer, former head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which braintrusted the Freedom Rides. The presence of John Lewis, former SNCC leader, represented the sit-ins and the heroic efforts within Mississippi to create a movement of black sharecroppers. Of course, Dr. King was there, bringing with him the prestige of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Birmingham mass demonstrations, his "I Have A Dream" speech to a crowd of 200,000, a Nobel Peace Prize, and, most recently, the Selma March.
There was one new face, new at least to the media and the nation: Stokely Carmichael, who, on May 15, 1966, had seized control of SNCC in a virtual coup d'etat that was a catalyst for a new militancy.
A few weeks later Carmichael was marching down Highway 51 on the Meredith March, only to be arrested without genuine cause as he prepared to settle down for the night with the other marchers. In anger, almost 3,000 black farmers, having waited for his release from jail, cheered as Stokely, six years of the civil rights struggle pouring out of him, raised his arm, clenched his fist and roared "Black Power!"
As the Montgomery Bus Boycott had transformed Dr. King into the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, so the Meredith March catapulted Stokely Carmichael to the role of national leader of the Black Power phase of the Movement. TV journalists, long accustomed to the Negro as victim, now met the black as militant. To Southerners, it was as if Nat Turner's slave revolt and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry were happening now! to them! To liberals and editorial writers, it was "black racism" and "Negro Bigotry"; to NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, it was "separatism . . . wicked fanaticism . . . ranging race against race . . . in the end only black death."
Soon an impressive array of civil rights leaders placed an ad in the N.Y. Times, declaring: "We repudiate any strategies of violence, reprisal or vigilantism, and we condemn both rioting and the demagoguery that feeds it." Other black leaders mockingly asked for "Green Power" as money and support for the Black Power advocates would soon be cut off. Although Dr. King opposed the violent leanings of Black Power, he refused to join SNCC's detractors.
By the time I had watched the news two or three times, I decided to distract myself with TV movies, falling into a fitful nap to the soothing voice of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon.
The next morning I drove to my still-virgin office, glanced again at the "No Whites" sign, checked with Schwartzchild for news (none) . . . and returned to the TV.
The next day was the same; no news.
But the following day, SNCC made contact through Charles, who came to the rented ACLU house to tell me that H. Rap Brown, an important SNCC worker, was in jail and needed my help. Which I refused to give. In the preceding days I had thought about what I would do if I was allowed to stay, deciding that I could not work under these humiliating circumstances: If I wasn't run out, I would work for other groups, such as Dr King's SCLC but not SNCC. With great fervor whenever I mentioned the sign, I related all this to Charles, who was unprepared for my reaction.
"What if Rap is killed in jail?"
"So be it," I pronounced, less sure than I sounded.
Charles left as I wondered what would happen to me if Rap died in a Southern jail.
An hour later, Charles returned to tell me that Stokley Carmichael would call me from the March in Mississippi . . . in my office . . . tonight . . . at 8 pm. "Would I take the call?" I was asked. "Of course," I replied.
Stokely Carmichael, 24, a native of Trinidad, had been educated at New York City's Bronx High School of Science (as had I, a decade before him), and then at Howard University, was on one of the first Freedom Rides to Jackson, Mississippi in the spring of 1961 and was sentenced to the infamous Parchman Prison.
From Parchman to the Meredith March, Stokely's career matched that of SNCC, with one major difference: his nonviolence was contained rage ready to burst. He was part of the advance party sent to bring voter registration to Mississippi. He was there for the Mississippi Summer of l964. And he was in Atlantic City for the "great liberal betrayal" at the Democratic Party National Convention two months later where promises to back a mostly black slate as delegates, evaporated.
After the Convention, vowing he would never again engage in coalition politics, Stokley, in early 1965, began working in evil Lowndes County (near Selma), where blacks constituted 80 percent of the county's residents but zero percent of the vote, while whites represented 118 percent (the Graveyard Vote) of the registered voters. Lowndes was perhaps the most dangerous county in the South. This time an independent party the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was formed to oppose the local racist Democratic Party. As the first all-black political party with its emblem of a crouching black panther, it earned its nickname, "The Black Panther Party."
An hour later than scheduled Stokley Carmichael telephoned me at my office. I had carefully prepared what I would say but when the phone rang I could only mutter, "Hello?"
"Hi, Don," boomed the charismatic Stokley. "We haven't talked since your great work in the Canton case. I'm also still hearing many fine things about you from Holly Springs, both as a lawyer and as a civil rights worker."
"Thank you," I whispered.
"Sorry about the sign," he got right to the point. "In three days we'll be in Philadelphia [Mississippi], where, as I know you well know, three of our civil rights workers were murdered. Two were white. Whatever Black Power will eventually stand for, it does not stand for a plan to oust our white allies. As a lawyer-SNCC worker combined, you are essential to us and I hope you will continue to be one of us and work with us."
"I'm sorry about Rap in jail . . ." I blurted out, racked with guilt.
"No," Stokley laughed. "Probably, we needed a jolt to make us think out our priorities. No apologies needed, perhaps we should apologize to you . . . and ask you to help Rap as soon as you are willing."
"Tonight," I promised.
"Thank you," said Stokley Carmichael. "There will be no more signs and no more SNCC problems for you," he promised. "But I'll expect you to call me if there are ever any problems."
"I will," I assured him.
"Wait 10 minutes and then please go upstairs."
"Thank you," I said again.
"Give 'em hell," he said, instead of goodbye and hung up, leaving me to wonder if the "hell" was for the enemy or for SNCC upstairs.
I waited 15 minutes during which time I assumed he was calling upstairs and walked into the hall just as Charles was taking down the sign. Then we both went upstairs to a tense reunion, few in SNCC totally sure what was happening or expected of them but relieved to have made peace with their lawyer-friend.
The SNCC chairman was often chastised from within and from the media for having a white lawyer. His justification eventually made its way into a book, appropriately titled, "Black Power," co-written by Stokely:
It is our position that black organizations should be black-led and essentially black-staffed, with policy being made by black people. White people can and do play very important supportive roles in those organizations. Where they come with specific skills and techniques, they will be evaluated in those terms [such as] white lawyers who defend black civil rights workers in court . . . .
Stokley threw a mantle of protection over me and my new office which lasted so long as I remained in Alabama . . . except once.
When in Selma and not working at the office, I could return to our home, the ACLU house, a mile away. It was not much to look at on the outside nor, for that matter, on the inside: a plywood, broken down, two- story, former whorehouse but, because of its earlier function, it had lots of bedrooms for my staff and volunteers.
The house was soon the civil rights center of Selma, as it filled up with me and my staff, all the outside agitators working in or visiting Selma . . . and to the surprise of some, SNCC workers, even Stokely on occasion. The SNCC presence caused the FBI, always eager to assume that whites were in control of the Movement, to erroneously note in my FBI file:
[INFORMER] stated that SNCC has no organization operating at Selma, Alabama, and it appears the only contacts they have in the area are with JELINEK.
By the end of the week my white middle-aged secretary was in place, as was a white volunteer lawyer from Toledo, Ohio, as were two white law students from Harvard and the University of Illinois. Sharing space in the ACLU office was Shirley Mesher also white a former SCLC aide, who was now a power in her own right among the grass roots blacks of Selma.
The work at first was the same as in Mississippi: defense of criminal arrests (Rap Brown was easily freed with a forceful phone call and a drive to the jail), integration actions, monitoring the various Civil Rights Acts and bringing brutality suits.
For the next year I worked for blacks to share what whites had, while SNCC and Stokley were urging blacks to separate from the white world. At least, until, as Stokley told me months later, Black Power overcame the psychic oppression of 300 years of state-sanctioned discrimination, till blacks were no longer ashamed of their physical characteristics: skin color, hair texture, large lips; or their jargon, their clothes or anything else about themselves. It was a new black value system geared to the unique black experience in this country. The values permitted replacing the word "Negro" with "black," for many years a base term that connoted the savages of a Tarzan film. Now roots in Africa were to be prized.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was right when he labelled Stokely a potential "'messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement," and was thereby a threat to the national security.
Although Stokley had told me that Black Power was "not . . . to oust our white allies," that's exactly what happened. In December of 1966, six months after my conversation with the Black Power leader, at a retreat in upstate New York, SNCC the color-blind Movement, with its emblem of a black and white hand clasped in brotherhood, its national anthem "Black and white together, we shall overcome" voted to expel whites from its ranks. (Not to close the door completely, SNCC provided for some to work on a "volunteer contractual basis" in white communities. Others could "organize the white community around black needs, around black history, the relative importance of blackness in the world today." Little came of this.
Nor did my protection extend to Black Power militants who disavowed Stokley as not militant enough.
Bruce: We in SCLC heard about the anti-white, separatist direction in SNCC, but there was none of it in SCLC which continued to advocate integration, black-and-white together, and the "beloved community." And, of course, non-violence, at least as a tactic if not necessarily a way of life.
In large part, that was because of the kind of man Dr. King was, his compassion and love for all people of all colors was as real in his day-to-day working life as in his great speeches. He practiced what he preached. And unlike SNCC which was egalitarian, SCLC was hierarchical, and it may be that the highly-educated ministers (other than Dr. King) who led SCLC saw their future as men of prestige and power in society as a whole. Andy Young (U.N Ambassador & Atlanta Mayor) being the exemplar of that.
There was never any question or issue of white field secretaries like me in any way being any kind of leadership competition for SCLC executives. In Dr. King's "freedom army" we knew we were the corporals and sargents, not the generals, and that was fine by us.
After the Meredith March I was assigned to Grenada Mississippi where I worked until February of 1967. In July, immediately after the March, SNCC had a couple of organizers in Grenada who were putting forward the anti-white, Black-separatist version of Black Power. That approach found no support among the local people in Grenada who voted overwhelmingly in a mass meeting at Bellflower Church to affiliate their new movement with SCLC. After a couple of weeks, we heard that the SNCC workers had left.
And in talking with local Blacks in other communities, I never saw much support for Black-separatism. They had grown up under racial segregation and they hated it, and they wanted to end it, not recreate it. From what I could see, it was mostly college-educated Black activists and intellectuals who advocated separatism, not the people in communities. And even in Lowndes County there were whites participating in the movement one of whom was murdered and another maimed for life and they were welcomed by the local people.
Don: Bruce, I never thought it was anti-white, any more than it was anti-Jewish. A new period was beginning, there was not only ill-will brewing (stealing my boyfriend, etc) but with my own eyes I saw that local folks took on more responsibility when the administrative-experienced whites were gone.
What Black Power accomplished was to add black pride to integration. To paraphrase Stokley, only when blacks beleive in themselves will they be ready to truly participate in integration. Calling it "separtist" is accurate, but the word is uusually used in a pejoritive sense, not necessarily by you, Bruce.
Bruce: Right, I'm using "separatist" in a pejoritive sense to distinguish it from Black pride which as far as SCLC was concerned did not have to mean separatism, or anti-integration, or all-whites-are-enemies. Certainly Black SCLC leaders and field workers supported, endorsed, and practiced Black pride, but did so without linking it to separatism. And, from what I saw, you're right that local folks took on more responsibility when the administrative-experienced whites were gone, but it's also true that they also took on more responsibility when college-educated, administrative-experienced Blacks left as well. What I'm saying is that the separatist analysis looked only at race, but class factored in as well.
Don: We will continue to disagree about the wisdom/morality of expelling whites from SNCC but I think you overstate it by calling it "all-whites-are-enemies." That was not SNCC philosophy. The civil rights laws had passed; now Southern blacks needed to feel equal. Having a college educated black around was a role model; a white in the same circumstances was business as usual. (A disclosure: since I was not forced to leave, I'm not in a position to be objective about expelling whites.)
Don: I had a case to handle, a throw-away case that was bound to be successful. The National Guard was not making their Armory accessible for black people to have meetings; I knew I merely had to show up and some General would say it was all a mistake and would not happen again. As often when I was travelling, I drove a SNCC worker who was going in the same direction. He directed me into a long driveway.
Bruce: Where was this?
Don: I don't remember. As we are driving in, he says, "Oh, my God, you shouldn't be here with me." And suddenly a couple of people come to my car and they start berating him for having a "honky" with him. I hadn't experienced anything like this before. "We don't need anything from them," [meaning whites], ignoring me completely. And then he turns to me and says, "Get out!"
I drive out, mildly annoyed and headed for the sharecropper home where I was going to stay the night before the Armory meeting the next day. That night I sat, ate and talked with the local folks, a wonderful evening.
Then a car drives by and somebody from the car who I recognize from the driveway says "Get that honky off the porch and out of town." My host starts arguing with them. He says, "Don is our friend and is here to help us. We have asked him to be here." He is told: "He has no place here. No white man does. There is nothing we need from them." My host continues arguing back and I am feeling real bad; I don't want him to be under this pressure. So thinking they probably don't know who I am, I leave the porch and go to the front of the car, to the driver, the one who was doing all the yelling. I look across and see who is in the passenger seat. It's "Bill."
So, I say, "Hello, my name is . . . " He just looks the other way. The guy behind the driver's seat says, "We want you out of here, now." I say, "My name is Don Jelinek and. . . ." The guy in the back seat says, "We know who you are, everything you have done, we know why you are here, we know about the Armory. The whole business. We don't want any part of you. We want you to leave and don't come back to any black people in the South."
At this point, I said, "I am not taking this shit from you! I got a job to do! They have invited me to be here!" As I am crouching to talk to him, all of a sudden he pulls a pistol and sticks it on my forehead.
Bruce: This is the driver?
Don: No, the passenger behind the driver, the one I was talking to at that moment. I am in this crouched position and say, "Look, if I don't show up tomorrow . . . " He says, "This is not a joke. You are about to be a dead man. I am going to count to three and then I am going to kill you."
"Bill" is there the whole time, not saying a word. Certainly he is not discouraging their conduct. I keep on talking, and the guy with the gun says, "One," waits plenty of time, talking a little more, and then he says "Two" and he cocks the pistol. He says "Leave or you die."
I wanted to leave but I couldn't get myself to move. Couldn't get the legs to move, to straighten out, I was paralyzed. I don't even know if I could walk. One of the women on the porch is screaming throughout all of this. Then my host yells from the porch, "Don, I want you leave now! I want you to get in your car and leave now!" He keeps saying "Leave now" over and over again. Kind of giving me a face saving way out. I say, "If this is your wish, then I will."
I got in my car. I was shaking and drove a few miles. Then I pulled over and started sobbing, really sobbing. And then I checked into a motel and called Stokely. He had told me the first day I arrived in Selma, anytime any of this anti-white stuff happens, I should tell him. And so I called him, told him what had happened and he asked who was there; he was surprised that "Bill" was actually in the car. And he then told me about the "Atlanta faction."
Bruce: The Atlanta Organizing Project?
Don: I don't think I even knew about this. He said, "Well, this is over."
Bruce: What is over?
Don: I didn't know or ask but it seemed like he was saying that SNCC's connection with them was over. Within a few weeks, or the end of the month, they were out of SNCC.
Bruce: So that's what happened. In the books, they say that SNCC terminated, expelled, the Atlanta Project from SNCC for it is not really clear why there was some issue with a car, or embezzlement, or something, but the way they write it is pretty obvious that, you know, nobody is saying why this really was.
Don: Yeah. You can imagine how many people knew what had happened once I told Stokely.
Bruce: Stokely, was still Chair?
Don: Yes. Then, I made a mistake. I called the New York head of ACLU.
My ostensible reason was that he should warn the lawyer groups about this and because of me showing up the next day at the Armory. It was a very foolish thing to do but I did . . .
Bruce: Wait a minute, you did not show up at the Armory?
Don: Of course I showed up and planned to. But I felt I should discuss this with him. But that's why it was very foolish, because, of course, he told me not to go, and I defied him and I went. So I don't know why I was calling him. But I did show up at the Armory. The faction, the Atlanta group, they didn't come. The locals were there, very upset and embarrassed and quite solicitous, touching me the whole time. I said, "Look, this has nothing to do with you. You didn't cause this. Please don't feel bad." But we all felt real bad.
The National Guard guy showed up and, of course, he said, "Well this must be a mistake because . . . ." It was over in five minutes. I drove back to Selma and everybody knew. Everybody knew. And, we had some meetings since my whole staff worked in the rurals, especially in one Wilcox county (south of Dallas County).
Don: Especially Wilcox, many of my people were virtually living in Wilcox. So we talked and I told everybody, "You have to make your own decision. This could happen again." But nobody backed off; I said, "Frankly, I don't think it is as likely to happen to you as to me. I am a larger profile. I don't think it will happen. But you ought to tell some people there discreetly to be aware of what could happen."
Then I got a call from a reporter from the "New Republic" who I was very, very friendly with. He was in Selma a lot and did fine reporting about what was going on. He had heard what happened and he asked me about it. I said, "I don't know where you got your information. Nothing like that happened." He knew I was lying and never forgave me. He told me that we could never be friends again and he never spoke to me again. He felt that I should trust him, that he wouldn't print something harmful. I should have faith in him.
Bruce: Did you ever run into "Bill" again ever, and, if so, did either of you ever make any reference or discuss this issue?
Don: I ran into him two or three times after that, mostly in Steven's Kitchen.
Bruce: The restaurant in Jackson?
Don: Yeah. The first time there were no whites at this table he was sitting at and somebody invited me to sit down; he got up and moved to another table. But two other times, things were somewhat normal; he said "hello," even exchanged a little bit of gossip. The gun incident was never discussed, like it never happened.
Bruce: How do you feel about it now?
Don: Give me some choices. Am I angry? Of course . . . but what am I angry at? You see, it all depends upon whether I believe they were ready to pull the trigger. I would feel less angry if I thought it was a bluff to scare me away, but I'm not sure. So I guess I am mostly angry that they were pulling me away from something that I had to do, that was denying the needs of the local people. And I also resent that they were humiliating me which always ranks high with me. And then still again, were they were ready to kill me? I can't tell you what would have happened if the sharecropper hadn't yelled to me to leave, because I was frozen. I couldn't get myself to move.
Bruce: Had they actually pulled the trigger and killed you, it would have been devastating. To you personally obviously but to the Movement as a whole. It would have been a catastrophe. It would have been like, what was that woman's name, Amy Biel? in South Africa.
Don: It would have been just terrible.
Bruce: And yet "Bill" didn't say anything while they held the gun on you. I mean, how do you feel about that?.
Don: I never for a moment thought that he wasn't running the show; the fact that he was in the commanding seat told me that. He was totally silent the whole time.
Bruce: What do you think about the politics behind that? Behind the incident?
Don: Politics? This was the politics of revolutionary black nationalism.
Bruce: Separatism. Or is there a difference between nationalism and separatism?
Don: I think they called themselves "nationalists." I think maybe "revolutionary" would cover the nationalist part, but they thought theirs was a major revolution and it was necessary to get all the enemies out of the way, including whites in the Movement.
Bruce: I'm reminded of some so-called revolutionaries I encountered later in my life, who considered themselves such great revolutionaries, they studied Mao Tse Tung and all that. Yet Mao's dictum was to unite all who could be united against the main enemy at the moment. And here they were doing the exact opposite.
Don: They were following what they considered a broader principle.
Bruce: Which was..?
Don: Which was that they needed to get rid of the "Stokelys," the "John Lewises," certainly the "Dr. Kings," plus those white people like me who had been allowed to be part of this.
Bruce: And why did they need to get rid of everyone from Stokely to King to white civil rights workers?
Don: Because they considered them (us) nonviolent counter-revolutionaries.
Bruce: Who do you think they were?
Don: Well, they were identified. The Atlanta faction.
Bruce: The Atlanta Project?
Don: Yeah, it was known who they were, and I knew a few of them before they turned anti-us. They were people who had formed this somewhat breakaway group; for a while they tried to remain within SNCC and still function.
Bruce: According to Clay's book [In Struggle, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960's] they were expelled from SNCC.
Don: My information is that it was because of the gun incident. And why not? Not because of me, but because of what it could have done to the Movement. Devastating.
Bruce: Does "Bill" still retain that ideology to any degree?
Don: I don't know. I never saw him after those few meetings at Steven's Kitchen.
Don: I had been warned by ACLU not to get involved in the electoral machinations in Selma, the disharmony between grassroots and middle class blacks and I did not intend to. I was directed, above all, to meet Mrs. Amelia Boynton early on and win her good will.
Thus, my first stop, on my first normal work day after the telephone conversation with Stokley, was to walk a few doors down from the-now SNCC-ACLU-Funeral Parlor building to the Real Estate Offices of Amelia Boynton, which, in the back, also contained the law offices of her son, Bruce Boynton. The Boynton's were well-to-do and prominent: Mrs. Boynton, a heroine of the Selma March, was almost martyred by a Trooper who clubbed her into unconsciousness; Bruce, though a lawyer, was better known as a test-case Plaintiff in a lawsuit (not brought by him) that established the right to integrated interstate bus terminals which became the basis for the Freedom Rides. He was also the one I hoped would be my sponsor for practicing in the Alabama courts, as Jess Brown had done for me and others in Mississippi.
Walking in with good will, I introduced myself to a matronly well-groomed black woman. "Happy to meet you," responded Mrs Boynton, unconvincingly. After a few words of ritual weather talk, she asked if what she heard was true: that Shirley Mesher was sharing space in my office. Mrs. Boynton knew the answer but paused for my affirmation before launching into a denouncement of my non-paying, office-mate tenant for quitting Dr. King, embarrassing the Negro community by running a "virtually illiterate Negro" for Sheriff, and thus compromising her efforts to succeed with a third candidate against Sheriff Jim Clark.
The Selma civil rights antagonists were in two camps, each camp made up of very strange bedfellows. The militant wing for the elections was led by Shirley Mesher and her low-income black allies. Shirley, a formidable white woman in her early thirties, had come to Selma from Seattle for the demonstrations after Bloody Sunday. Because of her public relations talents, she had been drafted out of the ranks to join the planning committee and then went on to become a $25 per week SCLC "subsistence worker." Sometime after the March, she was assigned as Project Director for Selma.
But Shirley was discontented. She felt that "most people went home with the television cameras" and she resented what she called a lack of dedication she included SCLC itself in her scorn. However, she noticed a positive result from this exodus. With the removal of the superstructure and with her assistance a grass roots organization began to emerge, assume leadership and threaten the traditional dominance of the middle-class blacks who had invited SCLC to Selma in the first place.
Shirley was Dr. King's maverick: he couldn't discharge her because of her grass roots popularity, but he couldn't support her due to her antagonism with the middle-class leadership. Though Shirley cut herself off from SCLC, she retained her formal position, and sustained herself with food and donations from her new community. Shirley helped form the grass roots, black-dominated Dallas County Independent Free Voters Organization, which supported a black independent slate, including a black for sheriff.
The opposition were the middle-class black Dallas County Voters League, which, in their attempt to defeat incumbent sheriff Jim Clark, were backing white moderate Wilson Baker. However, to do so, the Voters League felt it necessary to support the entire Democratic Party slate which, embarrassingly, included Lurleen Wallace (a stand-in for husband, George, who, by law, could not succeed himself).
Why? Because the black elite concluded that poor blacks with limited education weren't sophisticated enough to vote a split ticket that is, to vote for Baker on the Democratic Party line and then cross over to the Free Voters line to vote for black candidates for the other positions. They predicted that this would cause a three-way split for sheriff and Clark's re-election. They also resented less educated blacks running for public office, "after all we went through to get to this point."
Bruce: Without defending the elite's attitude which I strongly disagree with in fairness I should mention that Alabama ballots were designed to encourage party-line votes by marking your "X" in the big circle immediately under the party's symbol, and doing nothing else. That's what years of election campaigns had trained voters (and those who couldn't yet vote) to do. If, out of habit, you marked the ballot for a party such as the Free Voters, and then for an individual candidate such as Baker, your ballot would be invalid. (I was in Mississippi at that time so I wasn't involved in the Selma election.)
Don: You mention the "big circle" inviting an "X" for the whole ballot, as what voters were accustomed to. But most blacks were not accustomed to voting at all. Yes, it can be difficult to split a ballot but the people who stood up to voting registrars could have handled it had the divisions between blacks not demoralized the grass roots.
By the time I was receiving my SNCC clearance to remain, a scorecard was needed to line up the opposition(s); Black vs Black, White vs White, Black vs White, and Sheriff Jim Clark's people against just about everyone.
Mrs. Boynton continued, during that first visit: Shirley continually insulted her by referring to her as "bourgeois" and her son Bruce as a "no account, sell-out lawyer." She produced a leaflet put out for the black candidates calling the Boynton group those who "are trying to mis-lead Negroes and S E L L - O U T for personal gain. They have SOLD THEIR SOULS . . .YOU need not sell yours. . . . DON'T BE TRICKED BACK INTO SLAVERY. DON'T BE FOOLED!"
Before I could respond, she finished by explaining that I was empowering Shirley by allowing her to use my offices to sabotage the work of the true Negro leadership in Dallas County. I was given an ultimatum in the form of a question: "Do you plan to allow her to remain?" Though Shirley at this time was of little consequence to me, I handled ultimatums badly; I simply said, "Absolutely," and earned the ire of Mrs. Boynton, her son Bruce, and most of the Ministers and middle-class blacks in Selma. All in about five minutes.
I walked back to my office and was told I had a call. It was from the only friendly white church in town inviting me to lunch. I drove a mile to the Church and Rectory of the Father's of St Edmund, Roman Catholic's from Vermont, who ministered to Selma blacks. My immediate hosts were Mary and Bill Good, a young white couple whose name was almost an allegory for their Christian missionary zeal, which sent them from their Northern home to Selma. Bill served as a "civilian" employee of the church, teaching "Phys Ed" to the black students, Mary cared for their young children. They were delightful, unassuming, and, unlike most in the Movement, family-oriented. They told me to consider their home my home; for almost two years I did just that with meals, TV watching and lots of talking.
And now come the elections. Bruce, you disagreed with me that those were the first black elections.
Bruce: Which elections are . . . ?
Don: The Selma election were in November of 66, but you told me it happened earlier elsewhere.
Bruce: Right, there were primary elections in Alabama for local county officers such as sheriff. And that was in the Spring, April or May, maybe the vote was early in May, with the campaigning in April. The winners of that primary were on the ballot in November as Democrats running against the candidates of independent parties like the Free Voters and in some areas Republicans.
Don: Oh, was there a Voting Rights Act presence already?
Bruce: Well, the Voting Rights Act had passed the previous August. I don't know about other counties, I only know about Hale County were I was assigned. I think there were one or two Federal "observers" in Hale, but I don't recall any voter registrars. In anycase, that election was stolen in traditional Southern style, with a large "tombstone" vote for the white candidates, massive intimidation of Black voters, tricks and stolen ballots, and so on. And the Feds did nothing.
Don: A SNCC sound truck canvassed the black neighborhoods exhorting black citizens to vote for the grass-roots slate and against Mrs. George Wallace and the blacks who supported her/him. The spoken message was similar to the leaflet Mrs Boynton had shown me. Then the speaker would add, "Vote the Free Voters Organization!"
From my window I could see, across the street, the heads of white officials from the jail, police department, fire station and City Hall white officials disturbed by militant blacks in their community and the impending black vote (which this very police department was accused by Southern whites of bringing about by their excesses at the Bridge.)
Driving the sound truck was Thomas Taylor, a black militant from Pennsylvania who had come to Selma for the elections as a volunteer for SNCC. Wearing a Muslim cap, beads and jeans, the tall and lanky militant was a formidable presence. He double-parked the truck on our side of the street in the virtually deserted six-lane roadway and planned to run upstairs to the SNCC office for further instructions.
As an animal in the jungle learns to listen to sound and silence, so did I and others react to the turning off of the sound truck amplifier. I ran to my window and saw a city policeman approach the driver's side of the soundtruck. That was enough for me as I ran for the staircase, colliding into Stokely, who had heard and felt the same tension.
Taylor was told he was "blocking traffic" and ordered to move the truck, but before he could do so, a "policeman struck him through the open window." Taylor rolled up his window as his attacker "ran to his police car across the street and returned to the sound truck with a shotgun which he aimed" at Taylor and then "struck the closed window . . . with the butt of his shotgun and ordered [Taylor] from the truck at shotgun point."
The SNCC volunteer "was struck in the back and the groin with the muzzle of the shotgun" and then "further assaulted by City Policemen and Firemen" as he was taken to the jail through an alley across the street.
Stokely and I hit the street as Taylor was being led away. Two police on motorcycles roared across the street to get in the act, joining the officer with the shotgun who was menacing onlookers with his weapon. It was Saturday, shopping day, and many black farmers were in town. The local folk, long used to subservience, were cowed as they watched silently. The only sound, if it could be heard at all, were photographers SNCC volunteers in town for the election filming every moment.
Although Stokely was chairman of SNCC, Selma was Stu House's territory and it was he who was called upon to act. He urged the crowd to vote next Tuesday for the grassroots candidates to end such police abuse. Onto the scene came Chief Lt. Robert "Cotton" Nichols, top aide to Public Safety Director Wilson Baker, whose effort to replace Jim Clark as Sheriff was threatened by the grass-roots slate. Nichols demanded Stu House cease orating "because it might cause a riot." House responded that the people were orderly "as always" and it was "only the City Police which continuously rioted." House was given one more chance. He continued to speak to the crowd and was arrested for Inciting to Riot. SNCC photographers captured the commotion by police and the continuing docile nature of the audience, which I incorporated in court papers later on. (The quotes are from that document.)
Before anyone could move, the police, ever the ones to up the ante, announced they were seizing our much-needed sound truck. If ever there was a word needed from the lawyer, it was now, but no words came. Stokely found the words I had lost. He began to confront the enemy, but he did not yell "BLACK POWER!" denounce the police, or cry police brutality. Instead he spoke softly, timidly even.
"I'll drive the truck away, Sir," he said, "so it won't block traffic." Without waiting for an answer, he walked to the truck. The police looked at each other, but his logic and calm rendered them impotent. Before a breath was exhaled, Stokely had climbed into the driver's seat (later, he told me, he blessed the appearance of the keys still in the ignition, and not in Taylor's pocket at the jail) and drove slowly away down the street.
It's over, I thought, a bad blow to our posture of courage and fearlessness; a bad blow to our message to black voters that things had changed, and that it was safe to vote.
Suddenly, the static of the speaker system broke the silence. "BLACK POWER!" boomed Stokely. "BLACK POWER!!" again roared Stokely as the crowd came to life, first with sly smiles, than a roar of approval at the outrageousness of the man. "Now you know," Stokely continued, "why you must vote for your black brothers and sisters." He whizzed around the corner and parked the truck. The police still hadn't moved as Stokely walked back, and called for a picket line around the jail. No matter what happened in the Election, this day was ours. In Selma, the story would survive Stokely.
The rest was routine. The picketers were warned they would be arrested shortly if they didn't cease. Stokely asked his supporters to permit him to picket alone, which he did, until stopped at the steps of City Hall by the Mayor and Chief of Police who blocked his path. When he refused to cease, he was also arrested for Inciting to Riot. Once again, the crowd was captured in photographs, quiet and watching. Few locals had even picketed.
The Police Report was relatively accurate:
CARMICHAEL, STOKELY, RACE C . . . MADE REMARK IN FRONT OF CITY BUILDING ABOUT BLACK POWER MADE PROVOCATIVE MOVE TOWARD POLICE ALSO WAS ON LOUD SPEAKER URGING A LARGE GROUP OF NEGROES TO GO TO THE JAIL AND SEE ABOUT THEIR BROTHERS ALSO YELLING BLACK POWER. NOV. 5, 1966 3:30 PM
Other than the false "provocative move" remark, the report candidly expressed a fear as old as slavery: that blacks would one day rise up and revolt. The cry for "Black Power" reinforced those fears and seemed like a crime to Southern police.
Very late that night, I visited the jail with Brother Sullivan of the friendly Catholic Church, who had enough muscle and courage to get in and notarize Stokely's legal papers. The SNCC Chairman was relaxed and joked that I could use a night in jail myself to get some rest as he observed my strain and fatigue. A good-bye embrace gave me the energy burst I needed to finish my work that night.
The local Court set his trial (could you believe it?) for Election Day, but even Selma could not pull that one off and a later date was scheduled. I filed the "Stokley" legal papers for Federal Court the day before the Election and then waited out the election results . . . which were very disheartening. The victors were Mrs. Wallace for Governor, and the moderate Wilson Baker, who edged out Jim Clark for Sheriff.
In Lowndes County, the whites used every weapon of coercion in their arsenal to defeat the Black Panther Party: ballot boxes were stuffed; blacks were forced to use ballots that had already been marked for white candidates; blacks who couldn't read (and some who could) were "helped" to cast their vote by their Plantation Owner; truckloads of blacks were driven in from the fields by their landlords and told who to vote for; and many SNCC workers were barred from the polls.
There was also a more subtle problem, and one I hadn't thought of there were some blacks, even in Lowndes County, who didn't think blacks should hold high office, especially that of Sheriff. The result in Lowndes: every black candidate was defeated. We won in subsequent years but Year One was disheartening.
Don: My work reflected the civil rights split: one day, a black militant; the next, a Christian volunteer. The first time I had visited the friendly Selma church, I met Paul and Pat Bokulich, a religious white couple in their twenties, who had come South from Detroit to join Dr. King's 1965 summer program in Alabama. They had remained and moved to Greene County, Alabama a black majority county where the black potential vote still had little potency.
The Bolulichs were the poorest folk in their county, their shack the worst in town, their diet worse than that of the poorest sharecropper their limited income derived in part from an acre of land they tilled with a borrowed mule. They bathed by standing in a large basin, water heated on a wood stove, was poured by one over the other. They shocked local blacks who could not fathom why anyone, especially whites, would choose to live in such squalor, but they were loved all the more for it. It was said, with only a little exaggeration, that if Paul and Pat left before the next census, the economic level in Greene County would rise significantly, but some white civil rights workers also felt that it was unfair for the pregnant Pat to raise a newborn under these conditions.
Paul told me he had led an almost-successful campaign to unseat the incumbent Sheriff, William Lee, in the May, 1966 primary. I repeated information about myself and soon we were talking about the multitude of civil rights workers and who worked for who. . . and that the Bokulich's were attached to SCLC. I told them about my Black Power experiences in those first days; Paul said he got along great with everyone and expected no Black Power problems . . . and besides he worked for Dr King, not SNCC.
Pat wanted to know if I worked only for SNCC, or could they call on me for help. I explained that I worked for all civil rights groups. "Good," she said, "'cause the word is they are after Paul now that Sheriff Lee kept his job." Paul snorted his skepticism.
Within a few days after meeting them, I got a call that "Paul's in jail"; that a sharecropper he was most friendly with had signed a complaint charging him with stealing money (pennies) from his home. From the black sharecropper, from his home.
I drove down to the jail and asked for bail. The judge said, No bail. I said, "With capital offenses, sometimes there's no bail, but petty theft always carries bail." He repeated, No bail. I decided I'd been in Selma less than a week and I'd like to make my mark early. I remembered a plan where you could go through the entire court circuits in a given day. I was already turned down by the lowest court at 9 a.m., I could be turned down by the middle court by 11 a.m., and the Alabama Supreme Court by 1 p.m. I could then make the U.S. District Court by 3 p.m. and, if unsuccessful, with a some lucky timing, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans by 5 p.m., or the next morning. I expected to lose all the way to New Orleans.
Bruce: When you say the entire circuits, what do you mean?
Don: I had already been to the lowest judge and he said, "No," then I went to the middle court, and some lady very nicely said she'll present it before the judge, and I said, "Thank you, but I need a decision right now." And she said, "Well, if you need one right now, then it's denied." And I said, "Thank you very much."
I walked out and headed for the Supreme Court, the State Supreme Court. Next, I had an appointment already with U.S. District Court Judge Frank Johnson, right after I would be turned down in the Supreme Court. And I had a flight to New Orleans for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where I had an appointment, if Johnson turned me down. The idea was to go through all the courts quickly, to get to New Orleans, where we were usually most successful.
So I go to the Supreme Court and tell the clerk, "I'd like to present this Writ of Habeas Corpus to the Justices," and she says lawyers are always shocked to hear this she says, "Very well, I'll go in and tell them you're here." I'd never met a Supreme Court justice in my whole career, I'd never even seen one.
Bruce: This is the State Supreme Court?
Don: Yes. Apparently, they had been all sitting around the table, probably shooting the breeze. and now, I assumed, they are quickly putting on their robes. When I'm told to come in, I introduce myself and tell them about my status: that I'm from New York (before they tell me) and I said, "You may have trouble believing this, but a local judge is denying bail in a petty theft case." But no one even cracks a smile.
Bruce: That's Alabama.
Don: I say, "I have a Writ of Habeas Corpus for you to sign if you would be willing." One of them picks it up I'll never forget this and he says, "Do you know that our paper for a Writ is one-and-a-half times the size of your Writ paper, has a red margin, and three holes punched in it and that is the only paper that is accepted before the Alabama Supreme Court?" Which I learned is true. I say, politely, "No, I didn't know."
"Well, that's the trouble when you're a Yankee, not a member of the bar here, and you don't likely connect with anybody." I said "Well, I just been here a couple of days and this bail denial just happened." No one spoke and, assuming I'm going to lose anyhow I said, "I'm not a big student of history, but it is my understanding that if I wrote a Writ of Habeas Corpus on a napkin, you would be required to honor it. There can't be any procedural problem with a Writ of Habeas Corpus . . ."
The Chief Judge interrupted me, but I could see he was smiling at my answer. He asked a political question: "Are you trying to make civil rights points: we turn you down and you get some publicity or do you really want to get your man out?" I say, "I want to get my man out, I'm ready to go to the other courts, but I don't see this is as a civil rights issue. I just want to get him out."
He asked me to step outside. I'm really stunned because this is supposed to be a "kangeroo court," a way station on my way to my next court.
Bruce: Which would be New Orleans?
Don: No, it would be Judge Johnson down the street. I had thought this was just a matter of an hour with a sure turndown, and I'm concerned I will be late for my next stop.
Then I'm asked to come back in. The Chief Justice says to me, "We're not going to sign the Writ. However, we've had an informal telephone conversation with the [lower court] judge, and he decided he would like to have a bail hearing tomorrow morning at 9 am. So it's now up to you." Stunned, I thanked the Supreme Court and left.
Well, you can imagine the terror on that judge who denied bail, when he got that phone call, the same day. The next day, I go to the hearing, and there is this poor little black sharecropper. Oh, my God. They have mentally tortured him to sign this thing. I ask Paul, "Do you have an alibi for the time period of the alleged crime?" "Yes," he says, "I was in Atlanta at an SCLC meeting and I was even on TV." I say, "Great, except for one problem, you know most of the local folks can't tell you one day from the next there is no need for calendars here. We got to pin him down to the date." So I said, "Was anything special about that date?" He says "No . . . wait. Yes. That's when the candy man came." I'd never heard about that before. Local blacks buying candies, like on consignment, from a central candy man and then go door to door selling the candy. And that's the candy man, and so it's a big event, the kids are all waiting for him.
So we go into the court and the judge asks if I have any proposal for bail? I say, "Yes, $2,000 and we have a property bond ready (from a homeowner). "Sounds just fine," says the Judge, "but, of course, we'll have to have a hearing to make it official." I said I understand. And he says, "I assume you don't have any witnesses?"
But I do. I call the sharecropper to the stand. After a few questions, I ask him to tell me what happened. He tells the same terrible story: that Paul was in his house and he saw him taking some coins out of his little can of savings. I say, "What day was that?" He says, "I don't know." I say, "Was it the day the candy man came?" "Oh, yes, yes. It was the day the candy man comes, yes. I bought lots and then sold it." "Not the day before?" "No." "Not the day after?" "No. I bought my candy that day. I remember that day very clearly."
I then moved on in a way that would never be tolerated in the North. "You've known Paul and Pat and their baby a long time." He nods. "They work really hard for you and your people, don't they?" He nods again. "Do you really want to see Paul go to prison over your testimony? Did he really steal money from you?" The poor black sharecropper looks terrified. He stares at me, at Paul, at the sheriff . . . and he passes out on the stand. He literally faints on the stand. The Sheriff takes him out of the courtroom into a private room; when he comes back out, he testifies against Paul.
Bruce: They must have had something really bad on him.
Don: Oh no, just fear. They didn't have to have anything. After this day in court, Paul was indicted and I jumped into the grand jury world.
Bruce: He was out on bail and the grand jury indicted him on the basis of this guy's testimony?
Don: Right. Now I must go after the grand jury. Since 1880, it has been unconstitutional to systematically exclude blacks from juries, and though ignored, it is a strong point to raise on appeal after conviction in a federal court.
I had an edge. A jury challenge had been brought in this very county in 1964 but had ended merely with stern admonitions (which had been ignored), plus a slap on the wrist. Could I convince the federal court to intervene to enforce their own earlier order?
I drove to Birmingham to see U.S. District Judge H.H. Grooms who had issued the 1964 order. He was cordial, even stimulated by the concept, but he was not one to break new ground. He refused. I then flew to New Orleans to the 5th Circuit of Appeals, which said "No, but ..." and issued a one-week injunction with a hint to Grooms to allow time for me to go back to Grooms. With the encouragement from the Appellate Court, he signed an unprecedented injunction that lasted almost two years, during which time the Greene County Grand Jury and that of nearby counties ground to a halt. Paul, of course, could not be indicted until the federal court reviewed the system.
More than a year later (I am jumping ahead), the Federal Court in Birmingham heard evidence that the Greene County Grand Jury had discriminated against blacks since Reconstruction, not to mention since the 1964 federal court order.
I had to demonstrate how the Jury System was supposed to operate and how, in fact, it did. The Greene County Jury System was an example of discretionary segregation a microcosm of all southern jury systems and southern institutions in general, which managed to keep down black majorities.
One of the most important examples of this surreptitious segregation was eligibility for juries, which Alabama restricted to those
esteemed in the community for their integrity, good character and sound judgment.
The politics of jury exclusion was clear. No murderer of a civil rights worker would ever be convicted and no civil rights worker would ever be acquitted.
First, a racist governor (then, George Wallace) appoints only whites as jury commissioners to run the system. They, in turn, choose a clerk whose job is to prepare in a "well-bound book" a list of every potentially eligible juror in the county, obtained by scanning voter registration lists, tax assessor lists, city directories and telephone directories, and by visiting each precinct at least once a year for names not covered by those lists. The jury commissioners make lists also. Later, from all the lists, those "generally reputed . . . " are made eligible for the jury rolls. We knew that among whites, blacks were "generally reputed" to be just the opposite, or not reputed at all.
At the federal hearing, in response to my questions, the clerk of the jury commission even surprised cynics like me. She admitted that she did not obtain the names of the potentially eligible black jurors, at all. In fact, she didn't even know it was required by law, nor did she know how it could be done if she wanted to. She admitted not using the tax assessor's list and barely used the telephone directory.
Although she testified that she faithfully visited each precinct once a year, she spoke only with persons she knew, who she admitted were white. She said she knew few Negroes living in the city, did not know blacks outside the city, except those who have been "in trouble." She knew no Negro ministers and sought no names from black churches or organizations.
Bruce: In Greene County, which I recall was as around 80% black.
Don: Correct. Having no list of blacks to work from, nor any means of judging those "generally reputed," the jury commissioner simply took the previous year's list.
The state protested that "younger and better educated Negroes" migrated North for job opportunities, leaving only the poorly reputed. Anticipating this approach, my chief assistant, Kathy Veit, had spent the previous six months conducting her own survey of the black community, asking jury eligibility questions of every household. Aided by SNCC workers and unhampered by local police, who never guessed the purpose of the seemingly innocuous survey, she compiled a list showing that approximately 1600 jury-eligible blacks had been ignored which was very persuasive.
Our next attack was on the manner in which Governor George Wallace chose the Jury Commissioners, what blacks he had interviewed or consulted to make his choices. We obtained a subpoena and delivered it to an old-time Southern U.S. Marshall who advised us it was served on the Governor. But the next day, Wallace's lawyer appeared in court to "quash" (throw out) the subpoena because it had been served on an aide, not personally served on Wallace. The Marshall acknowledged he had offered it to the Governor who said, "Hand it to so-and-so instead."
The court correctly ruled this was not proper service. The same U.S. Marshall was again dispatched to serve the Governor. Again Wallace's lawyer appeared to quash the new subpoena because the few-dollar witness fee had not been given to the Governor. I exploded in court, demanded the Marshall take the stand, and got his admission that he had been serving subpoenas for years and knew all about the fees. I yelled at him, demanding he be held in contempt and then began yelling at the judges when they refused. One judge snidely noted: "You're lucky the old fox [Wallace] isn't on the stand making a fool of you."
Chief Judge Godbold warned me to calm down. Kathy was pulling my sleeve trying to get me to sit and quiet down, but I was out of control. When the court refused me another try at the Governor, I accused them of rigging the hearing for the Governor. At this point Godbold warned me, "One more word . . . " Kathy pulled me down and whispered, "We're going to win the main case, don't blow it on the Wallace part, which was always an extra."
I stood, chalk-faced, biting my lip till blood oozed out of my mouth. Godbold saw my struggle and called a recess asking me to calm down. I ran to the bathroom, and punched a tile wall I fantasized as George Wallace and the courts combined. Finally I calmed down, returned to the court, apologized and conceded that without Wallace, I could not prove that part of my case. The court held that part failed "for want of proof."
We then rested the case and waited for a decision that was delayed for another nine months. The court ruled unanimously that the jury commissioner had followed "a course of conduct which results in discrimination in the selection of jurors on racial grounds," enjoined such further discrimination, and ordered a 60-day report on progress to obtain a new list in conformity with the laws of Alabama and the U.S. Constitution. The court softened the blow by saying that the result applied whether the reasons were conscious, intentional, evil, or just innocent failure.
Bruce: True, but how often does a grand jury really need to meet in Greene County?
Don: Intermittently, as needed. But you can imagine how they felt about it, what a humiliation it was. And it really is humiliating not to be able to function.
Bruce: That must have been a huge issue in that whole Black Belt region of Alabama Greene County, Hale, Sumter, Marengo, Choctaw . . .
The term "Black Belt" has different but related connotations. Geographically, there is a band of dark soil usually black or red that is particularly suited for large- scale plantation-style cotton farming and which stretches in a long arc from Virginia, down through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and into Mississippi. This band (along with the Mississippi Delta region) was where the pre-Civil War cotton plantations were concentrated, with huge numbers of slaves. And to this day, the Black Belt region contains a high ratio of Blacks to whites. In the 1960s, most Black Belt counties were either majority Black or close to it, and some like Lowndes, Greene, and Wilcox were 75% or more Black. So another meaning of "Black Belt" was "Black majority." In Alabama, the term "Black Belt" also referred to a specific group of counties within the larger South-wide Black Belt. These Alabama "Black Belt" counties all with Black majorities stretched across the state with the main towns being Tuskegee, Montgomery, and Selma. These Black Belt counties were the focus of SNCC and SCLC activity.]
Don: We lost our attack to abolish the "good character" law itself. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court noted:
This is the first case to reach the Court in which an attack upon alleged racial discrimination in choosing juries has been made by plaintiffs seeking affirmative relief [before conviction], rather than by defendants challenging judgments of criminal convictions . . . [i.e., after conviction by an illegal jury] . . . In sum, we cannot conclude, even on so compelling a record as that before us, that the guarantees of the Constitution can be secured only by the total invalidation . . .[of the law].
There was one dissenter . . .
Bruce: . . . Justice William Douglas?
Don: You guessed it. By then the conscience of the Court, Douglas abandoned legal niceties and addressed himself to the practicalities of an all-white jury commission using the "good character" law:
There comes a time when an organ or agency of state law has proved itself to have such a racist mission that it should not survive a constitutional challenge. . . . In the Kingdom of Heaven, an all-white or an all-black commission could be expected to do equal justice to all races ...
but not, he concluded, in the State of Alabama. He called for a required bi-racial jury commission.
Don: There was one unfinished piece of business from Mississippi. After I arrived in Selma, I started investigating what had happened to my ex-girlfriend, Molly why they shot into her house after she visited the "agriculture people." I went into town to the State Agriculture Office.
Bruce: This is back in her county?
Don: No, no, but it was her county that first alerted me. I investigated it in Selma, assuming I could at least start here and not have to travel back to Mississippi.
Bruce: So in Selma you go to the State or Federal Ag Department?
Don: State, because I didn't know better. I drove to the county agriculture office in town. "I'd like to talk to someone about allotments," I said to an elderly Southern lady sitting behind a desk, a Confederate flag behind her. "Well, then," she slyly smiled, "I suggest y'all walk down the street a piece, and on your right will be the U. S. (sing-songing the two letters) Department of Agriculture. They can tell you all about the Yankee program." She smiled again and dropped her eyes, indicating I was dismissed.
Fifteen minutes later, I approached a small storefront office with an American flag on the wall. (Here, you noticed such things.) A gracious Southern gentleman greeted me. (The fact that the office was federal didn't change the cast of characters, always Southerners.) He explained the program to me in simple terms: This was one of President Franklin Roosevelt's original innovations, he said, created when farmers were going bankrupt . . . to keep excess cotton and other crops off the market and thereby raise prices. This was accomplished, he told me, by providing government aid to those farmers who agreed to not plant a certain part of their acreage and to "plow under" some part of the already planted crops awaiting harvest.
"Is a lot of money involved?" I asked, remembering the commotion caused when I cost the Holly Springs movie theater owner his night's receipts for the new Elvis film.
"I suppose it's in the billions," said the official, "but it's paid to farmers all over the country even in your New York," he chuckled. (I again wondered how everyone knew I was from New York, again forgetting that most Southerners assumed all civil righters were from New York.) "It's not just paid here in the South," he assured me, with a wink.
Is enough paid here in the South to justify trying to murder Molly for just asking about it? I wondered but did not ask.
I realized I had to learn the history, which I started that night by reading Schlesinger's, The Age of Roosevelt.
The Great Depression of the 1930's combined with a drastic drop in world cotton prices, created even more severe hardships, and necessitated the proud Southerner to call for help from the Yankees. The New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt legislated federal controls, restricting the amount of land in production of cotton and other crops, and designed to achieve a better balance between supply and demand: money for not planting: subsidies and price supports, mandatory emergency soil conservation practices, and crop diversification. In effect, the cotton growers would be paid for not growing cotton, and be paid even more money for saving the soil they had depleted over the years.
The laws guaranteed an income for cotton producers and essentially subsidized the cotton industry. The sole condition was an agreement to plant only that cotton acreage that was allotted the Cotton Allotment. Over the years, because of a deteriorating world market, even more drastically reduced cotton planting was ordered. Yet, dominated by Southern representatives in Congress (many of whom were large plantation owners), the farm producers were paid even more for non-production and for using the land for other crops and soil conservation.
But there were also civil rights provisions in the Agriculture programs, thanks to FDR's lefty Vice-President [Henry Wallace], who had been the New Deal's U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Tenant farmers, who paid a flat rate after the crop, as well as sharecroppers, who received a percentage of the crop, (both called here, "Sharecroppers") were being thrown off the land. With less land to cultivate, Plantation Owners were paid for letting their land sit idle and without much need for sharecroppers. So, the new law also provided for the sharecropper to receive that amount of all the benefits of the subsidy proportionate to that part of the land he would have worked had the land been planted. If the plantation owner deprived the farmer of these benefits, the USDA could theoretically withhold the plantation owner's share of the benefits.
How did it come to pass that the South, the Civil War losers, ended up in control of that which concerned them the most: the Agriculture Committees of the U.S. Congress, and great influence over the USDA? The South lost the War, but won the Congress by becoming a one-party region: the then Democratic Party, the party not of Republican, Abe Lincoln. Without two-party contests, the white Democrats Southern Congressmen and Senators because of seniority rule, became chairmen or occupied strategic places on Congressional committees that were most important to them.
The manipulation of the agriculture monies was effortless. The amount of land allotted blacks for planting was less than for whites and less than strict formulas required. The subsidy payments for blacks wasn't paid at all, or was underpaid, or paid directly to the county store for the plantation owner to "adjust their account." The net result was that a white farmer and a black farmer could own or farm (or not farm) equal amounts of equal quality adjacent land, but the white would prosper while the black went bankrupt or ended up working for the white: collusion between Plantation Owners and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Bruce, did you knew anything about the Agriculture stuff before you went South?
Bruce: No. Not before I went South. But it was a big deal in all the rural counties I worked once I was there, it was one of the major issues. It was Alabama SCLC leader Al Turner, himself a farmer, who taught me about it, and the ASCS (Agriculture Stabilization & Conservation Service) elections that controlled the whole process at the county level.
Don: Well, it initially got past me. And, I learned there was more USDA problems: the FHA, no loans; and the Extension Service, no information.
Bruce: Right, and no ag training either for Blacks.
Don: And there's the food (to be discussed later) which comes via the USDA also: free surplus commodities, which was taken away from active civil rights counties, and substituted with food stamps, or no program at all.
Bruce: No program at all was more common.
Don: Yes, but very often food stamps, because people couldn't afford them.
The deeper I plunged into the agriculture programs, the more insight I gained into the South, apart from segregation and brutality and the more I was forced to re-evaluate the work I was doing. The Negro that the civil rights movement was all about was a farmer. Before we began, he was poor, lived in shacks without heat or toilets, had no medical facilities, and feared losing even that. Also, he couldn't vote for President, Governor, or Sheriff. Now, after two Civil Rights Acts, immeasurable registration drives, legislative and court victories, he was still poor, lived in shacks without heat or toilets, and had no medical facilities but now he could vote (though he could not yet elect a black).
But the vote that would do him the most good would be to elect the head of the county ASCS, which made "delicate decisions affecting the size of a farmer's allotment, on adjustments of program benefits between landlord and tenant, and on the appeals of farmers objecting to cuts in allotments."
Blacks on paper (that is, by U.S. statutes) were eligible to vote in the "Cotton Elections," which chose the panel which determined cotton subsidy payments. The federal law allowed every sharecropper and every tenant-farmer (as well as landlords) who had a share in the crop allotment to vote for the ASCS County Committee. The ASCS, whose programs and payments "as measured in dollar expenditures or impact on residents or both" dwarfed the regular county government operations, was an elected body.
No wonder a black farmer later told me he'd "Rather elect a black head of the county ASCS than a black sheriff or Governor." But the vote the "cotton-vote" was taken away in much the same manner as the vote for public officials. Like every other power structure in the South, and despite the right of blacks to vote, even in counties with numerical black majorities exceeding 80 percent, the Southern ASCS structure was totally white. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture appointed the State ASCS, but through 1964 had never appointed a black in the South. Nor had a black ever been elected to a County ASCS, where all the power resided.
1966 was to be the big civil rights cotton year. The growing agricultural sophistication of the Movement was now enhanced by working with old civil rights agriculture pros like the National Sharecroppers Fund (NSF) for a major campaign in the forthcoming September agriculture elections. The summer volunteers would have two summer months to canvass. There was money to correct voter lists, obtain ballots and file appeals when necessary. The black farmers would be ready before September rolled around.
But, suddenly, on July 10, 1966, the Alabama State ASCS announced the elections would be held 30 days earlier than usual, on August 16, 1966. (From 1960 to 1964 the elections in had been held in the fall.)
A few days later, a delegation headed by Jac Wassermann, the Southern head of the Sharecropper Fund, were sitting in my bedroom asking me to delay the ASCS elections. Still believing the problem was Southerners Southern federal employees I naively telephoned Washington. The phone call produced a lowly bureaucrat who only half-heartedly agreed to look into the problem.
I decided on a Kunstler-style course of action to attract attention by the USDA to the manipulations of the corrupt Southern federal employees. I would file a "political" lawsuit, to obtain a political goal instead of a judicial decision. The traditional lawyers approach, I had become aware, did not work, at least in the short run, and the short run was the only running I had learned to believe in. I decided to package a lawsuit that would attract national attention and gain the ear of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
The litigation could have been filed in Montgomery, Alabama (where everything had taken place) but because the USDA was both local and national, the suit could also be filed in the nation's capitol. And it was.
I knew I would find the necessary black farmers to sign up for the ASCS election suit, I knew Stokely and SNCC would join, but the key to success in this civil rights venture was still the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. It was for an audience with him that I drove to his headquarters.
Bruce: You know, I tried to get SCLC to take this up, after Selma, when most of SCLC attention was focused on Chicago. I was proposing that SCLC start organizing around this whole ASCS issue. I wasn't even thinking about the food stamps commodities and extension service, but as I recall, each county would elect an ASCS board of five people. But I never could get SCLC interested in doing it, except Al Turner and Shirley Mesher. Well, go ahead and continue, because by this time I was in Mississippi.
In June of 1966, Dr. King had marched down the heart of Mississippi alongside Stokely Carmichael, when the chant "Black Power" began. Two months after the Meredith March, I drove into Atlanta, Georgia, near the place of his birth and where his father still preached at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I had met Dr. King casually, but had never spoken seriously with him. I had dealt with SCLC in Mississippi, and much more since I arrived in Alabama. Paul Bokulich was a favorite SCLC worker, and I worked in the Alabama counties most important to SCLC: Dallas (Selma), Greene, and Montgomery.
Dorothy Cotton, a longtime (and only female) SCLC Executive Staff member, who had marched with him in the most perilous times, set up our meeting. It began in SCLC's Atlanta office, a storefront shambles in the poor black section of town. I expected a paragon of order to match Dr. King's calm, neat appearance, but chaos and anarchy were all I saw. The various phones were ringing and only occasionally answered. Mail was strewn over desks and overlapping to the floor. (I picked up an envelope from the U.S. Attorney General himself, and placed it on a desk.) Everyone seemed to be yelling at the small, stocky, light-skinned black man in an open-collared white shirt and smart grey slacks, distinguishing him from most others who were wearing workshirts and jeans. Dr. King, then 38, caught all the conversations on the wing.
"Can you speak at such and such college next month?
"On the 16th?"
"I think so."
"Will you endorse so and so for election?"
"I try not to endorse anyone, see if its necessary."
"How about dinner tonight with Rev. Somebody?"
"Will you do a guest sermon at ..., appear at a fund raising dinner . . ., meet so and so?"
Bruce: Was this during a board meeting?
Don: I don't know which is a board meeting, everybody was there.
Bruce: Oh, an executive staff meeting. Were there 30 or 40 people or five or ten?
Don: 30 or 40.
Bruce: All right, sounds like an SCLC board meeting then.
Don: OK. Actually, more than 30 or 40.
All this was going on while I was ignored, except for a "Hiya" from a few staffers I knew. But I can't get any attention or get noticed. And then Dorothy just starts yelling: "Martin, I told you he was coming, and you agreed." It doesn't work, so she says, "Don was Paul Bokulich's lawyer." (Paul was in Greene County, an SCLC favorite, and the one that I got freed in that Alabama Supreme Court phenomenon.)
When she said I'm Paul's lawyer, people applauded. I really got some notice. And so at this point, I start describing what I came for but I got out three words when his staff begins pulling at him again.
I looked helplessly at Dorothy who, as a SCLC veteran, could yell at him, "Martin! Donald, Paul Bokulich's lawyer, has come all the way from Selma (the magic words) and you should talk to him in quiet."
"Okay," he yelled back over the roar, "Andy [Young], Ralph [Abernathy]," and he named a few others, "Come across the street to the cafe, I want you to hear something." Calm reigned in a quiet black cafe as we sat at the rear table, set aside for private SCLC conferences. Coffee and doughnuts were quickly placed and the waitress absented herself. No introductions. I was asked to make a presentation, but after a few sentences the leader interrupted, "Why Washington? Why bring the farmers? What are the logistics: cars, funds, food, sleeping accommodations, bail, if needed?" I had never thought about those issues and I was impressed by his humanity and political acumen in dealing with basic needs.
I had no refined plans yet, not even farmers signed up, just a format for direct action. I admitted the lack of logistical planning and began the laborious explanation of the cotton programs. I was just in the middle of the subsidy part when Dr. King abruptly asked to borrow my N.Y Times and got up, apparently to go to the men's room. I again looked helplessly at Dorothy who urged me to continue. Feeling quite discouraged, I resumed. Fifteen minutes later, Dr. King returned, motioned me to continue while Abernathy whispered in his ear, presumably a summary of what he had missed.
I had waited for Dr. King to return and I said, "Dr. King, the farmers will tell you they'd rather get one of their own elected to the Cotton Board than elected as Sheriff or Governor . . . " Because it's more important to them."
Bruce: Absolutely true, yeah.
Don: That clicked. And I said, "This is not an exaggeration, I could bring you the people. Let's face it," I said, "our constituency are farmers." I stopped, realizing how presumptuous is was to be saying this to Dr. King. I mildly continued that integration is very important, but the farmers can't afford to eat or sleep in the Holiday Inn, or do most of the things that we've gotten them access to. Voting, of course, is critical, but they need money, they need to live, and this money is being stolen from them by the Feds, courtesy of Orville Freeman, the liberal head of the USDA. From the top, they are allowing the stealing of the cotton money.
Bruce: It was the local boards that were doing this to them.
Don: Yeah, but only with USDA acquiescence. Dr. King was now carefully listening to me. I told what I knew about the history of Southern control of the USDA. Then I concluded, "This is real important. I would really appreciate if SCLC would come into the case as a named plaintiff, allow me to represent you, and allow me to put your name on press releases. You see, we're going to DC as a first step in a campaign against the USDA next comes the food programs." I said, "We're not looking to make big strides in this one, we're going to make a slight dent to show the Plantation Owners that we can get control in this area."
"What about SNCC and your friend Stokley?" Dr. King asked, referring to tensions over him halting the middle Selma March [AKA Turn Around Tuesday"].
Bruce: He knew you were a friend of Stokely?
Don: . . . or Dorothy had told him.
"Stokely knows I'm here (as if that was an answer)," I replied. "SNCC, like your people, have worked on the ASCS problems and will be present. Stokely hopes," I exaggerated, "that you'll join him in Washington, D.C. for the hearing." Dr. King gave me a smile of appreciation for my diplomacy.
I believe they had decided before I arrived, and that the meeting was to size me up. I apparently passed because after a few nods, Dr. King announced approval. I could use their name and Dr. King would appear "If possible and appropriate."
I thanked everyone, smiled at Dorothy and left for SNCC in Atlanta to keep my neutrality intact.
Time was against us. Within days we needed a technical lawsuit to explain the cotton program and its abuses . . . and the need to postpone the elections, now a few weeks away. And to find farmer-plaintiffs, explain the lawsuit to them, reassure or acknowledge their fears, sign them up, convince them to come to D.C. and interview them for their evidence about the programs. The final lawsuit was H. O. William et al. v. Orville L. Freeman et al., (D.C., 1966)), with 36 farmer-Plaintiffs from 23 cities in 11 Alabama counties each, a "Negro, poor, a sharecropper or tenant farmer or small farm owner and dependent on cotton farming for a livelihood." Each depended on the ASCS, which cheated them out of their rights, including the right to serve on the ASCS itself.
Kennedy liberal, Orville L. Freeman, as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the major defendant. We filed our lawsuit in D.C. to compel the USDA to restrain their Alabama affiliate from advancing the date of the premature elections. A hearing was set for August 9, 1966, one week before the new date for the elections.
In the interim, a USDA official leaked to Jac Wassermann of NSF (who gave it to me), a leaked secret report of the USDA which was withheld from President Lyndon Johnson amazing, secret even from the President of the United States. The cover page read as follows:
January 21, 1966
To: The Secretary [of Agriculture]
From: William M. Seaborn, Assistant to the Secretary
Attached is the year-end report on civil rights activities in the Department in 1965. If you wish to transmit this report to the White House, you may wish to omit the sections entitled Evaluation /s/ Wm. M. Seaborn" (my emphasis)
Not tell the President! I was staggered. The report contained massive confessions of USDA discrimination not to be seen by President Lyndon Johnson. The evaluations had, in fact, been omitted from the Presidential copy. In some undefined way, I eliminated Secretary Freeman from responsibility for holding back this information, perhaps he hadn't even seen the report.
The report was filled with statements of success, interwoven with "Evaluations" which contradicted the success. It admitted how racially unfairly the programs were administered and acknowledged many of the charges in our lawsuit.
I wrote a letter to Secretary Freeman outlining the proof we would offer, excerpted quotes from the secret report, and flew to D.C. in advance of the farmers.
As I had hoped, U.S. District Judge Howard Corcoran, in a pre-hearing conference, voiced hope that since we were all on the same side, a conference between both sides might resolve the issue with a compromise: a civil rights plea-bargain. As I had written to the Secretary, "... the real 'bad guys' are the Southern racists hiding behind Federal badges [and Federal payroll]. ... This should not be an adversary proceeding."
On the eve of the hearing, 18 top officials of the USDA sat at a table long enough for all 18 to face us directly. "Us" was me, two local D.C. counsel, and a black USDA "Civil Rights" official, who uncomfortably sat on our side of the table. I wasn't yet politically sophisticated enough to realize the positive impact the meeting would have had with some farmers present, plus Stokely and Dr. King. I was still at a point where I felt more could be achieved if we "professionals" could talk alone. The Missionary-Bwana in me was much alive. However, I did have everyone's statements and affidavits: documentation of discrimination and brutality "caused" by USDA local employees.
An undersecretary, gracious and smiling, urged me to open the meeting. I welcomed the opportunity, addressing each of the 18 personally and formally, introduced my colleagues. I spoke for three-and-one-half hours as I rattled off specific events, names, dates, produced documents, and quoted the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. I hinted at, but avoided mentioning, the secret report. I was hoarse and choked up as I saw my goal in sight: I had brought the message to the center of power, the belly of the government, where action is accomplished by lifting a telephone . . . and all we asked was the delaying of a date.
"Well, that's all I have to say," I said, as I looked down at my mass of papers strewn over the table. There was an appreciative pause. I accepted the congratulations of my co-counsel and the embarrassed "Civil Rights" Agriculture man. I felt lightheaded as I waited for a response from the 18 who exchanged glances waiting for the designated speaker to begin.
A USDA official also congratulated me for my presentation and described me as "the type of young man we need, who keeps us on our toes." He smiled at me as he juxtaposed a few more cliches, "Rome wasn't built in a day" and "All will come to those who wait." (I hoped we had waited long enough and that was his point; we were ready for the reward.)
There is a very delicate balance between the relationship of the federal government and the Southern states. If we are ever going to bring about a change down there, we have to go very slowly and very cautiously. . . . We know all of what you've said . . . and more. We've had our office of the Inspector General investigating all of these incidents you've described."
He nodded to the Inspector General who grunted affirmation of his thoroughness by the stacks of neatly piled looseleafs in front of him. Now the speaker changed his tone.
Great changes have been accomplished, but you people can never have enough. Look how far we've gone. We must learn to live with the Alabama whites or else we can never deal with them. What does a year mean to wait for the 1967 ASCS election when it can be done right? Under no circumstances will the USDA overrule a decision of a state ASCS, and we doubt a court can, or would, order us to do so. I'm sorry."
I was numb as each of the 18, rising to announce the conclusion of the meeting and their compliance with the judge's request, came to our side of the table and shook hands and made some reassuring remarks. I shook hands with each of them.
We left and I thanked my two co-counsel who, either more corrupt or less naive than I, were not especially surprised or upset. I went to my room and poured out the story on the phone to Stokely. It's not the Southerners or federal bureaucratic incompetence. Stokely gave me the we've-been-telling-you- this-for-years" snort, but he sounded more surprised than he wanted to admit. Dr. King made no comment when I called him, except to thank me for the immediate information.
Later than night I called UPI and related the story of the secret report. Despite my intemperate language about "crackers in federal uniforms," UPI released the story across the country of a "super-secret Agriculture Department self-appraisal of its shortcomings in racial matters [being used] in a ground breaking federal suit." The article forced a direct response from Secretary Freeman that a delay in the ASCS elections "would disrupt efforts already made to run the elections fairly." The ASCS was breaking out of the darkness. On the very day of the hearings, the Alabama State ASCS announced their decision to have "a member of its civil rights advisory committee sit in on all future meetings."
The hearing began in the morning of August 9, 1966 with the black farmers, dressed in their Sunday best, seated in a federal courtroom in the nation's capital, joined by a dark-suited Stokely Carmichael. Backing them up were the various Agriculture civil rights organizations, including Jac Wasserman and his National Sharecroppers Fund.
I opened for our side by reciting the previous night's presentation, accompanied by a soft chorus of amens and ah hahs, so soft that the judge could not get himself to silence them. Judge Corcoran was disturbed by the failure of the negotiations (though the USDA had taken responsibility by reiterating to him that they "would not interfere" with the state system). He also begrudged the clogging of his already overbooked court calendar and he was uncomfortable with the presence of the farmers, as if it were a deliberate attempt to pressure him which, of course, it was. At one point he chastised me for keeping my clients from their crops.
"Let's try to hurry things along so all these people can go home." The judge looked disapprovingly in the direction of Stokely Carmichael, and couldn't help noticing the large number of press. He further noted the significance of one of our first offers of evidence, a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report on discrimination in federal agriculture programs. (I privately damned that austere body for refusing to testify about their own report until I forcibly subpoenaed them: "We're not supposed to take sides," they had angrily explained to me.) Then I read selected portions of the "secret report" and then slowly read the cover page. I was pleased to see the Judge sneaking a look at his copy of that first page to see if I had exaggerated the deceive-the-President language.
Still, there was an air of detachment and unreality about the proceeding, until I called my first witness, a slight, 50-year-old black Alabama farmer who had tried to run in the ASCS elections. Peter Agee of Magnolia, Alabama, who had never been a state away from his lifetime home, swore to tell the whole truth in a D.C. court. He told how Frank Shields, the white County ASCS man ("He been knowing me all his days. We were raised up together"), had attempted to bribe him not to come and threatened him if he did. Shields had come to see him when he wasn't home.
Agee: "If he comes back" Agee told his sister, "tell him I ain't here."
. . . "I came back later that day and there he sat on [my] porch. I dodged him [I went around through a corn field]. I stood and looked at him, but he didn't see me."
* * * * *
Q: "Why were you dodging him?"
A: " ... when you see a white man sitting on your porch and you have signed something like what I have signed [candidacy for the ASCS] . . . I didn't know what he had in mind."
Then Agee told of a later conversation with ASCS Official Shields.
"Peter, I will give you 10 acres of the best farming land and I will show you how to get loans for cows ... if you just come out of it . . . out of this election.
' . . . I said, "I am going to hold on [even though] I may have to leave here . . .'
* * * * *
"[Shields replied]: 'You are not going to get rich off it [being on the ASCS], you only get $8 [for a meeting], three times a year and that is not very much. And I am getting mad at these lawyers coming down South and leading you wrong; you don't know what you are doing."
[Government lawyer]: "Are you saying he told you this?"
A: "You asked me to tell you."
* * * * *
[Jelinek]: "Did you have a conversation . . . about your coming to this court . . .?"
A: " . . . they asked me not to go to Washington even if you stay on the ballot. And I came anyway. I don't know what will be the results when I get back."
[The Court]: "Who asked you not to come to Washington?"
A: "That was this committeeman, Mr. Frank Shields. ...'no harm is going to come to you [he said], but yet don't go to Washington.' [Still later] 'Understand now, there is no harm, there is no harm'--"
The judge heard all this and appeared to feel the testimony somewhat melodramatic. But not the sharecroppers in the audience who understood the threatening meaning of "no harm, no harm"; each wondered what they would face when they returned.
Agee told the judge that he was afraid of Shields, "a little afraid and shaking just like I am now" but he remained as a candidate and came to Washington to testify.
The first witness, much quoted in the nation's press, had accused a federally paid USDA official of bribery and intimidation; the secret report was in evidence and 28 more witnesses were ready to tell their stories, to try to explain in the stylized Question and Answer form of courtroom ritual, the real world of white power and black fear.
By the time the second witness took the stand, the Government capitulated. They offered to overrule the Alabama ASCS and extend the election for an additional month (a few days less than originally scheduled). The farmers' appeal was "deemed reasonable," though Secretary Freeman was reported to have told Senator Robert Kennedy, "They had no case at all. We only agreed to the postponement because of the Department's image."
But would my clients agree to one month in lieu of the sweeping reforms also demanded in the lawsuit? I had learned enough not to make decisions for my clients, though I recommended the settlement. A victory against the USDA, I believed, was more important than the details. As they caucused for what seemed an indeterminable amount of time in the federal hallway, some asked Stokely what to do. He would only comment, "It's up to you but I know you will be sure that there'll be no more Atlantic City's," referring to the National Democratic Convention of 1964, where big shots made promises to the black delegation and then reneged. The Judge chided me: "What's the matter? Don't your clients trust you?"
"No, they don't." I answered polemically, "They've been betrayed by too many white men who professed to have their best interests in mind."
The Judge, preferring to wait rather than hear two dozen more witnesses, fumed until a spokesman accepted the offer.
Such a minor victory. And so few results. With the extra time, all the enthusiasm and spirit of the victorious farmers and the Movement, with a special grant for voter instruction, with a USDA truck speeding to Alabama with box after box of blue pamphlets explaining the election but with Lowndes County landlords collecting the ballots to save the tenants the "trouble" of mailing them we lost, badly. Not one black elected to a county committee. Yet we felt a symbolic victory; we could overpower the USDA under controlled circumstances . . . and we had a bit more muscle back home in Alabama.
One farmer, unaware of the hearing, told a reporter there were some improvements in getting information and help from the ASCS. "Something done shook 'em up. I don't know what, but something sure shook 'em up."
To the Southerners, our victory was enormous. They knew a month wouldn't change the results of elections controlled by many pressures. The importance to them lie in a federal court with the acquiescence of the federal Agriculture Department interfering with the local ASCS, and, by inference, with the multi-billion dollar subsidy program. A high ASCS official in D.C., visibly anxious about the reaction in Alabama, remarked, "After all, we've got to work with those fellows down there." Other observers believed the effect of the case was to force USDA to play its hand a little more aggressively. A North Carolina Congressman was said to have met secretly with the Southern members of the Agriculture Committee and told them: "You're turning your back on your own people."
Repercussions should have been expected. Agee had been threatened, my own civil rights colleagues had warned me of dire consequences to all of us if I "won" such a case. So why were we all so surprised when a few days after the court's decisions, the counterattack began?
Agee had returned home and was working in the family store when some white men came in and told him, "Peter Agee will not be able to live in Magnolia after the lies he told in Washington." A few hours later, a group of white men drove by and fired shots in the air. When civil rights worker, Dick Reavis, called for the police, they instead arrested three blacks in the vicinity and Reavis himself, for objecting to their search of the victim's store without a warrant.
Agee knew his county even if the Judge hadn't believed him; he knew the meaning of "no harm, no harm." Agee realized he must leave his lifelong home; he fled to Memphis a few hours before some white men told his sister to look behind the store, there was a body and "it might be your brother."
I whipped off a letter to Judge Corcoran with a news clipping of what happened, and wrote about the "fate of a witness before your honor who dared tell the truth about bribery and intimidation."
There was more. Three-quarters of the members of the Washington delegation were evicted from the plantations they had lived on for as long as four generations, evicted from the soil of their birth, with no other work, no other place to go, and no other means even to earn money for food. They were cut loose. I would be next.
Don: When I came back, the white reaction was menacing.
Bruce: Back to Selma?
Don: Back to Selma. It was a very tough period for 4 1/2 months..
Bruce: Was this the time when the judge set you up?
Don: Yes. And more. Everything happened.
Bruce: Everything happened. You f*** with the money, yeah. I'm sure that's why Molly's place was shot at, she was threatening the money.
Don: A week after the ASCS case, I'm before the judge who was "reversed" by the Alabama Supreme Court in the Bokulich case but I'm before him on another case. Ironically, I have become relatively friendly with him despite the first days we met.
Bruce: This is in Selma?
Don: No, this is in Greene County, City of Eutaw. And I'm just getting my papers together and talking to my client, when I see a guy wearing a dark suit and nobody (but me in the first few weeks) ever wore a dark suit to court, and certainly not in the rural areas. He was obviously an important Southerner, whispering to the judge; I felt apprehensive. Then dark suit leaves. The judge addresses me and tells me that man who just left is a member of the Bar Association and "he has advised me, shown me official papers, that you're not licensed in the state of Alabama, nor do you have an introducer with you."
From the very day full-time civil rights lawyering in the South began, long before me, there was an agreement made between the civil rights bar and the Southern bar. The Southerners did not want their local lawyers to have to try these civil rights cases, but they would be stuck with them because of the constitutional requirement of counsel.
Bruce: Wait a minute, the civil rights section or division of the Alabama Bar Association is what you're referring to?
Don: No, no, the Bar, the Alabama Bar Association itself is dealing with groups such as ACLU and the President's Committee.
Bruce: Yeah, but some department of the Bar, or some body of the Bar.
Don: No, they're too small, it's just the Bar. And they very quickly came to an agreement that out-of-state lawyers would be allowed to handle civil rights cases in their courtrooms and the Southerners would be relieved of such duties.
Bruce: Because otherwise if somebody asked for a lawyer and they didn't have money, they would assign a white Southern lawyer to do a civil rights case, which would destroy the white Southern lawyer's practice?
Don: Not quite but the civil rights work would take his time, cost him money and he didn't want to be involved with our people anyhow.
Bruce: So Atticus Finch ["To Kill A Mocking Bird": a Southern good guy lawyer, played in the movie by Gregory Peck] would be the exception to that.
Don: That's right, but you wouldn't find more than one or two. Most were not Atticus Finch and they were quite satisfied passing this duty on to our lawyers, although not licensed in Mississippi or Alabama. The concept of an "introducer" is still done in every state. I can go to Omaha and try one case with an introducer, who acknowledges that I'm licensed in New York and a worthy guy. This was expanding it to more than one case: staying and trying cases indefinitely.
Bruce: So the introducer would say, "This is Don Jelinek, it's OK, he's a real lawyer, let him practice?"
Don: Yes, and he would add: "I am overseeing or supervising, or taking some responsibility." My introducer was Bruce Boynton, for whom ACLU was paying handsomely.
Bruce: Now this is like spring or summer of 66 we're talking about?
Don: I first arrived in Alabama in June of 66. This is after the case in Washington, so this is more like the fall.
Bruce: OK, but you have been already practicing in Alabama courts for several months then?
Don: Yes, after I practiced in Mississippi for a year.
Bruce: Right, but in terms of admitted to the Bar of Alabama?
Don: Not "admitted" but "permitted," yeah. And, of course, I'm certified to practice in most of the federal courts. But Bruce Boynton has ceased showing up; on the other hand, most of them don't show up anyhow, because after a while the judges know who you are, who your local lawyer is and they don't want to waste time. But today Boynton's not there, and the judge says, "You won't be allowed to practice in this court any longer, including the case today."
Then he goes off the record and calls me up to the bench. I ask him, "What's this all about? I've been in your court alone dozens of times." He says, "I hear you did real well in Washington." Then he says, "Y'all watch yourself." So I race to Boynton's office, get past Mama, and I tell him that from here on in he has to be there with me. He says, "I'm no longer your introducer." Whew!
Bruce: He didn't want to be your introducer?
Don: Right, no reason.
Bruce: [Laughing] You f*** with these people's money, man, I'm telling you...
Don: Yeah, but a part of it is that I also f***** with Mama's political slate. I call up the Boss, I say this is really serious, you know, they're obviously targeting me. "Bruce [Boynton] has dumped me and we haven't got anybody else." I've tried and couldn't get anyone else.
Bruce: What about Fred Gray?
Don: Fred Gray wouldn't go near me from day one. His excuse was that he does NAACP cases only. So I'm talking to the Boss and I say, "Wait a second, what about Chuck Morgan?"
Charles Morgan was a legend, a young Birmingham lawyer, who, in 1963 at the time of the bombing of the four children in their Sunday School made a public statement printed all over, like "Life Magazine," that the murderers of these children "are all of us [Southerners]. We sat back and let it happen." He was virtually run out of the state, set up in Atlanta, and joined my ACLU Board of Directors, specifically the lawyer part, the LCDC of ACLU. And so I said to the Boss, "He's on our Board and he's still licensed in Alabama." The Boss says, "It's a great idea, I'm going to call him now to accept your call and then you call him."
Bruce: But wouldn't he have to drive over from Atlanta every time you had a case?
Don: Not quite. The reality is that it just takes one or two times, but anytime you're in trouble, yes, then he might have to. In Mississippi, I had Jess Brown, and he came only once or twice the whole time I was there. So I call Morgan and tell him the whole story of what's going on, and he says, "I don't think I can help you." Somewhat hysterical, I said, "What do you mean? This is critical, I'm about to be wiped out in the cause that made you famous." He says, "I think the repercussions for me would be more serious than for you." (Later on I found out he had ambitions to run for Governor of Alabama, and a whole bunch of other things.) I was very disappointed . . . and nervous . . . and angry but the next day I exploded when I got a "confirming" letter from him: that I asked him to "sponsor" me and he refused.
Bruce: He wanted that in the record?
Don: Right, the son-of-a-bitch. That did it. I wrote a letter to the entire ACLU community and charged cowardice. I called him a self-absorbed coward, and I attached his letter to show what he did. That caused a big commotion internally. Morgan had nothing he could say in his own defense, but, on the other hand, it wasn't a very popular thing for me to do, given how heroic a figure he is.
So now I'm moving on to the Dick Reavis' case.
Bruce: Well, before we move on, let's go back to Eutaw. So the judge says you can't practice, what happened to the case?
Don: That's a good question. In their world, they just put it on hold. These were minor harassment cases. They just tucked it away because they didn't know what they were going to do yet.
Bruce: So it was just put in legal limbo?
Don: Yes. The lawyer is not available, the case is continued for three months, four months.
Bruce: OK. Now when this kind of thing would happen to you, how did the people you were representing react to that? Did they say, "Hey, we were counting on this lawyer and now he can't do it, he's messed up or, did they see it as they and you were all part of the Movement, that this kind of harassment was the enemy attacking the Movement and it was all part of the same war?
Don: Great question. The latter. 100%.
Bruce: So the clients never got mad at you?
Don: Never. As a matter of fact, they all worried about me, that something was obviously about to happen to me. In fact, they were more on top of it than I was. So now, this is after Boynton's dropped me, and Morgan won't step in; my next case is in Marengo County.
Bruce: Oh God, Marengo County. Demopolis [the main town].
Don: Right. And Dick Reavis, a white Texan who I love, is the guy who stepped in to protect Peter Agee of Magnolia, Alabama, when he came back from the ASCS case. Dick was always getting arrested. And this day it was him and Charles Salisbury, a local black man. The case is called, I step up, and the only difference from the last time is this is Judge Hildreth. And he was the most pissed over the Bokulich injunction.
Bruce: Why was that?
Don: 'Cause he couldn't convene his own grand jury. The judge in Greene County, who was actually the trigger of it by not granting bail to Paul Bokulich took it in stride. Judge Hildreth took it very hard. And he pulls out those same papers, and he says, "Mr. Jelinek, it has come to my attention that you're not a member of the Alabama Bar." And I said, "So what fooled you all these months I've been before you: my Southern accent?" He says, "It's not a laughing matter. Apparently you're practicing law without a license, which is a crime in this state."
A recess is called and Dick Reavis says to me in the hallway, "They're going to arrest you." I scoff, "They wouldn't have the nerve to arrest me. I'm a civil rights lawyer, they'd never arrest me." And, as I'm saying this, a deputy comes along with the handcuffs, and arrests me on the spot. Reavis and Salisbury go back into the courtroom and the judge is not giving them any continuance. He says, "You brought an illegal lawyer, you knew he wasn't licensed here. It's your problem." And they said "Well, we refuse to participate."
Bruce: That's the right thing to do.
Don: Yeah, and so they're convicted. Meanwhile, I was brought upstairs to a cell, where there are two white guys, really just the scariest looking white guys imaginable. I was sure they're directed to beat me up and then say they were drunk. I'm shoved in by my jailer and they say, "You must be Dickie's lawyer, he said you'd be joining us." They were very nice to me, did everything they could to calm me down. I guess I was frightened because, like the Boss, I had thought my suit was a protective shield. Then Reavis comes back of course, Charlie's in a segregated cell and we spend the evening together. They made this concoction of toilet water, Kool-Aid and opened Contac cold capsules and stirred it up. My God, I was stoned in moments.Bruce: And the white guys [in the cell] were cool?
Don: They were great people. And they talked about their cases, admitting they were guilty. I stayed in a couple of days and the jailers kind of threw me out. You never know how that works exactly, but suddenly you're out the door. I visited my former white cellmates a couple of times afterwards and brought them things. . .
Bruce: Before we leave the Demopolis jail, Demopolis was infamous within the Movement as one of the real hell holes. One of the stories I heard this was probably around February or March of '65, at the height of the big Selma uprising was about two of the most fascinating characters that came through Selma. I'm going to tell my story and just insert it here, if you don't mind.
Don: Speak on, Bruce.
Bruce: Two of the most fascinating characters were Nanny Washburn and her son, whose name escapes me. You ever meet her?
Bruce: Nanny Washburn looked like she was 90, but she was probably only 70, a white woman from Appalachia, a Southernish accent but not an Alabama accent, not a deep Mississippi accent. You know, a hill accent from white Appalachia. (To us northerners, most Southern accents sound more or less alike, but to Southerners there are distinct and important differences.)
I think she had gotten radicalized back in the '30s in either the union struggles or the tenant farmer movement or something like that, and she and her son had come to Selma to support what was going on. As I said, she's 70, he's 45 or 50 and totally blind. He cannot see anything. So between Bloody Sunday and the march to Montgomery, SCLC was organizing marches and demonstrations in all the surrounding counties except Lowndes. And Marengo County was one of them. And so there was a march in Demopolis which was tear gassed, and attacked, and there were brutal beatings, and all that kind of shit.
Nanny and her son were arrested, along with lot of local people. Well, the story we heard and I absolutely believe it's true is that the cops in the Demopolis jail took particular fury against the son, a white Southern man. And they would do things like he's blind they would sneak up on him all quite and hit him with a club, or he'd be sitting in a cell and they'd take their shoes off, and in their socks, tip toe into the cell and then spray him with tear gas. So he would never, ever know when he would be attacked. They'd march him from one cell to another, leave him standing not knowing where he was, and then slam the steel-bar door against him. Never safe, and never could relax for an instant. And they did this for days. That's the Demopolis jail. Every time I hear of Demopolis I think of that story.
Don: That is horrible. I can't imagine a mental torture worse than that. Yeah, it's the same jail.
Don: So, then I get word that the Selma Grand Jury a special wing of it has been convened to investigate the illegal practice of law in Alabama.
Bruce: Just a general subject [grin].
Don: [Laughing] It just came up. That crime called for six months in jail. And then about the same time, I get a notice of eviction from my office.
Bruce: This is the one over the funeral parlor?
Don: No, by this time we had moved many blocks up the street. We had a single family house, very nice, nice office. So we got a notice of eviction there.
Don: At about the same time I was being evicted, I had to go to Mobile to ask for a stay of Stokely's trial. I never had a case like this. We had photographs of every minute of the alleged crime. All of SNCC was there for that day, every SNCC photographer imaginable and I had all the photos for the trial and I turned it into a litigation-history.
Bruce: I thought the trial was in Selma? You said Mobile.
Don: Yes, Mobile was where the federal judge was.
Bruce: OK, so he'd been tried and convicted in Selma and you were appealing to federal court?
Don: No, he was yet to stand trial, and I was attempting to stop the trial, with very solid federal grounds. Six days after my arrest, Stokely and his co-defendants faced trial in Selma on the Inciting To Riot charges. The day before the trial, having failed with other methods, I headed to Mobile to see Judge Daniel Thomas (who was later scheduled to judge my case). I had notified Stokely that he must prepare to return to Alabama, in case . . . .
That was a definite possibility. Although I was never knowledgeable about judges, everyone knew that Thomas was so "bad" on civil rights that a special law, requiring three judges instead of one to hear certain type of civil rights cases, was dubbed: "the Thomas Amendment" designed to allow two other judges to outvote him.
Even before I arrived to see him, he had tried to stop me from appearing before him. A courageous black Mobile attorney, Vernon Crawford, was to "recommend" me to practice before this court. Thomas asked Crawford not to recommend me, but he refused. I later learned that Crawford suffered business reverses from former law partners of the Judge.
After I was "admitted," I was told to wait in court until my case was called. It was late morning and Stokely's trial was the next day. I cooled my heels in that courtroom for five hours as the Judge ignored me and did not call the case. I rose a few times, but was ordered to be silent. At the end of the day, he told me, "I'll give you an answer in the morning. Be in my chambers before court opens." I pointed out that the trial was 2 pm the next day: he walked away.
The next morning I sat in the Judge's anteroom, Thomas walked in, I stood up, but he walked right past me into his chambers. When he emerged 20 minutes later, I politely asked for his decision. He ignored me and headed for the door to the courtroom. My nerves, temper and patience all burst at once. I jumped into his path, blocked the door and demanded, "You promised me a decision this morning, the trial is this afternoon." In the majesty of his black robes, he scowled at me with contempt. "You are the worst enemy the Negro people have. You represent those who do violence to harmonious relations between Negroes and Whites in the South. I don't sign injunctions for Stokely Carmichael!" He then pushed me aside and walked to his courtroom as all rose in respect to the court.
After calling Stokley, I ran to a cab, raced to a plane and arrived at the Montgomery airport in time to meet Stokely arriving from a short (shorter because of me) vacation. I almost missed him. He looked like a Green Beret, dressed in an army field jacket, olive drab fatigue pants and boots. We barely exchanged hellos and jumped into my car, which had been left at the airport, for the 5O-mile ride along Highway 80 to Selma. We retraced in reverse the route of the Selma March, past a large billboard portraying a menacing Black Panther and the message, "Pull the Lever for the Black Panther and Go On Home," past Lowndes County where Stokely's major organizing took place, past the ditch where Mrs. Liuzzo was shot to death after the March.
We were both depressed. Stokely and the others would be convicted in the Selma Recorders Court, sentenced and locked upstairs in the jail. I would then bail them out, file appeals to the higher court where, if convicted again, they could go to prison. But we all knew those risks, that wasn't the reason for the depression. The despair was personal. I was traumatized from the encounter with Thomas, sleep-deprived and moving too fast. I was also frightened that we might be the target of snipers. Stokely and I in one car might be considered a very good target and, thanks to the Avis Rent-a-Car spy at her booth at the small Montgomery airport, everyone knew we were now on the road. Stokely was depressed about losing his vacation, depressed that he had met a woman and didn't have much time to be with her, and because he didn't feel like going back to jail again.
We talked at each other in counterpoint, complaining of our plights, discouraged and tired. I asked Stokely, as I would many times, if he was scared. He admitted that he worried about a sniper's bullet and reached into his coat jacket as if to fondle a pistol. I never learned nor asked if he was armed. As we crossed the bridge into Selma, a police car was immediately on our tail.
Then we saw the national press. Of course they would be there to witness the latest trial of the notorious Black Power advocate. I parked a few blocks away from the Court to avoid them, but they came running toward us. Stokely came alive, as he had in the sound truck on the eve of the First Black Elections.
A big grin spread over his face. He bounded out of the car while I was sagging, dreading the press and the questions. Stokely took one look at me and punched me, hard, in the shoulder. I was stunned, wondering why he hit me. Then he was laughing, raucous laughter, and making jokes about the Mayor and the Judge. I found myself giving him a friendly shove and, when the press came, we were two adolescents, laughing and shoving each other. The press asked Stokely what his chances were. He said, "Ask my lawyer." I laughed as I produced three bailbonds dated that day for convictions that had not yet taken place. Stokely sobered up and made a serious statement about Black Power, just short enough to fit uncut into the evening news. We then walked to the court to join the other defendants.
I was barred from many state courts by now, including Selma, and thus, my clients presented their own evidence while I "prepped" them, careful not to give too much away before the federal trial which still lay ahead and where I could still practice law. There were no surprises as Judge E. P. Russel convicted all three. Soon they were back in jail and soon I had them bailed out. I both appealed the conviction to the higher state court and filed the more important federal action for a three-Judge court, invoking the Thomas Amendment, with Thomas as one of the Judges.(2) Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.: The North's Great White Southern Hope takes Action Against Militants and their Lawyer
My first case before Judge Johnson involved a revered SNCC leader. In 1961, James Forman, possessed of the stature and disposition of a bear, so impressed SNCC leaders by his mind and organizational ability, that he was offered the role of Executive Secretary to coordinate the SNCC operation, out of Atlanta. This was a special honor because Forman was 33 in an organization that prized youth; he was my age but ten years older than most SNCC'rs. He accepted the $60 per week offer. From that day forward, he created a semblance of order in the anarchy that was SNCC.
The case in which I was to defend him and others had a long and complicated history, involving federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., Dr. King, SNCC and the Selma March.
Judge Johnson had grown up in Winston County in Northern Alabama where the infertile soil eliminated any use for slaves. The county opposed secession from the Union; when the Civil War began, Winston seceded from Alabama. Many of the residents, including Johnson's forbearers, fought for the Union army. The county later became a Lincoln Republican outpost in an otherwise all Democratic Party South. (Johnson's father, at one time, was the only Republican in the Alabama legislature.) After a combat command in World War II, Frank Johnson, active in support of the successful Eisenhower presidency bid, was appointed U.S. Attorney in Birmingham. On November 7, 1955, he became the youngest Federal District Judge in the United States. He was 37, his court was in Montgomery and the Rosa Parks ~ Dr.King Montgomery Bus Boycott would begin a month later.
Johnson became the most prominent desegregationist Judge in the land. He was one of a three-judge panel that, on the authority of Brown v. Board of Education, declared Montgomery bus segregation unconstitutional; when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, the bus boycott came to an end. For the next two decades, either solely, or in combination with other judges, he desegregated 107 school systems, buses, bus terminals, parks, museums, mental institutions, jails and prisons, airports, libraries, and just about everything in sight.
He paid a personal price for his unpopular decisions, including the bombing of his mother's home, innumerable death threats, crosses burned on his lawn and the need for an around-the-clock federal bodyguard. More personally, he and his wife were socially ostracized and rarely invited to community gatherings. Johnson gave up teaching Sunday School when no one attended, and finally dropped church altogether when parishioners started moving to different pews when he sat down. His son, harassed by classmates and teachers, also received death threats; in 1975, the son committed suicide. The Judge told a friend, "How would you like to grow up with a father as controversial as Frank Johnson?"
Johnson believed that all Americans deserved equality, but he frowned on civil disobedience (even if non-violent) and/or militant efforts to obtain that equality . . . even if equality could be obtained in no other way. Johnson was a tough law-and-order man, meaning his sentences were higher than average. He was also an autocrat, described on the bench as "peering down from Olympus," so savage in his demeanor that a Justice Department lawyer once fainted while appearing before him.
The Judge was a man who wanted the law to change slowly, step by step, as responsible civil rights organizations, such as the Legal Defense Fund, came before him for careful deliberation and received as a reward their bounty: desegregation. He loathed those who chose extra-legal process to obtain the same results.
Thus, the father of American Ghandiism and the Great Desegregator began in the same city; their eventual clash over the Selma March gravely weakened Dr. King's influence within the Movement and was a factor in the beginnings of Black Power a force that Johnson despised as much as the Ku Klux Klan.
SNCC the poster boy/girl of civil rights militancy, the epitome of everything Johnson despised had been in Selma since 1962, struggling at first with only a husband-wife team and a local priest. A year later SNCC expanded its forces and, with an aroused populace, began persistent attempts at voter registration in Selma, mixed with civil disobedience. SNCC kept at it, despite beatings, jailings and brushes with death. In 1965, Dr. King was invited into this SNCC territory by the Boynton crowd.
Following the SCLC leader was a massive press corps, which soon reported jails filled with protestors, including Dr, King, who commented that, "The King of Norway surely did not think that fewer than 60 days after I received the Nobel Peace Prize, I would be in a Southern jail." Students marched and school teachers marched. Soon almost all of black Selma was in the streets. After a black male died from being shot point blank in the stomach, a memorial march was planned from Selma to the state's capital in Montgomery which became the Selma March.
On "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, 600 protestors, including many clergy, marched through town to the Selma bridge that connected the city with the road to Montgomery. On the other side of the bridge stood Sheriff Jim Clark's posse and state troopers, on horseback and shoulder to shoulder, waiting with their billy clubs, rubber hoses, gas masks and other weapons. Amidst tear gas, the troopers advanced on the unresisting marchers, clubbing and beating them as whites on the sidelines cheered.
The posse attacked on horse-back with bullwhips, ropes and lengths of rubber tubing wrapped with barbed wire. "Get those goddamned niggers!" shouted Jim Clark, "And get those goddamned white niggers!" The protestors ran choking and crying, with the horsemen in angry pursuit. The pursuit and beatings continued all through the downtown area until a rage-emboldened black drove his car in front of the horsemen, just long enough to give the victims time to get back to the black part of town. Even there they were not safe. Tear gas was thrown into homes; a black inside his church was thrown through a stained glass window. More than 50 were hospitalized, but none died that day.
Judge Johnson dishonored Dr. King in the eyes of the more radical civil rights groups by issuing an injunction after "Bloody Sunday" forbidding a follow-up Tuesday Selma March the "Middle March." Johnson created Dr. King's most famous dilemma: a trap from which Dr. King had no escape: If he obeyed Johnson, the magnitude and intensity of the throngs assembled in Selma would be dissipated and the power of the follow-up March would suffer immeasurably. He also had to contend with SNCC, which might march no matter what he decided.
On the other hand, if he disobeyed Johnson, he would be defying the federal government and the most renowned civil rights Judge in the nation. Dr. King, whose successes had been based on nonviolent resistance, both legal and illegal, succumbed to the reputation of Judge Frank Johnson; he would not overtly defy him. A compromise was reached that split the movement. Dr. King led the march to the scene of the Sunday carnage, but, at that spot, turned the marchers back. Only a handful of close intimates knew what was planned.
Later, when Dr. King was brought up before Johnson on contempt charges (which Johnson could have avoided if he chose) for leading that second march, Dr. King intimated strongly that he had acted according to a secret agreement. Johnson's finding Dr. King innocent of contempt was a guilty verdict to the Movement. Johnson had succeeded where most every sheriff, legislator and Southern Governor had failed; he had beaten and disgraced Dr. King.
But James Forman, my future client, refused the compromise. "Johnson's injunction," he declared publicly, "is legal blackmail. So many times in the past we have seen movements killed by placing the question in the courts, waiting for weeks or months to get an injunction or just a hearing on one." Forman demanded the March resume. The next day, Forman's people marched in Montgomery, in defiance of Johnson personally and Johnson's injunction.
Later, the petition to Remove those arrested from the state system came before Johnson. He should have disqualified himself but instead took the case. He ignored SNCC evidence that in addition to rioting white civilians,
County police charged into our small group on horseback: hoofs trampling, the cops whooping people not with the usual billy clubs, but with long sticks." [Johnson found that] "these governmental officials were discharging their duty and responsibility to keep the sidewalks open and reasonably available for normal use.
Johnson then explained his doctrine of law as concerns civil rights:
The philosophy that a person may if his cause is labeled 'civil rights' or 'states rights' (an equation of SNCC with the Klan) determine for himself what laws and court decisions are morally right or wrong and either obey or refuse to obey them according to his own determination, is a philosophy that is foreign to our 'rule-of-law' theory of government.
(Reading these lines no one could guess that this was the week of "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, or that SNCC had been beaten in the streets of Montgomery over pedestrian traffic offenses.)
Johnson then summed up:
These petitioners and others so inclined must come to recognize that (only) judicial processes are available for the purposes of protecting their constitutional rights in this district.
Johnson ordered the Forman cases remanded back to the Montgomery courts for a "fair trial"; a year and a half later the appeal of Johnson's ruling having failed the cases fell into my lap. The first criminal trial was scheduled for the coming election day, November 8. (It was remarkable how the Southerners chose to commemorate the First Black Elections by bringing civil rights leaders to trial on the very day they would otherwise be electioneering. It would have been my busiest day in three years: Stokely on the Riot charge in the morning, the draft trial of SNCC activist, Simuel Schultz, during lunch, and the Forman group by 2 p.m. I was able to get all postponed eventually by threatening a federal suit.)
"One hundred sixty-seven defendants!" I mock-moaned to Bill Kuntsler, who had asked me to handle the cases, "and me barely allowed in the state courts." My theory to work our way back to the federal courts without Removals was based upon a 1886 case, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, one of the two or three decisions in American jurisprudence that I most admire. Yick Wo involved enforcing a housing ordinance only against Chinese laundries; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such selective prosecution of one group and not another is a total defense to the prosecuted group, even if they are guilty.
... though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in its appearance, yet [it may not be] applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand ... .
The injunction suit presented the full picture of this aftermath of "Bloody Sunday": During the time of (the accuseds') arrest, local whites in Montgomery ran wildly through the streets, screaming obscenities and racial epithets, assaulting, threatening and intimidating the peacefully demonstrating plaintiffs and, in certain instances, attempting to run down the demonstrators when they crossed the streets. Although flagrantly guilty of all the crimes for which (the accuseds) were charged and many others, these local whites were ignored by local law enforcement officers who made no attempt to deter, arrest or prevent this unlawful conduct.
We also charged that the laws used to arrest the demonstrators were unconstitutional and asked that the trials be enjoined.
On the eve of the Forman cases, one-and-a-half years after the Selma March, two days after Stokely's Inciting to Riot arrest in Selma, and the day after the First Black Elections, here I was asking federal Judge Frank Johnson to again intervene in the Forman cases. This was to be my first conversation with Johnson. Despite the enormous contempt SNCC, and especially Forman, felt for him, I admired the Judge and looked forward to meeting one of the few "good" jurists in the South. I brought my new local lawyer, Charles (Chuck) Conley, with me for our appointment to see Johnson. ACLU had "overpaid" Chuck Conley to work with me.
Bruce: I don't understand what you meant. Who paid? Chuck Conley was a black lawyer, who paid him?
Don: ACLU. They gave him far more money than was given to Boynton more than he could resist.
We met Johnson in his chambers, which had a regal look, walnut-paneled awesome, with his desk (possibly my imagination) exceptionally high off the ground, giving the impression that he was looking down on lawyers pleading before him. He was tall, stooped with half-moon glasses on the bridge of his nose; his tone was stern, his handshake aloof: barely touching flesh. This was far different from the Southern style of excessive civility; he brusquely asked our business, though he knew what case we were bringing before him.
But first I had to get admitted to his court, a pro forma process, given my background. So there was Conley and he introduces me formally. Johnson asks him about my credentials verbally and it's a long list: law school, work record, and my admission to the state and federal courts in New York, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, the federal court in N. Mississippi, and, most important, the Birmingham federal court in this very state. The main business in Conley's mind is to get me admitted in my own name so that he will not have to put his name on a SNCC case, the Forman case. (The SNCC connection had already soured our embryonic association.)
I also wanted independence from Conley and had brought two last pages for the lawsuit: one with and one without my co-counsel's name on it. Johnson accepted my credentials and admitted me to practice in his court under my own name; I then produced the duplicate back page without Conley's name. Because we were in chambers, there was no court reporter and no record of what had transpired a lack I would soon regret.
We proceeded to the merits of the Forman case per my request for a temporary injunction as I presumptuously "reminded" the Judge of the facts as applied to our new lawsuit. "This is the same case I already ruled on!" Johnson interrupts me with barely controlled anger; he jerked his head so vigorously that I expected the half-moons on his nose to fall to the floor. I was as off balance as his glasses, sitting in the chambers of the most pro-civil rights Judge in the South, but the atmosphere is as bad as I had faced with the most hostile of state judges. Johnson adds that my version of the facts is "dubious," and my lawsuit is designed to slip the same case back into the federal system. I argued Yick Wo and other differences, but he wouldn't listen; the next day, he entered an order refusing to stop the trials. We appealed. While an appeal to stop the trials was pending, the trials started.
On Friday, November 11, 1966, the first trials began: The City of Montgomery v. James Forman, el al. The "et al" included Stu House, SNCC leader for Alabama (arrested with Stokely in Selma two days earlier) and five other SNCC leaders. I rose and said about two words when I was unceremoniously barred from participating and ordered to remain silent. The new wrinkle was that as an out-of-state lawyer, I had to be recommended by an officer of the Alabama Bar Association, not just a licensed Alabama lawyer. Conley was then called upon to defend the SNCC leaders, but he refused stating that, "I do not feel I could represent these people without compensation." The Court would not pay him and so he left the defendants without counsel . . . except for me.
I said that the defendants needed a lawyer and I was the only one available to defend them; the Judge again ordered me silenced and the trial proceeded. Forman and I had anticipated this turn of events and our not-very-impressive plan went into effect: I sat in the front row of the spectator section while the arraignment of the accuseds began. As each SNCC defendant was asked to plead "guilty or not guilty," he would walk over to me, and with mock gravity, ask me for advice. After the third repeat of this ritual, state Judge Eugene Loe exploded and shouted at me, "You are impeding and harassing this court and I'll not stand it any longer."
I explained that I was now acting as a friend to the defendants, granting them needed advice, needed all the more since the City of Montgomery had two highly trained prosecutors conducting the trial. Forman was next. He walked over to me and, in a loud stage whisper, asked: "Don, could you explain what 'Disorderly Conduct' means so I'll know if I'm guilty or not."
I answered, equally loud and in dialect, "It's doin' what the MAN don' like."
"That does it!" the Judge roared. "You are in contempt!" A bailiff came running over to me and dragged me to a "holding cell" connected to the courtroom and slammed the cell door. I remained for about ten minutes listening to the proceedings. Then, observing that the door had not been adequately shut, I opened it suddenly and made some dramatic remarks about how I would not be kept out of this mockery of justice trial. The Judge re-incarcerated me, this time ordering that the cell door be securely locked.
Twenty minutes later, he sent for me and said I could sit in the audience to prepare for the appeal (he forgot to add . . . "if they are convicted") if, he emphasized the word, I remained quiet. Apparently to mollify me, he added that I was no longer cited for contempt. I told him I could not possibly remain quiet under these circumstances. I was escorted out of the courtroom and told to leave the premises. Instead, I listened by an open door.
I heard a rare performance as Forman, for an hour-and-a-half, spoke extemporaneously of his own history in this city and state and vigorously denounced the courts, segregation and racial violence in Alabama. When the prosecutor interrupted him to note that it was past the lunch hour and he was hungry, Forman pounded the table, "I'm hungry for more than food," he roared, "I'm hungry for Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!"
There was no surprise ending. The defendants were all convicted and given suspended sentences of 30 days in jail, plus a $100 fine which they would not pay. When the Judge learned I was still on the premises, he sent for me again, chastised me for my outbursts, and forgetting my contempt had been withdrawn, suspended a sentence he hadn't imposed upon me. (I asked Kunstler to appeal my contempt charge, but he said I wasn't held in contempt or sentenced, so I had nothing to appeal.) Instead, I obtained bail for the others and had them out late that night.
I dreaded the next Tuesday when 80 more defendants were to be tried, but hours before, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the revered and rarely-reversed Johnson. The higher court ordered Judge Johnson to take seriously the new allegations, asserting that the issues are "not identical" with those earlier ruled upon by Johnson. The trials were "stayed" and the case sent back to Johnson to reconsider his ruling and, I now believe, reconsider admitting me to his court.
Two or three days later, Tony Amsterdam filed a test case lawsuit to allow me the right to practice law in the South, without a license the theory was that only lawyers like me can provide justice under these circumstances. Tony felt it was a very strong case.
Bruce: Who was he?
Don: Tony Amsterdam is and was the lawyer-genius of the civil rights movement. We had a lot of wonderful, brilliant lawyers, such as Arthur Kinoy, but Tony Amsterdam was incredible.
The most famous story about Tony I wasn't there, but everybody I know was occurred at the U.S. Supreme Court. To everyone's amazement, he uses no notes; he spoke before the Justices with not a piece of paper in front of him. In this one matter, a Justice said to Tony that he cited a case that the Justice would like to see again. He called out the volume number written in Tony's brief and asked a clerk to get the book. When the book arrived, the Justice turns to the appropriate page you know that law books have volume numbers on the outside and he says to Tony, "I think your citation is wrong, the case is not on that page in this volume." Tony, without hesitation, responded, "Well, your honor, the volume must have been bound wrong." (That is, with the wrong volume number placed on the front.) Now this is incredible, that one could have such confidence; of course, Tony was right.
He used to drive to Mississippi from Pennsylvania, set up at the ACLU office, and meet lawyers lined up at the door to ask him questions and seek advice.
Bruce: He was an ACLU attorney?
Don: No. He was a University of Pennsylvania law professor, and free lanced for almost every civil rights organization.
Bruce: So he was based in Philly, I guess?
Don: Philadelphia, yeah.
Bruce: So he has filed a suit around this business that started in Greene County that because you didn't have someone to introduce you . . .
Don: And then I'm jailed.
Bruce: And then you were jailed, right, which you wanted to not happen again.
Don: And the grand jury was investigating me.
Bruce: And the grand jury, OK.
Don: On November 26, 1966, three days after Stokely's trial, 15 days after Forman's trial, two weeks after I reversed Johnson in the Forman cases and two days after my own test case was filed, Conley frantically telephoned me. "We" were in trouble," he told me. "Judge Johnson has checked with the U.S. Supreme Court and learned you are not admitted to practice there." I had no idea what Conley was talking about, but I knew, whatever it was, if it involved Johnson accusing me of something, I was in trouble and it would be serious trouble.
I immediately drove to Conley's offices in Montgomery. He told me Johnson had called him at home that morning directing him to appear at the Judge's chambers. Once there, Johnson had shown Conley a letter from the Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court to the effect that my name did not appear among the lawyers admitted to practice in that high court. I sat still, wondering why he was writing to the Supreme Court; I had never bothered with the formality of being admitted to practice before the high court and paying the required $5, or whatever the fee was then.
... and Johnson then said you misrepresented yourself by remaining silent when I stated you were admitted, and ...
I burst in at this point, "Of course, you told him that the U.S. Supreme Court was never mentioned when you introduced me."
I looked Conley in the eye, but he avoided mine, as he said, "I'm not quite sure what happened in there since there was no court reporter to take it down, but I have a vague recollection that I mentioned you were admitted to practice before the U.S, Supreme Court and that you had once told me so." I sputtered and swore but Conley would not back down. He would not contradict the powerful Judge Johnson.
I called the Boss and accepted his suggestion that I see the Judge and straighten it out myself, by some act of phony contrition. It was Friday when I called and made an appointment for the following Monday. After a sleepless weekend, during which I foolishly told no one of my predicament, I drove to Montgomery for my appointment with the famous civil rights judge. I still believed in Johnson despite the recent Forman litigation, and tried to convince myself that he would realize by sheer logic that his memory must be faulty. As I drove, I rehearsed how I would explain all this:
When I found myself in the very chambers where I was charged with the lie, I mumbled through the presentation that had sounded so impressive in the car. I added to Johnson, "And I'm not a liar ... especially to a Judge I greatly respect." (I'm not sure this was still true, or intended as flattery, but it was a form of begging.)
Johnson was unmoved. His only comment was: "What does Conley say?" Of course, he knew my answer, "Conley backs you up." Johnson stared down through his half-moon glasses at me as the acid in my stomach shot a stream of pain. By now I was practically grovelling, "I'll withdraw from your court if you wish." He dismissed me with, "I'll let you know."
In the days following, I was in bad shape, physically and emotionally. I was fighting with my staff, with my girlfriend and I was waking up at night screaming about a client suffering because I was late with papers. When my hands started shaking, a civil rights worker-member of the Medical Committee For Human Rights "grounded" me to Miami to rest in the sun with Bruce Rogow, my old ACLU lawyer buddy from Mississippi, who had tried the rape-that-never-happened case with me. On the flight to Miami, I tried to concentrate on the Johnson crisis, but I couldn't keep my mind on it. I still hadn't told anyone except the Boss; I never told Bruce [Rogow] anything.
Bruce: Alabama will do that to you.
Don: Well, this wasn't the kind of trouble I had expected. Shot at? Maybe but not going after me as a lawyer. They say everyone has their price; my price may have been not losing the right to be a lawyer.
Bruce: Why did Conley betray you?
Don: Oh, I assume Johnson put pressure on him. He would simply say, "I (Johnson) have a recollection of him saying 'U.S. Supreme Court,' and I would like to hear what you remember." This would be before I got there. If Conley hesitated at all, Johnson would say, "Well?" and Conley would fold.
Bruce: Conley was no great shakes as a lawyer?
Don: No, and he could be intimidated (as here) or bought (as by ACLU).
Bruce: Do you think that the root cause of all this was the ASCS, even for Johnson?
Bruce: You think Johnson was doing this to you because he hated "militancy?"
Don: Correct. By his own standards, he was a man of honor. He would not wilfully commit a fraud; he'd have to convince himself first. But do I believe he remembered what he wanted to remember? Yes! He learned I was not admitted to the Supreme Court by reading my test case papers filed by Tony only a few days earlier, and, of course, there was no mention of the Supreme Court since I would never have told that to Tony.
Judges rarely read new lawsuits that aren't before them, but Johnson was obviously looking for something; when he saw no reference to the Supreme Court, he suddenly "remembered" a conversation that had never taken place. And this was at the time that Southern judges had started calling me a liar for "pretending" I was an Alabama lawyer. Even though he knew better than most about the agreement with the Southern Bar . . . and he's met me and knows no one would mistake me for a local lawyer.
This is all conjecture; how do I know what he was thinking but I know he knew I was both a lawyer for SNCC and a worker for SNCC, an organization he despised. He knew it because (1) the day I met him was in support of Jim Forman, a SNCC leader; (2) Johnson denied the requested relief and then I reversed him in the court above him; and (3) Conley would have told him that I bragged about being also a SNCC worker. And if you are part of a law-breaking group as he saw SNCC you would be the kind of person who would lie to judges.
I am not a conspiracy nut who believes every bad thing that happens is part of a plot.
All I know is that I win the ASCS case, am barred from State courts, a Grand Jury starts investigating me, I'm evicted from my office, I reverse the hardly-ever-reversed Frank Johnson over SNCC, and then Johnson accuses me of lying about the Supreme Court to be admitted to Johnson's court, which a Judge of Johnson's experience would know is irrelevant to being admitted to any federal court. So you figure out what happened. (Added to the mix, coming later, is that when I agreed to leave Alabama, Johnson exonerated me.)
As to the connection to the ASCS victory: I do not believe that Johnson acted because of ASCS but I do believe that ASCS triggered the action on Johnson's part: the accusation of lying in state court created a bandwagon that Johnson's "memory" jumped on.
Bruce: That's why I was asking, because I could understand why the Alabama courts and prosecutors and so on would be highly motivated to go after you because of the ASCS, but for Johnson there would be no reason for him, because he's not up for election, he's appointed by the federal government.
Don: So "trigger" is the word. But do I know the why? No, nor will I ever know.
Meanwhile, while Johnson is determining my fate, I am in Florida with Bruce Rogow. He could see I was withering and sent me to his doctor who recommended a steady dose of tranquilizers, plus retirement from the front lines. I told him that I couldn't leave, but that life was horrible. I told him how we lost day after day, how we had to keep everyone else strong with false optimism, and then if we won something (like Bokulich or ASCS), they hit us harder and we lost even more after that. The doctor said, "And you wonder why you're depressed." He prescribed extra sedatives.
The Florida sun was glorious, I was feeling a bit better and considerably high from all the medication when my office called to alert me that Johnson wanted me to withdraw from his court immediately.
That same day, Conley had written to Johnson:
I have informed Mr. Donald A. Jelinek (he hadn't) of Selma, Alabama that I would move to withdraw my recommendation to have him admitted in the Middle District (Johnson's court) in view of the misunderstanding with respect to his admission to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. . . . I prefer to postpone any recommendation pending further advice in this matter from you.
It was my word against that of the great man, plus my black associate. I felt that I didn't have a chance, that no one was on my side. I had created that situation by telling none of my supporters. I could fight other people's battles, but I was impotent when it came to fighting for myself. I surrendered. I sent a telegram to "withdraw my application for membership" in Johnson's court; he wasted no time preparing an order:
Upon the motion of Donald A. Jelinek, presented to this court this day by telegram, it is ORDERED that the name of said Donald A. Jelinek be and it is hereby removed from the roll of attorneys admitted to practice before this court.
A week later, I finally called Tony Amsterdam, who was very upset that I had never discussed it with him. He told me that I am screwed and this could be real bad. "You're accused of fraud before a federal judge who can certainly bar you from his court, which can result in you being barred from all the other courts in the South state and federal and possibly even get disbarred in New York." This is very scary, very scary.
Tony comes down to meet with me and says, "The lawsuit concerning your right to practice here is dead. You can't be the test case Plaintiff because we named Judge Johnson's court as one of the courts you're admitted to. You would have to ask them to remove it, the whole story will come out and you'll have no credibility at all. And it's too important a case. I'd recommend against it."
Bruce: Recommend against...
Don: Against going ahead with it . . . with me. And Tony says he has another recommendation that I'm not going to like: "I think you ought to leave the South, because you may be heading to prison. You can't take on Johnson, who just got his face on the cover of Time Magazine as the best civil rights judge in the South. They got you on all sides and there's no telling what's coming out of the water next." And I said, "No, no, I can't."
But I was considering leaving; first, however, I had to deal with two execution cases.
Don: On the eve of first meeting Judge Johnson, LeRoy Taylor, a 20-year old black laborer had 72 hours to live and, although I didn't know it, I had two months left as an ACLU civil rights lawyer.
Taylor was charged with "Pushing and holding the face of a 7-year old black girl] under water, whereby she was drowned. He had a 7th grade education and was engaged, off and on, in pulpwood work. He had no criminal record except two misdemeanor offenses for public drunkenness. After the drowning (which he did do), Taylor was assaulted by two brothers of the now deceased girl who suspected that Taylor had killed their sister earlier that day."
After the beating, the accused slipped away and went to his uncle who brought him to the police and then left him there. This was before the days when police were required to advise a suspect of his right to counsel the police advised him of nothing, provided no counsel, and proceeded to interrogate him. The next day, still without counsel, confronted by two witnesses who saw him with the girl (but did not see any foul play), Taylor made a full confession. Speedy justice then commenced: crime, confession, indictment, arraignment, examination by three mental illness experts, trial, verdict and sentenced to death all in 41 days.
Judge Johnson had this case on federal "appeal." He found that the confession "was made freely and voluntarily," and not as a result of police pressures. Johnson dismissed Taylor's petition and remanded him to the State of Alabama for execution in the electric chair.
Right before the first Johnson-Jelinek-Conley meeting, a member of Taylor's family approached me to try to save his life. I met with my client on November 9 to get his signature on papers for a stay of execution on the grounds of that old standby: no blacks on the juries. A few hours later I was in Conley's office explaining why he should sign these papers even though this was not, strictly speaking, a civil rights case. Then we went to the federal court to get Johnson's OK for me to practice in his court ... and for the alleged Supreme Court "admission" discussion. (One can only wonder if Johnson knew at the time that I was again meddling in one of his cases.)
To my untrained mind, the Taylor I saw in Montgomery's Kilby Prison was loony. He had no explanation for the heinous crime he had committed, and gave me little to work with. Afterwards I began a series of intense telephone conversations with the sentencing judge.
"When is all this to end?" the State judge complained. "He's already been to your Judge Johnson, what more do you want?" What I wanted was a stay of execution and a new hearing. After many days of conferences and warnings [by me] that I could get to the U.S. Supreme Court in hours, if necessary (quite a bluff), the Judge agreed to stop the execution if the papers were delivered to him that night: a three-hour drive.
The only person on my staff available for the drive was a woman with faulty night vision . . . and it was a stormy night. In response to her fears, I brusquely advised her that we were here to die if necessary, and if the price was too high for her, she should pack now. She delivered the papers and few on my staff talked to me for a week. (After the papers were signed, I had nightmares like I had had earlier this time involving Taylor that he would die because I forgot to get the papers signed.)
A stay of execution was signed that night, 72 hours before the scheduled execution. A new trial hearing was set for December 13 and the new execution date for a month later.
But on December 12, the day before the hearing and a week after I resigned from Johnson's court Conley wanted no part of me; he refused to appear the next day for the life-or-death hearing. He called the local judge for a postponement (for me to obtain new counsel) but the judge, quite appropriately, refused because I had subpoenaed many witnesses, mostly jury commissioners, who all "disrupted their schedule for this hearing." Conley hung up and said he wouldn't go. I yelled, "You have to go and that's all there is to it. Just walk through the door with me and then leave, but if you're not there, I'll be challenged and our client will die." I thought Conley had reluctantly agreed.
On the morning of the next day, I arose at 5 a.m. to be at Conley's office by 7 to have time to drive to Talladega by 10 a.m. But Conley refused to go, and no amount of my begging and threatening could move him. Instead, he sent a telegram to the judge that
BECAUSE PHYSICAL EXHAUSTION AND PRESSURE OF WORK PENDING SEVERAL MONTHS IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO BE IN TALLEDEGA TODAY ...
To the press he later added, "I was not aware I had to go up ... this was not on my schedule."
After hours of a heated argument and by the time it was too late to get there on time I telephoned the judge, apologized in cryptic terms for Conley's absence and begged him not to send a man to his death because of these logistical problems. The judge informed me that he himself had gotten out of a sick bed to come to court and he would not postpone the hearing. In my absence, he dismissed our petition as "groundless and baseless and ... not made in good faith." As further grounds, Taylor was brought in to testify that he didn't know the contents of his own petition. Execution was confirmed for a month away; newspaper headlines read "Attorneys Miss Death Hearing!"
Bruce: That's pretty outrageous, I mean, Fred Gray wouldn't do it? I know, he was Mr. NAACP but . . .
Don: Before this time, SNCC was already attacking the black lawyers in Alabama. And, I must admit, so was I. I had no friends among them, and nobody would work with me. I even told them, "Look, he can fire me from the case? I don't have to be his lawyer." "No," I was told, "it's your case." Nobody would help him . . . or me.
Rejecting the option of killing Conley, I tongue-lashed him and then began the search for another lawyer, no small problem with my reputation and status in Alabama. Then, I remembered a letter I had received from Erskine Smith, the white chairman of the Alabama State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, thanking me for testifying about ASCS at one of his hearings. I assumed it would be futile to ask a white Birmingham lawyer for help; if Chuck Morgan was frightened, why should this actively practicing Alabama lawyer be willing to help? But what could I lose? So I asked him to return the favor (of my testifying at his Committee) by associating with me for this one case. To my amazement and relief, he accepted.
With less than a month to go, having lost the no-blacks issue by default, I scrambled for another theory. Although I was looking for a civil rights theory,I kept coming back to the fact that I knew Taylor was crazy, despite the three mental health professionals who found him sane. I re-read for the tenth time the judge's appointment of three Talladega doctors, each expert "in mental and nervous disorders." This time I read it out loud to my secretary; she casually remarked, "Who would imagine they even had three shrinks in a small Alabama county." I looked up suddenly, as did she, in a chorus of, "Oh, no, you don't imagine ..."
We had imagined exactly right: the three doctors were neither psychiatrists, nor psychologists, nor anything but M.D.'s who had taken a required course in "mental and nervous disorders" in medical school. Further, we learned that each had spent no more than 15 minutes for their entire examination of Taylor. An insane man was being railroaded to the electric chair. Within hours, I had the finest psychiatrist/neurologists in the country flying to Kilby Prison to examine Taylor. The doctor found his patient to have been in an "acute psychotic episode at the time of the acts charged against him (and that) he lacked understanding of the nature and quality of said acts." Further, he found that Taylor was also probably incompetent to stand trial.
I prepared a series of appeals up to and including Judge Johnson: I then left the case with lawyer Smith with little more than a note from me as compensation:
I am sure by now you are neglecting the work that supports your wife and children for a case no one else wanted to bother with, for which you probably will receive gratitude only from this grateful writer.
Bruce: Taylor really wasn't a civil rights case, it was basically a murder case.
Don: Yeah, these are cases I wasn't supposed to handle, but, on the other hand, you know if you're helping organize people, you do what people need. Then there's a second execution case. Did you know that in Alabama robbery warrants the death penalty?
Bruce: I remember that there were some kinds of robberies that could get the death penalty.
Don: He had a weapon, but a weapon is not needed to be sentenced to death. This is a constitutional issue, cruel and inhuman treatment a big story in the papers every day. Again, this is pre-Johnson and my "Supreme Court Status." People are asking me if I am going to get involved because the guy is black. I say, "This is so high profile, the big guys will come in for sure." And then it's three days to go, then two days, and I call an NAACP lawyer. I said, "This is your kind of case, the type you're working on right now: death cases. Aren't you interested?" And he said, "Yes, we are interested, but, unlike some, we don't solicit cases when we're not asked, no ambulance chasing here."
Bruce: Unlike some. [Grin]
Don: Yeah, nobody asked them to take the case. So I make the rounds of all the organizations, I call the President's Committee and get the same answer. I go to everybody. "How could you resist a case like this?" They could resist it. It turns out no one is going to represent him except a long-time ambulance chaser. So I go to Kilby Prison, pretending the visit is to see LeRoy Taylor. I tell a guard, who I've gotten to know, "I got another client here, and I'd like to see him too. Maybe first, since it will be short."
So they bring out Edward Boykin, Jr., a black man, who robbed a drugstore at gunpoint. In an apparent attempt to frighten those being robbed, Boykin fired a shot into the floor which ricocheted into a little girl's leg.
Boykin is a garden variety criminal. I say to him, "I'm a civil rights lawyer, and I can save your life, just sign here." And he signs, making me his lawyer.
Boykin had pled guilty the evidence was overwhelming and, to everyone's astonishment was sentenced to death. The death penalty sets in motion an automatic appeal to the Supreme Court of Alabama. But no attorney was appointed or volunteered to prepare the appeal. (At a later stage in the case, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Potter Stewart asked Boykin's then-lawyer why the appeal stage lapsed; the answer was "... the State had refused to let a Civil Liberties Union attorney argue the appeal, apparently because he was not a member of the Alabama Bar.")
The local courts barred me again, and again I went searching for a local lawyer. Through a recommendation from Erskine Smith, I located another brave, white Alabama lawyer, Graham Gibbons from Mobile, and together we stopped the execution. On his own, Gibbons went on to win a landmark victory in the U.S. Supreme Court. Henceforth, "Boykin" would become a lawyer's household word for the proposition that the record must indicate that an accused had intelligently and knowingly pleaded guilty with full knowledge of the consequences. In other words, you have to know that there was a death penalty, which nobody had mentioned to him. And so it's a very famous case. I cited it myself when I relocated to California.
Bruce: You know what you ought to do, we could put it on the website. In your spare time, because I know that you just lay around drinking mint juleps all the time, [grin] somebody should put together a list of all of the cases that grew out of the civil rights movement that either made law or are still cited as important precedent today. In other words, that helped shaped the body of law that we live under today. There's probably a dozen or more cases that shaped the legal world we live in that grew directly out of the civil rights movement like the Boykin case. That would be interesting to have on the website.
Don: OK. I promise to do it in my spare time. [laughing]
Don: I was summoned to Mississippi for a January 2, 1967 conference, which I suspected was to reassert the Boss' control and to praise me for my accomplishments of recent months. The Boss and our New York head, Henry Schwartzchild, were waiting for me in the main office. I became apprehensive when I was asked to close the door. My concern was heightened when the Boss began a flattering evaluation of my six-month stint as head of the Alabama office. Then he came right to the point: "I have no choice but to remove you from your post, but," he halfheartedly added, "you can work for me here in Jackson, if you wish." He asked if I wanted to know the reasons for my discharge; in a dazed state, I assented, writing down outline notes as if I were back in law school.
The overview was that I was a "gangrenous arm" jeopardizing civil rights lawyers in the South; that I must be excised for the greater good. Specifically, (1) because of my SNCC connections, including giving SNCC-like statements to the press and allowing SNCC leaders to use ACLU resources, the office and living quarters; (2) because ACLU is dramatically losing money, and it's all connected to me . . .
Don: Most immediately, because of my high profile in Stokley's case in Selma. Stokely, by now, is the Malcolm X of the civil rights movement; at this time, he actually has a higher profile than Dr. King, because of Black Power. Every time he and I come out of the courthouse, national TV is there, and every night I'm on national TV while Stokley is asked about Black Power and Israel and ACLU loses contributions;
(3) that I've become a "wild man": irrational, unprofessional and excessive; (4) because I have been jailed in the Forman trial and during the Dick Reavis case; (5) that I was unreliable in my representation of my Alabama clients, especially LeRoy Taylor, who I "left to die by missing a court appearance"; (6) that my credibility was suspect over what happened in Judge Frank Johnson's chambers; and (7) finally, that I had compromised my effectiveness by alienating almost every civil rights person of consequence in the South: Chuck Morgan, the middle-class black leadership, Bruce Boynton, Chuck Conley, Judge Johnson, Judge Thomas, and the Alabama Bar Association.
The Boss added that he had been negotiating for the charges against me to be dropped if I "agree to leave Alabama."
I attempted to answer the accusations, but other than the LeRoy Taylor accusation, I felt guilty as charged.
"How long do I have? I asked. "A month," they both responded in chorus. I walked out and walked down N. Farish Street for the last time . . . at least as an ACLU lawyer. I met old friends, but suffering from that liberal disease the "greater good" I didn't tell anyone in Mississippi what had happened. I wouldn't hurt the ACLU Southern operation by attacks on them.
When I returned to Selma, I told my Alabama staff and the SNCC workers, all gathered in my office, that, "I've been fired." Every sound stopped in the building as civil rights workers poured into my personal office and listened to the details. SNCC would begin picket lines outside the Mississippi, Louisiana, and New York offices of ACLU, and would refuse to use their legal help, lawsuits and more . . . and spread it to non- SNCC'rs.
Bruce: Why did they want to picket and protest?
Don: Because I am being tossed out.
Bruce: As a protest for firing you?
Don: Yes. They knew it had a lot to do with them . . . if not almost everything.
Bruce: Wait a minute, I thought at this time SNCC didn't like you because you were white.
Don: No! No! No! That had passed on that first day in Alabama and it was barely so then.
Bruce: What about the gun to your head?
Don: Most of the Atlanta Faction did not represent the ideals of SNCC they were a fringe group of SNCC, many of whom were thrown out soon afterwards. I stayed at SNCC offices whenever I was in Atlanta, ate there with them, socialized with them everything I did was with SNCC. I spent every day with SNCC people.
Bruce: So you're saying that the gun incident was really with these crazies from the Atlanta Project, who were then later expelled from SNCC?
Don: The greatest reaction against the gun episode came from SNCC, far greater than anybody else that I spoke to.
Bruce: Was Rap in your corner?
Don: Of course. Rap was never anti-white. All through this Black Power period he was always part of integrated groups.
Bruce: So anyway, SNCC wants to picket ACLU for firing you.
Don: Yes, and I asked them not to and, as they so rarely did, they accepted my bad advice: for the "greater good." SNCC had the power and the moral force to reinstate me; I lacked the fight to cooperate.
I made a telephone appointment with a psychiatrist I had seen in New York. I told him what was happening and he said, "Of course you should leave. You may be going to prison and/or be disbarred. Are you crazy?" he said, as we both started laughing at his inappropriate language.
Tony Amsterdam came down no, actually he paid for me to fly up to Pennsylvania and spend a couple days with him. He said again, "You really should leave the South. You're in too deep now and you're not going to survive this. Also you have no money to do any work."
It was in this period then, following the two execution cases, that I came close to a nervous breakdown. I had ulcer pains, my whole body was sick. I was irritable, I was fighting with my own sweet staff I was in terrible shape. I was like someone with Parkinson's Disease. I couldn't hold a knife or fork without dropping it. And everybody, especially the Medical Committee people, were saying, "You got to do something, you got to do something." And finally, desperate to escape from all this, I asked Tony what kind of deal I can get. Tony says to me, "You can get everything."
By January, 1967, I signed a stipulation which dropped the test case, represented that I was leaving the employ of ACLU, and leaving Alabama "at this time," that I would not practice law "illegally" in the state courts of Alabama, and that all charges against me would be dropped. I insisted on a qualifier letter that nothing in the stipulation prevented me from practicing in the federal courts of Alabama. There were other more private rewards for me. I received a writing from Judge Johnson that:
. . . there was a general misunderstanding and so far as he is concerned, Attorney Jelinek was never a member of the Middle District of Alabama and was never disbarred . . . . In the event the Bar Association of California or any other state were to inquire of him (Judge Johnson) concerning this matter, he would be happy to explain the same."
Bruce: All the problems gone? The charges for illegally practicing law in Alabama? And the grand jury? And Frank Johnson will sign a paper repudiating that you have done anything wrong. . . .
Don: That's right. I say, "OK, I'm leaving."
I still had to face my clients, who weren't surprised that I would protect myself when necessary and were generous to me in their goodbyes. SNCC bitterly blamed it all on ACLU, but Shirley Mesher cursed me for selling out.
On February 27, 1967, after two months of barely functioning, I left Alabama for a new life in California where I had chosen to relocate. Six days earlier, the ACLU Louisiana head was arrested for the unauthorized practice of law. The "gangrenous arm" had spread, or perhaps our timidity encouraged the Louisiana Bar Association. The Boss insisted that ACLU would return to Alabama, but ACLU never did.
The final word was that of District Attorney Boggs, who had arrested me in the Reavis case. My FBI file quoted his answer to the question why he dropped the charges against me:
"... the main thing we wanted to do was to get rid of him and we did."
I had two very close friends in San Francisco, but I didn't want to go there directly, in a way because that was my final destination where I was never going to come back to the South. And so I stopped off in New Mexico where I had many former-lawyer volunteers, and I kind of worked my way across the country, volunteer by volunteer, telling everybody what happened. They kind of stroked me and helped me. When I got to San Francisco, I spent a lot of time in the sun, just calming down and eating well.
Within about three weeks, my strength returned and I decide I'm going back. At this point, I made contact with Victor Rabinowitz, a New York attorney and one of Fidel Castro's lawyers. I told him everything that had happened to me and that I need some seed money to get re-started in Selma. He provided the money. Then I called Tony, who had signed all these papers about me leaving. "I'm coming back." Tony says, "Holy shit, I can't even guess what the ramifications will be. What are you planning to do?" I said, "I don't know, but I'm coming back. Will you represent me when things come crashing down?" He agreed. I could always count on Tony.
Also, I had earlier spoken at a National Lawyers Guild Convention in New York, before the lefty lawyers, like Kunstler. Rabinowitz' wife, Joanne Grant, liked my speech and added it to her book, Black Protest. (I love the book jacket because it say's "included are the writings or speeches of W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey . . . Martin Luther King . . . and others." Now I was an "other" behind this esteemed group.) But the significance was that I had a larger group that I could call upon for money and help.
So I come back, but first I contact Stokely. I told him that I made a mistake when I called off the SNCC protest the last time. "Your case is coming on," I said to him, "and I think ACLU should pay my expenses to come back, the costs of the trial, and pay me some money now and through the trial, which was beginning in a month.
SNCC pressed it and ACLU agreed. Then to my delight, Stokley's case was postponed for three or four months. So I'm on payroll all this time while I'm getting re-started.
I began the Southern Rural Research Project (SRRP) in April of '67, with Kathy Veit, who, besides being just a magnificent human being, was/is very beautiful. She had worked for me as a volunteer when I was with Selma ACLU and I had appointed her to be in charge of the Bokulich, "responsible" black jurors survey. Once Kathy was on board and I don't know how I could have functioned without her we were off and running.
I went to the people in Atlanta that I had worked with on the ASCS case, particularly Jac Wasserman of the National Sharecroppers Fund, an old white-bearded 1930's radical from the thirties. I told him I plan to gather evidence about ASCS, plus other government programs, and I need help. Jac was elated, complemented me for past successes and said, "With you now doing this full time, there's no limit to what we can accomplish."
I was distressed because I was deceiving him. All I wanted was to finance an outpost in Selma without ACLU that would allow me to continue my work with SNCC, now stepping with more than one toe into perilous Black Power, anti-Israel militancy. But I would come up with something so that Jac would not be too disappointed.
He took me in hand and said, "The first thing you need is a name for an organization." I tried a few, but they all sounded like communist front groups one even had the initials COUP and he says, "No, I'm going to give you the most boring name imaginable." A few days later we met and he lived up to his threat. The new organization would be called: "The Southern Rural Research Project (SRRP, pronounced Surp)." After I protested and he finished laughing, he announced, "Now we're going to get everybody on your Board." And he did: Vernon Jordan of the Southern Regional Council, the National Urban League, the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), Dorothy Cotton of SCLC, of course, SNCC and others.
I met with Stokely and SNCC friends and I told them my plan: to begin a series of "Canton-type" cases in the area surrounding Selma and use a political-legal approach to organize the people, while getting results in court. And that I'll have money again to help out. They all were enthused.
I became Director of SRRP, Kathy Veit was Associate Director. Our logo was a black farmer with a hoe, looking up into a yellow sun. (That sun required two colors and an extra expensive printing run, which we could little afford, but I decided the gamble was worth it.) Our mission was stated as:
SRRP is not fighting for the right to vote, the right to go to the 'white' school, restaurant or motel, nor for the right of civil rights workers to demonstrate, SRRP IS FIGHTING ONLY FOR PEOPLE TO HAVE A LITTLE FOOD, MEDICAL HELP AND OTHER BASIC ESSENTIALS OF LIFE.
The FBI wrote us up as the "most recent organization which has come into prominence . . . the Southern Rural Research Project."
Bruce: Well, whatever you did was "in prominence."
Don Jelinek. Then, the FBI added us to SNCC and SCLC as . . .
ORGANIZATIONS THAT APPEAR TO BE OF A POTENTIAL [SIC] DANGEROUS NATURE ...
Don: Kathy and I agreed that we needed bodies, a summer program. So we put ads in the "Village Voice" (of Greenwich Village) and similar media. About 20, 25 people came down, and we screened them carefully. . . and accepted them all. Then we had an orientation with Wasserman and Rap and Stokely, Vernon Jordan, Dorothy Cotton, everybody came to it.
Bruce: And they were coming to just work on your normal legal cases, or was there actually a research aspect?
Don: Yes and No. It started as a shill research project. Having done this stuff already (the Bokulich "reputable" jurors survey), we decided to expand it to many areas of concern: health, food, federal agriculture programs, and much more.
Now my whole idea was that I would have these volunteers go out and spend their time doing this, I'd take in money and then do the stuff I wanted to do and meanwhile turn out something of interest. I never dreamt that we were creating something rather important; it never entered my mind that this was real. To make the survey look legitimate once we had all the questions down, which were hundreds and hundreds of questions, by all these special interest groups: civil rights nonprofits I went to Tuskegee University, where it was turned into a professional questionnaire. They worked it down and down and down until it was, I think I mentioned, it could be asked in about five or ten minutes.
Bruce: Now, you were interviewing only black, or black and white?
Don: Only black. We eventually interviewed a large number: 1800 heads of black households.
Bruce: That's a big sample. Only in Alabama?
Don: Only in Alabama, in a big circle . . .
Bruce: Around Selma?
Don: Yes, a circle around Selma.
Bruce: Yeah, the Black Belt counties around Selma.
Don: That's right.
Bruce: And they could answer hundreds of questions in five minutes?
Don: Yes, well, it would still be over a half hour since you had to eat and chat and answer questions about the Movement. But it was 5-10 minutes of answers, because by then it wasn't hundreds of questions; it had been stripped down, and most of the answers were "No," to so many things. Do you have this? No, do you have that? No, have you ever been . . . ? No.
Don: As we started, a strange thing began happening from a SNCC perspective; SNCC's organizing broadened out to people we could never reach before. The reason was SNCC agreed we were now talking about matters that were of more immediate interest to them. Not just integration, but food stamps, farm programs, health, food, and the fact that we knew the "agriculture" language made them think even better of us. SNCC was doing very well and we were signing up people for various things.
Bruce: There's an old-school technique of organizing that starts with that kind of survey Alinsky used it often it's a known thing.
Don: Really. We went the other way, of course the whole Movement started...
Bruce: Yeah, the other way.
Don: By this time, SRRP was also doing lawyer things, but I was getting very strong feelings, as the results were coming in, that we were sitting on top of a keg of dynamite. The answers were astonishing: no fresh meat - 25%; no fresh milk 30%; no fruit - half. 18.5% never ate eggs at all; 12.7% of the women had a pregnancy in the past five years without prenatal care; 20.4% of rural Negro babies received no medical attention whatsoever.
And, of course, 95% never got loans from the USDA Farmers Home Administration, 75% never got information from the USDA Extension Service, and three-quarters had never even been visited by the home demonstration lady of the USDA. As to USDA cotton allotments, if any money was received at all, the payments were much lower than white farmers with comparable acreage . . . and two-thirds entered the 1967 farm year in debt from the previous year.
This is happening at the same time that Bobby Kennedy has gone to Mississippi to see the extent of poverty, and the same time that Robert Coles and his group of doctors have gone to the South doing medical and psychological examinations.
Bruce: And Harrington's "Other America" had been published, which basically covered the same territory.
Don: That had been published during Kennedy's lifetime, so it was by 1963.
Bruce: When you say "Kennedy" do you mean Jack Kennedy or Bobby?
Don: I meant Jack Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy had come down to Mississippi; Jack Kennedy had read Harrington and spoke about it often when he was still alive so I can fix it [publication of "The Other America"] at 1963 or earlier.
Bruce: Right, so your survey is confirming that the situation Harrington reported is still the same?
Don: That's right. What was different was that Harrington didn't limit it to one racial group. His book is immortal.
We interviewed 1800 heads of households, a significant sample representing more than 10,000 persons. Tuskeegee determined that the "data was sound" and chose 898 cases from four Alabama counties for analysis. Nothing prepared me and other veterans for the results of the survey. I had lived here almost three years, I spent a lot of time with sharecroppers, lived with them, ate with them but I never saw or looked hard enough to see what our survey showed. In hindsight, we didn't have much dealings with the poorest, who stayed away from us, not able to handle the repercussions.
It was the largest in-depth study of black poverty and deprivation in Deep South history. The survey showed:
A typical home is an unpainted three-room wood frame shack housing 3-5 adults and 8-12 children all of whom sleep in three or four double beds. The floors and ceilings remain in disrepair along with loosely fitting wood shutters for the windows, all of which accounts for continual dampness during the rainy season and severe cold during the winter. Cooking and very limited heat are provided by a small wood-burning pot belly stove or open fire place.
Black farm families are hungry. The vast majority of black farmers, whose limited income is used up before winter, are typically forced to eat in a day the following: Morning Grits. Biscuits & Coffee; Noon Meal Vegetables, Kool-Aid, Cornbread (Usually no noon meal after the harvest season); Evening Meal Vegetables (sometimes with pork parts mixed in), Cornbread, Kool-Aid.
Free Surplus Commodities, when available, provide a limited supplement to the few vegetables grown in the family garden, but when free food in a county is replaced by food stamps, many of the poorest families cannot afford to buy the food stamps and are left with no government help for food. Even those who have borrowing power fall into further debt in order to purchase the benefits of the food stamp program.
Nearly 25 percent of the black farm families interviewed ate no fresh meat of any kind. Another 25 percent ate meat only once a week.
Fresh milk was not used at all by 30 percent of the households that were interviewed.
Fresh fruit never appeared in the diet of nearly half the black farm families interviewed.
18.5 percent never ate eggs.
12.7 percent of the women questioned who had/had a pregnancy over the past 5 years had received no prenatal care. Two-thirds of the rural Negro babies were born at home with the aid of a midwife.
During the first year of life 20.4 percent of rural Negro babies received no medical attention whatsoever.
The vast majority of black farmers fear the employees of the Federal farm programs, a situation which results in a low level of eligible black participants. The black farmer, conditioned by years of experience, views the farm program employee as the Southerner who calls him "Nigger" "Boy" and "Uncle." The black farmer knows that if he goes to one of the agency offices, he will have to wait on a long line and watch while the white man is attended to as soon as he enters; the black often leaves with no help. He also knows that if he angers the local agent with his persistence, his credit with local merchants may be cancelled.
The ASCS cotton allotments and subsidy checks for blacks are lower than those for whites or there is none at all. FHA loans for the purchase of land, equipment and the improvement of farm buildings are virtually unavailable for blacks, and the rejections are rarely recorded. The county agent of the Extension Service, whose job it is to pass on information acquired at the federally supported Land Grant Colleges, rarely does so for black farmers.
Two thirds of the black farmers interviewed ended the 1967 farm year in debt. 95 percent of the farmers never received any help or advice from the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) County Committee. Over 95 percent of the farmers had never received any help or advice from any member of the Farmers Home Administration (FHA) about loans they might apply for. Three quarters of the black farm households had never been visited by the home demonstration lady.
This data, when digested, would dominate the balance of my work in the South and eclipse all the work I had done to date.
Don: I grew up in the Bronx, in New York City, hating and at war most of the time with the Irish Catholics up the hill; they felt the same way about the Jews down hill usually they won the fist fights.
I never expected that one day I would be living in an Irish-Catholic Rectory with almost a dozen Priests, who I think of today as the finest men I ever met. And living next door to the many nuns the Sisters who I thought of as my own beloved sisters. This was among the most extraordinary experiences I had in the South. It began with a tip about an assassination plot against Stokley and I, and the Church invited us for the night, as "sanctuary." I stayed a year.
These unsung heroes of the Selma March were the Fathers of St. Edmund, Roman Catholic priests from Vermont who provided the only integrated Catholic church in Selma, and perhaps in the entire rural Deep South. They also provided the Selma Civil Rights Underground a little- known command post for the Selma March.
The Society of St. Edmund was founded in France in 1843 in an effort to reassert the religious faith of the French people in the years following the French Revolution. The Society took its name from a 13th Century scholarly English priest, whose ideals left him destitute because he gave all his worldly possessions to the sick and the poor. His actions earned him the position of Archbishop of Canterbury; his demands for justice, including the rights guaranteed by the recently re-issued Magna Carta, led to his fall from political grace and voluntary exile. Six years after his death, the Pope canonized him as a Saint. Six centuries later, the Society of St. Edmund was formed in France, where he was buried.
In 1901, after many years of anti-clericalism, the French government enacted the "Laws of Association," which required government approval of all religious communities wishing to remain in France. The Edmunites refused to recognize the government's authority over them and fled to Montreal, then northern Vermont. The Society established schools and hospitals, while serving as peacemakers and befrienders of the poor.
In the 1930's, Pope Pius XI urged religious orders "to work among the colored"; Archbishop Thomas J. Toolen of Mobile, Alabama invited the Society to come to Alabama for that purpose. On January 22, 1937, the Society agreed to "establish a colored mission among the colored population in Selma [who are] among the most abandoned population in the country . . . ."
Archbishop Toolen genuinely wished for a better life for the Colored in his state, but he could only imagine a more desirable segregated life. To the Archbishop, "saving the Negroes" had referred mainly to their souls, but when the Fathers saw the separate but very unequal schools, the lack of medical facilities and generally total neglect, they became very practical. They called for other Edmunites to come down, they invited the Sisters of St. Joseph from Rochester, New York to join them, and set in motion a church, school and hospital for the blacks. Not unlike the Archbishop, they did not set out to tear down the fabric of segregated society; in fact, all the facilities they set up were segregated as required by state law. But as they served the black community, they achieved an affection and a trust which would be called upon when the civil rights days began ... but that was three decades away.
The Fathers, merely by their presence within the black community, became the enemies of the white community. Fearing for their own safety, a knock on the door of their home would be answered by one priest holding the leash of a german shepherd and the other with a loaded shotgun. The Archbishop had warned them of danger, and related the story of an Alabama priest performing the marriage of a Catholic with a Protestant; the latter's father shot and killed the priest . . . and was later acquitted.
Keeping as low a profile as possible, the Edmunites lured the Baptist blacks to their Catholic church, though a number of priests told me that the significant size of their flock reflected an appreciation of the works of the Society more than a belief in the Holy Trinity. But that situation was acceptable to the Fathers themselves, whose purpose was more to help than to convert. As one priest confided to me: "We were somewhat short on prayer and contemplation, long on active involvement in human affairs."
For 26 years, the Fathers endured the hated Jim Crow system, the lynchings, the nightriding KKK, the humiliation of their flock and the occasional threats to themselves. They were also aware that the Archbishop could banish them as easily as he invited them; they suffered "a great human hurt" when their first black priest was excluded from a national Edmunite convention in Birmingham because Police Chief "Bull" Connor warned that the "nigger" would be arrested on sight.
In 1960, Father Maurice Ouellet (pronounced, Wah-let) was assigned as Pastor of the Edmunite church in Selma, working in the tradition of his predecessors. In 1962, he met Bernard Lafayette, a SNCC worker, quietly attempting to establish a base in Selma.
Bruce: The Church and Bernard met before the Selma March?
Don: Correct. You're surprised. There was a major connection with Bernard, who, according to Father Ouelette, radicalized his church, which then provided enormous resources and invaluable introductions to Bernard.
Father Ouellet told me the story in 1977:
I met Bernard outside the church one morning. He told me that our young people had told him that I might help him, that he was with SNCC (though I didn't know what that meant at the time). I invited him inside and we talked for many hours and then for many days. He taught me that we should meet the needs of our parish, that we could spend all our time supplying bandaids, but if we didn't get to fundamental rights, we really weren't helping. He asked for a location for Voter Registration training; I gave him our facilities.
I was called before the [Selma] City Council, accused of organizing . . . and asked to leave the city. "If you don't leave," he was told, "someone is going to shoot you and there will be nothing we can do about it." Afterwards, I was called before the Grand Jury, called a Communist and told that I was using the church to prepare people to fight violently.
Around the fall of 1964, when Dr. King was brought to Selma, SCLC had their own organization and usually met at [the black Baptist] Brown's Chapel. Our church was the meeting place for SNCC and the U.S. government [separately]. I didn't trust the FBI, but I was very impressed with the Justice Department man, John Doar.
Father John Crowley, 38, arrived in Selma a half year before the March. Crowley was "worldly" before he took his vows, had spent two years in the Navy and traveled overseas to see the world and study philosophy.
Two nights after arriving in Selma, Crowley watched Sheriff Jim Clark arrest a woman outside his church and saw black teenagers from the church dance come out to protest. "Before you knew what was happening," Crowley told me, "Clark sent out an emergency call and soon the whole church block was surrounded by his posse. The Sheriff asked me to close down the dance and started to chase the kids. I told him, 'They're only children,' Clark wasn't deterred but calmer heads prevailed and Clark backed off. That was my initiation to Selma."
The momentum that would lead to the Selma March was beginning as Crowley arrived. A local state judge had issued an injunction forbidding civil rights groups from gathering publicly in groups of more than three. Besides blocking the voter registration drive the intent of the injunction! the court action led to arrests and defiance of local authority. This was the event that spurred Mrs. Amelia Boynton and others to ask Dr. King to bring his forces to Selma, to take on the volatile Jim Clark and expose Selma to the world.
The first major protest took place in January of 1965 with 67 violent arrests. Hundreds more followed. In the midst of this crisis, Father Ouellet required kidney surgery and, while recuperating out of town, Father Crowley filled the vacuum. To Southerners, the Edmunites even in the presence of Dr. King remained the symbol of all that had befallen them. Hate calls and death threats were rampant; one Selma resident told the local paper that because his name looked and sounded like "Ouellet," he was being "plagued with phone calls by anonymous callers who blare out profanity at me and my family ... I have nothing to do with his activities."
A few weeks later, Dr. King was behind bars. When he was released, Father Crowley arranged for Dr. King to visit the Edmunite hospital, attend a testimonial luncheon in his honor and receive a plaque for his contribution to the rights of Negroes. But Crowley was disturbed that the whole nation was watching Selma, but there was no local Catholic voice speaking out; the Archbishop was silent and all the other Catholic churches in the state were segregated.
Crowley made a decision that eventually committed the country's Catholic establishment. He purchased a $400, full-page advertisement in the Selma press. The statement was calm and dispassionate, every fiery word excised in anticipation of an eventual showdown with the Archbishop, who was not shown a copy in advance.
The February 7, 1965 ad, "The Path To Peace in Selma," proclaimed that the Edmunites' support of the black struggle was consistent with and essential to Christian principles: Jesus Christ clearly points it out to us. He tells us that
. . . on the last day . . . He will turn to those on His left and say 'I was hungry and you gave Me not to eat. I was thirsty and you gave Me not to drink. I was in jail and you visited me not.' And they will say to Him: 'Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, in jail? If it had been You, surely we would have helped you.' And He will answer them saying, 'when you refuse it to the least of my brethren, you refuse it to Me'."
Six days after the ad appeared, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a local black, was shot point blank in the stomach by an Alabama State Trooper during a peaceful demonstration. He was rushed to the Edmunite hospital in Selma where he died. The slaying triggered off greater demands, which ended in plans to march from Selma to Montgomery, to carry the message of integration to the Governor.
Ouellet recalled: "When the March was imminent, word came from Archbishop Toolen forbidding clergy to participate in any demonstrations. I never disobeyed him, I never took part in a single demonstration. . . . I was encouraging my Parish to participate but I couldn't be there. . . . Once as I was starting to march, people told me not to. 'We don't want to lose you, don't jeopardize your presence here.'"
One Northern minister explained emotionally: "I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King was calling for white ministers to come and march, and I am a white minister. You can say I heard the Macedonian call. We heard the call of God from Selma and we came."
In the midst of the religious [pilgrimage] to Selma, Cardinal Richard O'Boyle one of the most powerful and liberal Catholics in the United States was approached by two of his priests, who asked for permission to answer Dr. King's call. Succumbing to the emotion of the moment, O'Boyle agreed, but after the two priests left, the Cardinal realized he had broken hitherto sacrosanct church custom, the crossing of diocesan lines without the Archbishop's permission. Worse even, Archbishop Toolen had already forbidden his own priests to participate in the March, no Catholic priests were to march in Selma.
O'Boyle attempted to cancel his permission, but the two priests could not be located deliberately, some believed. But word of O'Boyle's original permission spread instantly. Word reached the head of the National Catholic Interracial Councils, who was, at the time, residing in the Edmunite Church in Selma. He then called every major Catholic clergyman in the country and said, in effect, "O'Boyle says it's okay, how about your diocese?" The response was overwhelming: a defiance of the Archbishop and the sanctity of the diocesan lines.
Catholic priests and nuns from all over the country joined their counterparts of other religions as they poured into the Selma Edmunite Church, which had become the "staging area for an assault on the entire structure of ecclesiastical opposition and resistance to involvement of Catholic clergy.'' None asked permission of Toolen.
The Edmunite church and hospital were made available to those who could march. The Clergy slept on mattresses laid on the floor of the Edmunite Hospital. Being obedient to a Bishop and at the same time trying to be faithful to their social conscience was a conflict few of the Catholics present had ever before experienced. By the time they left Selma, religious disobedience was added to the philosophy of civil disobedience. (Some became famous as the "Catholic Left.")
Three months after the march, Archbishop Toolen banished the Edmunite Pastor from Alabama because of Father Ouellet's civil rights activities. No further explanation was ever given. Toolen merely said, "I don't have to give any reason, I just want him to leave."
But Ouellet understood. He told me, "The Bishop received a lot of flak over me, State Troopers were always following me with cameras recording wherever I went, but more significantly, he felt I was destroying his life's work, to establish a true separate-but-equal life for the Negro. Toolen told me, "You are going to get killed if you stay and I don't want a dead priest in the Diocese." The Society considered a mass exodus from Alabama in protest, but realized that their parishioners would be the major losers, so they stayed. Father Ouellet was appointed novice master in recognition of his good works.
Father Ouellet believed the Church had forever changed. Vatican II, [in 1962] had opened the door for social change for the church, but Selma was different. It was real life, not philosophy. Clergy began speaking up for what they believed, dealing with their own conscience, saying what they were thinking. The church was at its best in Selma.
Two years after the March, Father Crowley offered Stokely and I sanctuary in the Church.
Bruce: Did they know you were Jewish?
Don: Not only did they know, but Father Crowley remarked that with a black priest and me, they now achieved the civil rights Holy Trinity: blacks, Jews and Catholics: the Klan's three most hated groups. We talked a lot about Jewishness and Catholicism, why they went into the priesthood, their lives in the Church . . . and my early experiences with Irish-Catholics. And they provided SRRP the resources we needed.
Bruce: . . . and you lived there for a year?
Don: Yes. I stayed on, like the "Man Who Came to Dinner." Father Crowley kept telling me there was "no rush" for me to leave and the other priests gave me an "Amen." By staying there, I obtained a different form of sanctuary than the kind I was originally offered: rest and contemplation. Once entering the Rectory each evening, I was cut off from staff, clients, SNCC and girlfriends. They could theoretically call or visit, but it was an intimidating place to just drop in. So I had time to think, read, make plans, and simply relax. Dr. King believed that all in the Movement should spend some contemplative time in jail; I would add that living in a Rectory can serve the same purpose . . . but jail is usually easier to arrange. [Grin]
After about a year at the Rectory, I met Estelle, my wife-to-be, and mentioned to Father Crowley that I didn't suppose they could handle my living there out-of-wedlock with a Jewish divorcee. Crowley confirmed my suspicions. So with great regrets and wonderful memories, I moved a mile away, still visiting and dining with the Edmunites so long as I remained in the South.
Don: On the eve of the first Black Elections in November, 1966, Stokely had been charged with "Inciting To Riot" for his Black Power soundtrack speech and one-man picket line. Now, in June, 1967, the federal hearing to stop the state trial was to begin. On the morning of the day before the hearing, a friendly Justice Department attorney telephoned me to say that Carmichael and I are marked for assassination, possibly that night, but probably the next morning as we walked up the steps of the federal courthouse in Selma.
This is when the Fathers of St. Edmund offered Stokely and I sanctuary in their church. Like the Three Little Pigs: our home was made of wood, theirs of stone.
I had had a number of threats before, so I asked the JD man how reliable was the information. "Very," he assured me, "This is inside information." Then he asked if I could call off the trial until the recently-heightened enmity (brought on by my subpoenaing Selma's leading officials to the trial) died down. I found myself paraphrasing Dr. King: "If we ever show fear," I said, "we'll be threatened every time we schedule a court hearing and never be able to attend a trial again."
I alerted Stokely, who called Atlanta for SNCC "action," the details of which I was never told. The next morning I left the Church, grateful to be alive. Stokley never showed up that night, so I met him at my office.
At my request, to make a good impression on the three-judge panel he and I were always fighting over dress for court he agreed to wear a suit. Stokley always wanted to come in jeans, SNCC garb; I always wanted him to wear a jacket. We had the same fight time and time again. I'd point out that he wears a suit or a sports jacket to church on Sundays, he'd say it was out of respect for the church, so anyway . . .
Bruce: When he gave speeches he often wore a suit.
Don: Yes. But he was saying I have no respect for the court. And I said well, that's fine, but this time, I added: "They're planning to kill us. Think of all the money you'll save your family and friends on the funeral. They won't have to put a suit on you, you'll already have one on. How about this one time? I'm a nervous wreck already about the threat. Please wear a suit this time."
He said, "All right, I'll come formal" and he did, but it was a suit (in those days) seen only at African conference tables: a Dashiki with a cap [photo]. (I would have to fight all day for his right to wear that cap in court for "religious" reasons.) It was his show of bravado in anticipation of the walk up the steps where we were to be shot; we decided to walk together. I had never seen African clothing except in the movies. My recollection is that dashikis were not then popular, I had never seen an American in a dashiki.
Walking to the steps, I told Stokley, "I got this feeling like there's a bulls eye on the back of my head that's sizzling, I can feel the circles burning into my head. This is so bizarre, I actually can feel the bulls eye." I once again asked Stokely if he was as frightened as I was. I could tell he was but he gave me his big grin, glancing up at the tall buildings overlooking the courthouse. If this was an implication of SNCC riflemen on the rooftops, I didn't want to know. I was too busy waiting for a Klan sniper to blast my head to bits. But nothing happened and in moments we were safely inside the courthouse. You can't imagine how good it feels being alive when you thought life was over. I took a deep breath and announced, "Ready for the Plaintiffs."
I reminded the court that we were charging deliberate harassment in the midst of a political campaign, harassment that violated our client's and the people's rights under the Constitution and the new Voting Rights Act. I then calling as witnesses local officials who were not accustomed to a real court, not controlled by local politicians. Even federal Judge Thomas, who considered Stokely and I a menace to his world, kept reasonably quiet while the other two moderate judges attempted to hold me down as I ripped apart the pretenses of the arrests.
The trial had a dual purpose: to win, of course but also, to hold each Selma official up to ridicule in the eyes of those who had been terrorized by them for generations.
The policeman with the too-ready shotgun was certain he hadn't pointed the weapon at the crowd to intimidate them but then he sat speechless as Kathy unveiled a poster-size photo of him in flagrante delicto, pointing his shotgun. He sat in the witness chair frozen as I asked over and over again, "How do you explain this photo? HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THIS PHOTO? HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THIS PHOTO?" Finally one of the judges, showing mercy on perjurers, suggested I move on to another issue. The audience, menaced by this man for many years, roared with laughter. From this moment on, neither he nor any of the witnesses who followed him were certain which photos we did have, and virtually the entire true story came out of the mouths of the accused policemen.
The next witnesses were city engineers and my own staff with their tape measures and charts to demonstrate the great size of the street in question, and how one sound truck could not possibly block traffic the initial charge. An exasperated judge We get it, We get it, his face said indicated that I had made my point.
Finally, the Mayor of Selma was forced to take the stand. In an incoherent manner, he explained how a one-man picket line incited a riot that never occurred, how he learned of a planned riot while at a gas station but didn't call the chief of police because he was off fishing. The audience was convulsed with laughter, "The Mayor's a clown," one stage whispered.
If it was a prize fight, the referee would have thrown in the towel, but since it was a lawsuit, the judges could only hurry me and resent me for the magnitude of the humiliation I was inflicting on respected public officials. As Judge Thomas snarled, Stokely passed me a flattering note comparing me favorably to the best of his nationwide attorneys; I glowed with pride.
I concluded with a fiery speech as the case ended.
[The decision would come four years later; almost a record for delay. The court waited until SNCC and virtually the entire civil rights movement had left the South before they ruled that Stokely could not be tried in this frame up, because, as we insisted, the law under which the SNCC defendants were charged, was unconstitutional. Alabama's Anti-Riot Act which provided for prosecution of acts
calculated to . . . outrage the sense of decency and morals or . . . violate or transgress the customs, patterns of life and habits of the people of Alabama" could never be used again.
Bruce: The statute that they invalidated had that line in it?
Don: That's right, and they'd been using that law forever. But interestingly, Stokely's actions of yelling "Black Power" exactly does fit that definition: It did "outrage [their] sense of decency [and] transgress the customs." No wonder they felt he was guilty.
Bruce: Very true.
Don: I can only guess that it took some judicial politicking to convince Judge Thomas to participate in a unanimous ruling for Stokely Carmichael. The tradeoff may have been the unexplained removing of Stokely as the lead plaintiff, thus changing the name of the case to Taylor v. City of Selma. Despite the lack of a riot, much less the incitement of one, the court gratuitously added a postscript, "Freedom of Speech does not give license to incitement of riot."]
Bruce: Had you solved your problem about working in the Alabama court?
Don: No, but I was already admitted in this federal court. Of course, they could pull that plug at any time except that Frank Johnson said I'd done nothing wrong but apparently they were so surprised that I'd come back, and with my new respectable persona, they didn't take me on . . . until Prattville.
By July of 1965, as the War in Vietnam was escalating, a black soldier, who had been active in McComb, Mississippi in the early voter registration days, was slain in Vietnam. The McComb freedom movement issued an anti-war statement that set off shockwaves in the U.S. Congress. It said, "Negroes should not be in any war fighting for America . . . until all the Negro people are free in Mississippi."
Six months later, SNCC formally opposed the War in Vietnam. As soon as the word hit the streets, massive attacks from the U.S. Congress, right-wing organizations and other civil rights organization began while contributions tapered off. Eventually, a constitutional crisis erupted as ex-SNCC member Julian Bond was denied his seat in the Georgia legislature for supporting the SNCC position. (The U.S. Supreme Court later reinstated him.) The impact of the anti-Vietnam statement, later endorsed by Dr. King, caused multiple problems for SNCC, but had a positive impact on the anti-war movement in the North.
Then came an anti-Israel position. For me, as a Jew, the first hint of it began a month earlier while Stokely was being tried, as Israel stood poised for what-became the Six Day War. During lunch recess during the trial, I discussed the Middle East with Stokely, Rap and others from SNCC. I was expecting them to share my enthusiasm (and fears) for Israel. I thought the Jewish nation was very much like SNCC: young, arrogant, uncompromising and out-numbered. I had never heard an anti-semitic word (even from the southern whites) since I'd been South. That was especially significant because most of the [white] civil rights workers were Jewish and most of the money was Jewish. In the Northern press were accounts of urban black charges that "Jew" slumlords and merchants in Harlem and other black ghettos were oppressing blacks, but I never heard a word of this in the South.
So it was a shock to me when my SNCC friends mildly indicated support for the Arabs. "But they may wipe out and destroy Israel," I protested. Stokely, the defendant on trial, cut the debate by mock-moaning, "Don't we have enough problems of our own here in Selma?" We all laughed and walked back to the courtroom.
I was walking alongside Rap Brown, when he suddenly began softly singing to himself, "Arms for the Arabs, sneakers for the Jews." "What's that?" I asked him. Rap was startled and owned that he was mouthing a ditty he used to sing-song as a student in Bogolusa, Louisiana. He was embarrassed: the ditty implied that Jews needed sneakers to run from armed Arabs. Rap apologized, but I assured him my school day ditties were none better and recited, "Eennie, Meanie, Minie, Mo, Catch . . . ." We all laughed it off and forgot about overseas as the trial resumed.
We won the trial and Israel won the Six Day War. . . and much changed. SNCC felt a sense of identity with the "black" humiliated Arabs and began to look seriously upon Israel as the enemy of black people.
SNCC formalized its position in the June-July, 1967 issue of the SNCC Newsletter. In an article entitled "The Palestine Problem," SNCC charged that Zionist imperialists were responsible for the permanent state of war between the Arab nations and Israel, that the U.S. Government staunchly supported Zionism for neo-colonial reasons because Israel served as a stepping stone for the U.S. into black Africa.
During my next trip to SNCC in Atlanta, I was shown a preview of the forthcoming anti-Israel position. I mildly asked if it was absolutely necessary because it did not involve local civil rights. Neither did the anti-Vietnam position, so my argument was futile. My SNCC friends empathized with my discomfort and assured me it was neither personal nor anti-semitic, though we all knew that such subtlety would be lost in the headlines. And it was.
Bruce: My recollection is different. The June-July, 1967 issue of the newsletter was the second anti-Israel article. I don't have a copy of first article in the previous issue, but my memory is that the article was accompanied by a cartoon depicting Israel as a pig with swastikas, $ signs, and stars of david on its flank. In my opinion as a Jew that cartoon was flat-out anti-semitism, and to any religiously observant Jew (which I am not) using a pig to represent Israel was particularly offensive, as were the swastikas. It may well be that the article itself was not anti-semitic, but the first thing people saw before reading the article was the anti-semitic cartoon.
The second, June-July, article which I do have a copy of was also accompanied by an anti-semitic cartoon showing a white hand labeled with a star of david and a $ sign. The hand holds two lynch ropes. One rope lynching an American Black and the other an Arab. An arm holding a sword labeled "Third World Liberation Movement" is poised to cut the two lynch ropes. The three-page article restated as true fact every allegation and assertion of the Palestine Liberation Organization against Israel with no indication that Israel and Jews might have some points to make in opposition.
I do agree that many northern Jews who had previously given financial support to SNCC over-reacted. But I also don't agree with the implication that the SNCC articles were completely free of anti-semitism and that the Jewish reaction to that anti-semitism was groundless and without any basis in fact.
And I think that I should add that many of the Jews who stopped contributing to SNCC continued giving money to the Civil Rights Movement in the form of contributions to SCLC, NAACP, SCEF, ACLU, and other organizations.
Don: I saw the anti-Israel text in advance, I never saw the graphics you describe (until you showed it to me in 2005). Had I seen it I would have been appalled. But even had I seen it, I would not have left SNCC. I was living in Alabama, in SNCC-country and I never had an anti-semitic moment with a SNCC member. My first-hand experience was disagreeing with the written political position about the Middle East, which I debated regularly with Stokley, Rap and many others. But most important, SNCC still had a major role to play in the South which, is in part, why Dr. King never condemned SNCC: not after Black Power and not after the anti-Israel statement and SCLC lost funds when it did not join the big anti-Black Power ad in the NY Times.
So, I'm sure you would agree that one who disagrees with SNCC about Israel should not leave and walk away from local blacks who had jeopardized themselves over SNCC campaigns in the past. Though as we both know, some Jews felt to the contrary.
From the day the story was released, I never held a serious discussion outside the South without having to explain SNCC's position and why as a white man and a Jew I did not refuse to cease aiding the anti-white, anti-Jew organization. Publicly, I supported SNCC's right to their political position (adding that I disagreed), but the result for SNCC and SRRP was a further diminishing of the small trickle of money we were receiving for our work.
For me, it hit closer to home. I was called a Judas by the few New York friends I still maintained and my parents reminded me that "THEY [Negroes] have always hated Jews." When I visited my parents, they arranged to not have me around when others were present. I was now in the unenviable position of being the civil rights white to justify Black Power, and the civil rights Jew to justify the anti-Israel stand.
Across the country, the SNCC message lit a fire under the exiled white (mostly Jewish) civil rights workers who still remained loyal to SNCC. Having returned to their urban areas, they had faced the "honky" issue as they tried to relate to the new militant blacks. When the Israel issue emerged, many young white radicals "proved themselves" by "sacrificing" their heritage where they could not sacrifice their whiteness or middle-class advantages. Soon white militants were leading the anti-Israel campaign, a situation that exists to this day among many on the left.
As to local blacks in the South, they were neither anti-white nor anti-Israel. Nothing changed among the sharecroppers, but it was not so in the black urban areas. By 1968, the right-wing, Jewish Defense League would assemble outside New York's Temple Emanuel to battle with SNCC leader James Forman, who threatened to disrupt the services to demand reparations for blacks from Jews.
Eventually, a friendly judge in New York wrote me to say that I was burning my bridges back home, that I would not be able to practice law in New York if I did not walk away from SNCC. Perhaps I could survive Black Power, he wrote, but not an attack on Israel. I wrote back, sincerely thanked him for his concern but said I could not leave. (When I finally left the South I heeded his warning and relocated to the West Coast to practice law.)
In late May of 1967, Stokely decided not to run again for chairman of SNCC, and was succeeded by Rap Brown. A few weeks later, on June 11, 1967, Kathy and I were visiting a professor couple at Tuskegee, who had worked on our survey, when a call came for me. It was Lowndes County SNCC leader Johnny Jackson.
"Don, we're trapped in Dan Houser's home in Prattville, a whole army's outside shooting at us," he yelled into the phone. I could hear gunshots in the background. "We're all going to be killed, Atlanta says you're the nearest. Don, try . . . "
The phone went dead. I quickly turned on the radio and heard a bulletin that martial law had been declared in Prattville, near Lowndes County, and that Stokely Carmichael had triggered off a riot. The phone rang again. Johnny told me that he could call out, but no calls could come in and his phone has been cutting off suddenly. He repeated that the house was surrounded and that I should do something. I said I would try.
I immediately called Atlanta SNCC and was told that carloads of blacks were leaving from five different points, but it would be hours before the first group arrived. Then a second call came in that I thought would be Johnny. At that point, I talked to a civil rights leader I will call "Richard." [For various reasons I am using pseudonyms for certain people.] And he starts to tell me the basic information that Johnny had told me. "Richard" sounded frantic and says although they are doing things, they are too far away, that nobody is closer than I am. He says that the place is surrounded on all sides by the National Guard; while others do the shooting, the Guard is keeping everyone out.
Bruce: The Guard was a circle and inside their circle were the shooters and in the center is the house?
Don: That's exactly right. Richard wants me to drive there and deliver a message to the National Guard Commander which I'll get to later. I said to him, "I won't have much of a chance of surviving if I do that." He replied: "No one there has any chance if you don't." I said, "I'll leave right away." Richard wished me good luck. I told the three, the Professor couple and Kathy, what was happening and what I had to do. I told Kathy I didn't want her to come with me to Prattville, but she insisted on going to my relief. I was very frightened and wanted her company, but I didn't tell her about the message I was to deliver.
Bruce: That's about an hour's drive, right?
Don: Yeah, right, but the way we drove in those days: 45 minutes.
I later learned the details of what had led up to the siege; the source was the written decision of who else? Judge Johnson from his court action concerning these events:
At 3 pm on Sunday, June 11, 1967, Stokley arrived in Autauga County to speak at a Prattville churchyard assembly of close to 100 black members of the local County Improvement Association. One of the major grievances of the community was the death of a local black, shot in the back, allegedly attempting to escape from the city jail. Prattville Policeman Kenneth Hill had fired the fatal shots.
At the Assembly, there was some singing, some short talks and then Stokely began to speak. The following notes from a reporter who was there accepted as accurate by Judge Johnson show an angry Stokely, talking of yet another murdered black man, no longer comfortable in a non-violent role:
"Stokely Carmichael (speaking to crowd): We advocate that all black people get some guns and learn to use them. The only way to get Kennedy [sic] Hill off force is to organize the black power in this area and use your guns. (Troopers drive by.) Black Power. (The Troopers are three in one car.) Black Power. (The driver passes, turns around and drives by again) Black Power (The driver reverses the car.) Black Power [Stokely sees the shooter, who killed the black man, is in the car.]
Kennedy [sic] Hill: (Pointing his finger at Carmichael as he hopped out of the car.) Listen you. You don't go 'round shouting and going on, hear?
Carmichael: Would you like to speak to me? I'm Mr. Carmichael.
K. Hill: I don't give a damn who you are! You've got no business shouting like that.
Carmichael (to crowd): You know, the only time black people are allowed to meet without interference is to pray and to dance. Whenever black people get together for any other reasons, the hunkies [sic] get scared and come out to beat and kill us.
K. Hill: Shut up, boy, cause I'm the law around here.
Carmichael: Take off that tin badge and drop your gun. I'll show you something, hunkie.
Hill: You're threatening me?
Carmichael: Do you want to arrest me?
Hill: No, we don't want to arrest you. Our job is to protect the people.
Carmichael: Just drop your tin badge and that gun, hunkie. (Then to crowd) These hunkies want to send us to Vietnam to fight the Viet Cong . . . . Our war is right here in the United States of America, black people!
(More policemen came. One of the first policemen radioed for more)
Carmichael: From now on, its going to be an eye for an eye, a toot[h] for a toot[h], and a hunkie for every black man killed!
Hill: You're under arrest!
What happened next is taken from the testimony of a 16-year old black girl, whose testimony was also accepted as accurate by Judge Johnson:
At this point Carmichael was placed in a police car. When a local woman spoke up for him, Stokely said, "Well, that's right, Baby," and Hill struck Stokely, while he was in the police car. Hill then grabbed a camera from the reporter and a tape recorder from a radio announcer, roughed them up, destroyed their equipment and proclaimed, "No publicity!" Stokely was then taken to the jail, which was the site of the killing of the local black.
Approximately 30-45 persons headed for Prattville leader Dan Houser's home to discuss the arrest and plan a response. Then there were shots, which "came toward Mr. Houser's house, and we ran into the house and laid on the floor."
According to Johnson's evaluation of the evidence,
From this point on [4:20 pm] until about 2:00 a.m. on Monday, June 12 [the next morning], Prattville, Alabama, literally became an armed camp. . . . Numerous members of the Alabama State Troopers arrived; all available deputies and special deputies for Autauga County were called into active duty, and in the early part of the evening of June 11, Sheriff Philip Wood, through the Governor of the State of Alabama, had a contingent of the Alabama National Guard sent to the Prattville area.
Kathy and I stopped for gas, about a half hour from Prattville, when a news flash came across the radio: "Stokely Carmichael has been lynched in Prattville!" I ran to the men's room, vomited and then ran the water as loud as I could to drown out the sounds of my sobbing. Gaining control, I walked out, paid for the gas; as I drove towards Prattville, I told a red-eyed Kathy, "I think I'm going to get killed tonight." Then, suddenly calm, I gave her instructions about how to continue the work, how to use my death as a weapon against the USDA and for fund raising purposes adding, pettily, for her to be sure that ACLU didn't make money over my dead body.
I drove as we talked and saw the traditional, bullet-ridden, city limits sign, used by passing motorists for target practice. Then we saw the roadblock, a wooden barricade manned by two National Guardsmen, looking as young and innocent as I did when I served in the Guard. One pointed his rifle at us while the other flashed his flashlight into the car. Identification was demanded. Instead I bellowed at them, "I'm Stokely Carmichael's lawyer and, if he's dead, you're in serious trouble. I demand to see your Commander immediately!"
They were momentarily confused by my apparent authority, and while they lost the momentum, I slowly opened the car door, keeping my arms visible, and stepped out, while telling Kathy not to move a muscle. The Guardsmen said nothing as I exited, but when I stepped on the ground, my knee buckled and I fell. The one with the rifle cocked it, apparently believing my fall was a maneuver for me to open fire at them. I immediately reassured them that I had fallen over a rock and rose very slowly, hoping they would not guess that fear had buckled my knee. Again I demanded their Commander. When I got up, they patted me down and one said: "What do you want from him?" I gave Kathy the nod and she took the wheel and drove off.
I said, "I have a message for your commander" and I gave his name: Lt. Colonel, whatever.
Bruce: How did you know the name?
Don: I had gotten the information from "Richard." And I said to them, "It concerns the safety of the Colonel's wife and two children." The guardsman hesitated and I said, "I think that if you don't call him and something happens to his wife and children, he will take it very badly that you didn't give him this information." He departed, leaving his buddy in charge of me.
In a short time, the Commander, in military green, approached me, glaring; I said, "I have a message I am to deliver to you from" and I named "Richard" by his real name. I gave his real name to the Colonel and a phone number where he can call him and verify what I am saying. I said "Richard's" message is this: Your wife is named such and such. You live at such and such address. Your children are named such and such. (I had this all written out.) They go to the following schools and they are in the following grades.
At this point I paused, almost unable or unwilling to finish my message: "Your wife and children will be killed if Stokley or any of our people die tonight!" Goodbye, life, I thought. And then, in a pathetic attempt to stay alive, I added, "This is not my message." I said this is not my message, to emphasize I am just the messenger (Don't Shoot The Messenger!), that this is not really me saying this.
He stares at me and says, "How do I know any of this is true?" And I say, "Well, I've given you his phone number. Call him and hear it directly from the person who gave me the message. Or, do you want to just wait and see how it plays out? Or do you want to do what know you are lawfully bound to do anyhow: let our people out of that house"
He says the blacks are doing the shooting. I say I will go to the house. He says, "No, we won't let you go to the house." Then just tell them I'm here, I said, and I'm sure they won't "shoot" anymore. "You got to let them out. And you got to take them to the jail. Everybody has to be put in the jail. Nobody is to go free."
Bruce, you know, of course, that civil rights workers have been killed when left out in the open after an incident . . . or even upon leaving jail. "Everyone goes to the jail, and if Stokely is truly dead, as I heard on the radio, then it won't make any difference what you do." (This was a stupid thing to say; if Stokley was dead, why should he bother to let me live and let the others out.) He says, "He is not dead. I don't know where that story came from. He is not dead!" So he leaves me and tells the two Guardsmen to keep me there.
Later that night, according to the Johnson decision, the Sheriff, on a loudspeaker, promised safety to the group if they left the house. In a few moments, I heard the shooting stop and I heard someone yell out something with my name.
Bruce: The Guard was not shooting. It was the police?
Don: Yes, the police. Ten to twelve blacks were arrested and all but Dan Houser were taken to the county jail; Houser was brought to the City Jail where "he was severely beaten about the face, head and body, either by Prattville police officers" or with their knowledge and consent. Johnson noted that a "large group of hostile white people" were allowed to congregate night and morning near the jail.
Then the Colonel comes back and says, "What now?" I tell him that I want to see Stokely. He says, "Not possible." I don't want to push it too much, so I say, "Alright, then I need to talk to him on the phone, to verify that he is alive." (Nowadays, this is called "proof of life.") And Stokely eventually is on his phone, this walkie-talkie, the old kind of cell phone, and I say, "Stokely, you okay?" He said, "Yeah, why?" He had no idea any of this was going on. I told him this is not the time to talk. "I will talk to you at some other point" and he says all right. I tell the Commander that I am going to drive away now, but in about half an hour, I will call the jail and I will expect to speak to Johnny Jackson and he will tell me everybody is there, safely. Well, one of them wasn't OK.
Bruce: Wait a minute, you mean after they came out of the house they beat him?
Don: No. I call the number they had given me to call. I speak to Johnny Jackson and he tells me everybody is alright except Dan Hauser, who was severely beaten in the jail and might lose the use of one eye.
Kathy and I returned from Prattville to Selma and joined with a SNCC contingent to hear that the last of the group were safely out of the house. We all embraced at the successful culmination of this very tense evening. The next morning I was in the City Jail hugging a very alive Stokely, who now was aware of the news of his death.
The injured Houser was released without charges. When Stokely appeared in court to answer charges of Disorderly Conduct, I was sitting next to him at the counsel table. But thanks to Amelia Boynton, her son Bruce and Chuck Conley, I was now barred from all the state courts. Everyone in the courtroom knew of my pledge to not appear as a lawyer in state courts, but I sat down at the counsel table with Stokely anyhow. He says, "Don't speak. It is good that you are here. You are making a statement. But don't speak and give them grounds to arrest you." Then Stokley told me to whisper in his ear, pretending I am giving him advice as if he doesn't know what to do. So I followed his lead.
Bruce: What do you mean pretending? You were, weren't you?
Don: No. There was no advice needed. You plead not guilty and ask for bail. There is really nothing to do. He didn't need a lawyer, that's what I meant. He got out on bail the next day. After that, life went back to what-we-called normal. And that was . . .
Bruce: . . . a day in life of a civil rights lawyer.
Don: Really, it wasn't much lawyering.
Bruce: Yeah, well, civil rights lawyers were asked to do lots of interesting things that didn't take place in the courtroom.
Don: The Bar Association quickly called my ex-Boss to ascertain if it was all beginning again and he immediately checked with me. I assured him that this was a one-shot matter that would not happen again. I never stepped foot in an Alabama state court again. Word came from Atlanta that many on the SRRP board were considering resigning: I repeated the message that I had given to the Boss. No one resigned.
Judge Johnson, on the facts of the siege, despite the almost mass lynching, the beating of Houser, the assault on press people and no evidence of a single black committing an illegal act, Johnson concluded: "the fault lies on both sides." Johnson elaborated:
This court unequivocally and emphatically condemns any advocacy of violence or the use of violence at any time, and particularly in connection with activities that are ostensibly designed to secure full rights of citizenship to members of the minority race.
Then and only then, Johnson equally condemned
. . . the excessive use of force or power, or any brutality, on the part of police officials. Even though the use of the term "black power" offends the sensibilities of many citizens, both white and Negro, it cannot justify the action by and the conduct of the several members of the Prattville Police Force on June 11, 1967.
Without evidence of any kind, the Judge judged that:
. . . this Court is convinced that, after the meeting had been disturbed by the officers without sufficient justification and had been removed to Dan Houser's residence, after the initial shots were fired and in response to the illegal and 'high-handed' conduct of the city officers, some of the Negro citizens who were there in attendance armed themselves with shotguns, rocks and other weapons for the purpose of harassing, and did harass, on the night of June 11, the police officers . . . ."
Then following the precedent he set for the Selma March enjoining and restraining the Marcher-victims Johnson enjoined both sides from engaging in illegal conduct.
Bruce: I had not heard that story about the house, and the surrounding and the shooting. I have to tell you that I think you did great. But the whole reason we use non-violence as a tactic was to avoid those kinds of situations. Trying to pick a fight with the cop, leads directly to these kind of things. You know me, I have been an advocate of nonviolent tactics.
Don: Yes, but things were really out of control at that point. If the cop himself who shot the unarmed black in the back had not shown up, it would have been different. He deliberately provoked it.
Bruce: A provocation, yes, exactly.
Don: Yes, putting Stokely beyond his limits.
Bruce: But the whole point of nonviolent tactics is not doing what they want us to do. When they provoke us, if we do what they are trying to provoke us to do, we play into their hands. We play their game, by their rules, where they hold all the cards. We win by doing what they don't want us to do.
Don: I don't agree in this instance. Also, this was the beginning of a new era; this is when Rap takes over and nonviolent "tactics" are going out the window.
Bruce: That's right, which is a decision I still disagree with.
Don: I don't think Stokely was where Rap was; he just lost it that night and within two days Rap was calling for violence.
Bruce: Right, which I think was a big mistake. But what was the court decision about?
Don: Those in the house sued the police for an injunction and damages.
Bruce: So, the court records you talk about are the records from that case.
Don: That's right.
Don: Rap became Chairman of SNCC in May of 1967, a month before Prattville. Prior to that, he was the kind of guy who was always in trouble. He had a girlfriend who called the police because he was berating her, carrying on in the house. The Selma police called me and asked me to intervene. They didn't want to get involved in this. And so I went over there and dragged him out to our house.
We each had a dog. His was named Sapphire (after the wife in Amos and Andy, the popular show taken off the air because some said it belittled blacks); mine was named Bokulich.
Bruce: Your dog was named Bokulich, the same as Paul Bokulich, your client?
Don: Except as Christians the Bokulich's were furious, it was sort of sacrilegious. And I said . . .
Bruce: To name a dog after them?
Don: Yeah, it's kind of like worshiping idols, I guess. And I said no, because he's named after the Bokulich case, not named after you at all.
Bruce: Oh, you sly lawyer you. [Grin]
Don: So Rap and I were always competing with the dogs: Could Sapphire jump, fetch, return, race as fast as my Bokulich? Almost never, so Rap would wrestle me to the ground for Sapphire's honor, usually emerging victorious, and then the dogs would jump on top of us. We had a lot of fun.
I never took Rap seriously as a "heavy," and when he was made Chair of SNCC, I was startled. I didn't see him that way. It was like Truman following Roosevelt. It didn't seem like he had the gravitas, as they say these days. I think that's how one feels when a peer rises above you.
I was very wrong: The new Rap Brown was a deadly serious urban black who was coming into his own and would soon overshadow Stokely as the torch bearer of Black Power for militants all over the nation. The famous Rap Brown emerged in Newark, New Jersey on July 20, 1967 at a National Conference on Black Power. He was only one of many firebrands, but from there he drove to Cambridge, Maryland where he told blacks, "If America don't come around, we're going to burn America down, brother." Rap was shot by a deputy sheriff; later the black section of town was in ruins. Brown was charged with Inciting to Riot.
This began a series of speeches and arrests until he was charged 14 times in 14 parts of the country. His was not the intellectual appeal of Stokely Carmichael, who had the wit of a young Malcolm X. Brown spoke to the ghettos and raised the fears of a young Malcolm X, when he famously proclaimed: "Violence is as American as cherry pie!"
Rap struck a raw American nerve, and ghetto dwellers listened to this new leader who took the early days of civil rights, the nonviolence of Dr. King, the Black Power of Stokely Carmichael, and moved the Movement to a place it had never been. The impatience of the ghetto provided him with receptive audiences.
I hadn't seen Rap for six months during the time he had become the nation's new bogeyman . . . except briefly, when he would visit me to comply with his bail restrictions not to leave New York "except to consult with his attorneys." In this manner, he was able to "consult" and travel all over the country.
Now he asked to see me in Atlanta. We met in a black restaurant. Rap rose to embrace me and then introduced me to two black FBI agents: "Meet my escorts," Rap told me, and we all four laughed. He introduced them to me by name and said, "They're great guys who are stuck with this assignment. They follow me everywhere, but it's not their fault." I shook hands with them, as they stood up to greet me.
Bruce: They must have been some of the first blacks hired. It was only a couple years earlier there had been no black agents, only Hoover's chauffeur and butler.
Don: Yes. They had to be real new ones. Rap told them, "Don and I are going to talk for a while, so you can order a full meal. We won't be running out." They thanked Rap for telling them. And he said, "After that, I'm going to go [here and there]."
Bruce: So these guys were ostensibly following Rap, he wasn't traveling with him as guards to ensure he returned for trial?
Don: No, they were following him, and accounting for his whereabouts. It's known as an "open tail." So we sit down, we reminisce, talk about the dogs and everything. Rap finally says, "The reason I asked you here is that I will not be able to see you again. Unlike Stokely, I'm traveling in a different circle now, and I can't have any contact with whites. And so I wanted to say goodbye and thank you for everything," and that was that.
Bruce: That was very courteous of him.
Don: It certainly was and very gracious. Ironically, I could have seen him again, because he was at Attica when I was handling the Attica cases.
Bruce: He was serving a sentence at Attica?
Don: Yes, for robbing a liquor store, which ostensibly was a vigilante operation against drug dealers in Harlem. Kunstler represented him. He was convicted and was doing time in Attica while I was defending the prisoners at Attica.
Bruce: This was after the Attica Uprising in 1971?
Don: Yes. My clients had all been moved to another prison, nearby at Auburn, but I was forever visiting Attica to look over this and that, and I could have seen him easily. But I kept thinking that I got my duties to the prisoners and to put anything else in their path Rap's reputation was more obstacles. In hindsight, I was wrong, I've always felt very bad about that.
Bruce: But you think he would have been willing to see you after he asked you not to?
Don: Things were different at that point, I have no doubt I would have been welcome.
Don: By 1968, the Southern Rural Research Project had turned into a vigorous, working, functioning organization with Kathy overseeing a staff of four permanent. There were money troubles, notoriety, including headline trials involving Stokely Carmichael and Paul Bokulich, agriculture litigation, SNCC meetings and arrests which I could no longer handle if they involved the state courts consulting with a farmer's cooperative (SWAFCA), speeches to write and deliver, and overseeing the results of weekly visits to local agriculture and food stamp offices to register complaints and maintain our presence.
The FBI reported that:
WORKERS IN THIS ORGANIZATION [SRRP] APPEAR TO BE ASSOCIATED WITH SNCC [and ordered an investigation into SRRP's] SOURCES OF FUNDS.
I believe that they couldn't imagine how we accomplished so much with so little money, and they assumed that there were large sums of money . . .
Bruce: Oh, yeah, the proverbial gold bars delivered by submarine from Moscow . . . [Grin]
Don: Our not-so-secret sources of money were intermittent trips to Atlanta, from which we came back with buckets of money.
Bruce: Give a dollar amount to "buckets of money".
Don: $5,000 dollars. After a year, we had raised $16,500 to support 23 full-time and part-time workers (SRRP staff, SNCC members and weekly volunteers), cars, gasoline, an office and supplies. I was the highest paid at $20 per week.
Once I walked into our offices and found Kathy in tears. She wanted a new pair of shoes, she "needed" a new pair of shoes. She got her shoes (courtesy of a cash gift from the Church), but it was only a symptom of middle class deprivation suffered by expatriate middle class folks. I suffered least because I lived in the Church. Our economic highs came when the media or Northern supporters visited and dined us royally.
As the results of the survey were tabulated, I spent more and more time considering what we could do about starvation (technically, near fatal malnutrition). Every plan I came up with had serious flaws or, we could not finance it.
I decided to take a few days off and visit the Bokulich's pathetic one acre of land which I pretended to help cultivate. As usual, the mule showed his contempt for me by either refusing to move, or, when he did, shifting to one side so my plow would dig up the row I had just planted. In his spare time, the mule would also try to kick my dog, who was snapping at his heels to encourage more mule power for the project. By nightfall I was exhausted and took my shower standing in a little washbasin while Paul poured boiling water over me and Pat laughed.
Then we talked awhile and I settled down to read an article Paul offered me: "Food Stamps and Hunger in America" by Howard Thorkelson, a lawyer who had been one of my best volunteers. Thorkelson had been there when Stokely was arrested in Selma, had worked with me for 36 straight hours to prepare a brief in the ASCS case and now provided backup for us from his poverty law job at Columbia University. The thesis of his article was that the prime cause of hunger in the South (and elsewhere) could be ended by an honest implementation of USDA food programs. He placed the responsibility on the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who, Thorkelson maintained, could bring about a change if he declared the existence of a "national or other disaster" which apparently, to him, did not include "mass hunger and slow starvation."
Suddenly I had a plan. I threw the magazine up in the air and yelled to Paul, "I must talk to Howard now." Paul, exhausted, pleaded "It's after 10 p.m., it's almost midnight in New York, and the nearest phone is miles away." But I insisted, "I must talk to Howard now." Reluctantly, Paul drove me to a phone, where I called him, collect, waking him up and yelling, "Howard, your article is great. We're going to do it . . . you and I . . . in Washington, D.C. and do it BIG! Are you in?" Though he barely knew what I was talking about, he was in. The ideas were forming as I ranted: "Food Stamp counties, Surplus Commodity counties, No Food Program counties. We'll do it all, a full frontal attack, no holds barred. Start thinking and drafting."
Howard warned that his legal theories have never been tested. I said I took that for granted. This has to be legal-political, meaning we march through the front door, not tip toe through the back door and we get to do it first-class. With enough people making noise in the provide-food-direction, we could bring starvation into national focus.
So I quickly signed up SNCC, made a list of ideal test case plaintiffs throughout Alabama, and then I made another appointment to see Dr. King. And again, like the last time, in the what-did-you-call it, what kind of meeting?
Bruce: A Board meeting. Now this is late '67 we're talking about?
Don: No, we're in '68 now. Early '68.
Bruce: So it must be shortly before he was killed?
Don: Yes. As a matter of fact, the hearing on the case in Washington would occur on March 25th.
Bruce: And he was killed April 4th, right.
Don: Right. The next week I was in Atlanta at Dr. King's weekly staff meeting, the last time I would see him alive. Sitting in the same cafe as the previous meeting, I told him the plan, this time with specifics: I told him I had already met with Cesar Chavez, labor leader of the Mexican Farm Workers Movement, who was very interested; I planned to get test-case plaintiffs from the entire South, then Appalachia, then the West, American Indians, and so on; I would work with poverty program lawyers throughout the United States, while Dr. King, I hoped, would coordinate the political part. Like the last time, we would file in D. C. but this time we would stay. With housing set up that replicated sharecropper shacks, the poor would eat their usual food, and we would have renowned doctors examine them. The lawsuit would be the excuse, the real action would go on outside of Congress, with demonstrations and marches and speeches.
Bruce: You need to explain this because I'm not following it.
Don: I'm sorry. I'm getting excited as if it's happening now. This was to be a lawsuit to (1) force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide free and healthy! surplus commodities; (2) require a means test for the price of food stamps and (3) force USDA to order counties which refused to accept food stamps and surplus commodities (at no cost to them) to bring in the food programs.
Bruce: So you're addressing three issues. That many Southern counties refuse to allow food stamps or commodities programs as a way of retaliating against blacks, but that even in the places where the county was allowing the services in, the commodities were unhealthy and the price of food stamps was prohibitive to provide good nutrition.
Bruce: And all this in Washington?
Don: That's right. I told Dr. King that the lawsuit is not likely to win legally as opposed to politically; he quickly confronted me: "Have you told this to the people who you're planning to bring?" I said, "I've told some, and no one will be signed up until I personally explain this to every one of them." Then I added, "This fight is as basic as it comes, easier than cotton subsidies, which is so hard to understand. We expect to bring a woman whose baby died in her arms for lack of food. This is a very powerful case."
Dr. King said, "I like it." He wanted to hear a lot more, and he always did this and I really admired it he asked logistical questions about toilets, bail bonds, weather, money. I answered adequately, having learned my lesson from him the last time with the ASCS case. He said again that he likes it, asked me to talk with Andy Young that night, and give him a report in the morning.
I asked for a moment to discuss something personal with him; he agreed. I said, "In my opinion the rural work is ending, and I'd like to work with you here in Atlanta when this is all over." He said, "That is a fine idea; we should talk about details soon."
I met Andy for dinner and it was a disaster. He had already spoken to others in SCLC and they believed that the suit/protest can't only be for food; it has to include also welfare, medical care, jobs, housing, land, and more.
Bruce: The whole poor people's campaign.
Don: I said, "That will kill it. You got different agencies and different needs. One issue can actually succeed, but not with a potpourri of causes. I'm just vehemently against it; It will destroy the whole concept. If we ask for the world, we lose," I said to him.
"It must be all," Andy said. "Then I'll have to go it alone," I challenged. "We'll do it anyhow, it's a fine idea," he concluded.
I slept over at his home and the next morning we shook hands, but our positions were frozen in stone. My plan now would have to be scaled down to SRRP proportions while SCLC enlarged my plan into the "Poor Peoples Campaign." Their target date became early May, so I planned to get to D.C. first so as not to be overwhelmed by their grandiosity. (Andy Young later asked me to join the Campaign because, he told Kathy, I had originated the idea. I was convinced it would fail and I didn't join.)
Breaking with Dr. King on this issue and taking an independent path was not to my liking. When I saw Dr. King the next day, I said, "We couldn't agree on a plan," as if he didn't know all that had been discussed. I repeated that, "I thought the SCLC plan would fail." I added immodestly that SRRP can accomplish more by itself than "you'll accomplish in this whole operation; you didn't go over the Selma bridge asking also for better housing in Selma. It's just a mistake."
Gracious always, Dr. King offered his hand and wished me the best of luck.
Now SNCC and SRRP volunteers went through a large area with Selma as the hub, and signed up 32 heads of households comprising 258 people, including: the mother whose baby died from malnutrition, families who had to borrow the 50 cents to purchase food stamps, those who couldn't even borrow the 50 cents, families needing food because they earned so little living in counties providing the unhealthy surplus commodities, and counties that refused to allow any food programs at all. It took over a month to find them, explain what was going on, explain the dangers, document the extensive details of their poverty and then sign them up. We looked for a first name for the plaintiffs, like "Brown."
Don: Did you think it was a coincidence that the most famous desegregation case was Brown v Board of Education it's a lawyer's flourish to have the lead name tell part of the story. I found a farmer named "Orwitt Peoples," with an "s," the way our clients said "People," as in "The Peoples want freedom." And so the case became Peoples v. USDA.
The next obstacle was raising money. The problem was not because of Dr. King's non-involvement, but because of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy. "Bobby," as we all referred to him, had been very moved by what he saw in the South, and he had put together a food bill that was locked up in Congress thanks to the Southern committee chairmen. He wasn't yet able to get it through but was hoping to get it passed soon. He spread the word that he felt that what I was planning would destroy his chances the "wild man" concern because there would be some kind of riot or uncontrolled demonstration, or something else that would interfere with his ability to get his food bill.
He asked us not directly but second hand not to file the case, or, at least, to stay out of DC. Bring it in an Alabama court. Senator George McGovern joined Bobby's request. Soon the civil rights hierarchy was making the same "request" directly to me. Even my own Board, my own Board in Atlanta (et tu Brute?) said to me: "Bobby Kennedy asks you not to do it, so why are you doing it?" My wife-to-be said to me, "Bobby Kennedy thinks you're wrong, George McGovern thinks you're wrong, how come you always think you're right? How come you're so much smarter than everyone else?"
I was weakening under the pressure of the big names many who I greatly admired. Now I was opposing them as I had just recently opposed Dr. King. Was I just ego-mad? I had this long-time friend, Betsy Sanders from New York City: a former girlfriend now, a best friend. I called her and told her my dilemma; she says: "I don't know why there's such a problem. You are the one in the South, not them; you know every person involved, not them; no one else even knows their names. If you believe you're right, follow your instincts. Your opinion is better than all the rest. Just do it!"
Well, she really gave me the push I needed. I announced we were going, no matter what and somehow we'll get the money, or the people will go in their unsafe, dilapidated cars . . . and try to make it. Winifred Green, a member of our Board, staff with the Quakers, the American Friends Service Committee, and a good friend, was one of those hedging on the money. She finally said, "I'm not convinced but I'll bet on you." With her help, and my threat to have the people travel to their death? in their broken-down cars, if necessary, we raised the money one day before the due date to pay $3,600 for the busses. And that was nothing compared to what it would cost once we got there.
But once Winifred agreed, the others started giving trickles of money, and we got the money. I had read an article, "It Ain't True That Nobody Starves In America" and noted that four doctors had examined the Southern poor and filed a report. I recruited three of them to come to Washington with us.
The lawsuit proclaimed a Constitutional "right to live" in three parts, representing the three problems: Unhealthy Surplus Commodities, too expensive Food Stamps, and no food programs at all.
The Surplus Commodity (Free Food) Program, as the Government would always maintain, was an agriculture program, not a feed-poor-people program. Its purpose was to keep prices high by the Feds purchasing commodities not saleable at a decent price; an incidental effect was to offer these purchases to feed needy people. The Free Food was made up of starchy, non-nutritional foods: mostly beans, meal, grits, lard, flour and rice. Our suit maintained that our clients in the Free Food counties were starving to death, existing mainly on these inadequate starches.
We demanded that the Surplus Commodities paid for at federal expense consist of a nutritional diet pursuant to USDA's own nutritional standards. The eight plaintiffs in these counties averaged households of nine, each with income of approximately $110 per month. A typical day's diet for this group was bread and butter, coffee or water, rice, vegetables for breakfast; nothing for the noon meal; and corn, corn bread, greens and milk for the Evening Meal.
The Food-Stamp counties were theoretically in better shape because the people could purchase food of their choice for a reduced amount of money. This was a feed-poor-people program, designed to "raise the levels of nutrition among low-income households." However, the majority of black Alabamians could not afford the minimum purchase price of the stamps, and received no benefits. Many who did purchase the stamps did so with money reserved for doctors and medicines. We demanded free Food Stamps for the very poor, reduced (means test) rates for those that had to borrow to obtain the stamps, and free food to be brought into the Food Stamp counties as a supplement (which was allowed by law because of the emergency situation in existence at that time).
The sixteen plaintiffs in these counties averaged households of eight with an average income of $138 per month. Many of this group never saw a dollar bill or handled a coin. They existed on credit from their Plantation Owner which could not be used to buy stamps. One pathetically poor plaintiff lived with her six children in a frame wooden shack on $150 per month. She could not raise the $60 needed to buy the equivalent of $100 worth of food stamps due to high medical expenses. Her child, 6-week-old Chester, had died from the effects of cold and malnutrition. Her family's typical diet was: peas, rice, cabbage, greens, cornbread, water, and, at times, some pork parts.
The No Food Program Counties were un-masked evil. The food programs were free to the counties, but to punish blacks in civil rights areas, four Alabama counties refused to allow any food programs. We demanded that the USDA exercise their power to force the programs into these counties; the government maintained they lacked the power.
We signed up three representatives from one of those counties, Elmore. Those families averaged nine persons. One had no cash income, one had $50 per year, and the third existed only on Social Security. These were the "walking dead," as the doctors would testify.
I was now ready for D.C. The buses would leave in a week and I would fly four days earlier to get organized. As expected the massive publicity brought counter-reactions: evictions, threats to the plaintiffs, threats to the bus company, and even a direction from the federal Judge not to bring the farmers, because he would not allow them to testify as witnesses. He couldn't stop them from coming as spectators at a public trial, so I ignored him.
Before we left, my dog was murdered. A neighbor later told me he saw a car drive by and someone threw an object at little Bokulich. The dog jumped up for it and caught it in his mouth. It was a ball of hamburger meat laced with strychnine. Later that night I drove to a meeting with Bokulich in the back making strange noises and movements. I ignored him, even yelled that he should stop carrying on. He stayed outside the church-meeting, but after 30 minutes, he walked through the open door, walked towards me and then turned rigid, peed on the floor and collapsed, spread eagle. A woman screamed.
I raced to a phone but I was so hysterical, I couldn't dial. Someone phoned for me to a white Selma Veterinarian the only Vet around who was an open Klansman. I woke him up and told him what had happened. He said, "Meet me at my office." I drove there and he worked on Bokulich all night. In the wee hours of the morning he was still working on him. At one point I heard jingling and I thought, my God, he saved him but he was bringing me his collar.
Bruce: Why did you go to him if he was in the Klan?
Don: There was nobody else to go to, he was the only Vet.
Bruce: And he was willing to do it, even though the Klan . . .
Don: More than willing. He told me afterwards that a Klansman did this and he'll never harm another animal. He said, you can count on that.
Bruce: So it's OK to kill black people but you shouldn't mess with a man's dog. Well, that's so ...
Don: What can I say? To this day I'm grateful for what he did. He could have just hung up on me.
Bruce: That's the Southern...
Don: He made it plain how he felt about me, but the dog didn't do anything wrong, by his standards. I'm sure they killed the dog-killer afterwards. Well, with Bolulich dead, I became despondent, out of control. The dog was usually with me 24 hours a day, except in the church where I slept. He wasn't allowed inside, so he'd sit outside on the stoop until the morning.
And I just got distraught. Like I said, he was with me all day, everybody knew him, and I found I couldn't work. But I've got all this stuff to do on the eve of going to DC and I'm just dysfunctional. I'm crying all day long, I keep hearing the collar jingling and imagine that he didn't die and that he's coming. The Fathers are all very nice to me, trying to counsel me, but I'm in bed most of the time, just absolutely distraught.
One night, a priest knocks on my door and says, "He is on the phone" "he," of course, would mean Dr. King. When I spoke to him, he offered condolences for the death of Bokulich, that he knew the dog (he was with me at my meetings with Dr. King) and that the dog was a martyr. He told me that he and Coretta are praying for him and he hoped I'll feel better. I never forgot that. How he would find the time to do something like that?
Bruce: And his organization is opposing what you're doing.
Bruce: He was such a humanist.
Don: Just amazing, I never forgot it. I sobbed more that night after talking with him, but the next day I was all right. I was able to function.
Don: So I flew to DC, creating much interest with the FBI, which reported, obviously with information from someone in our midst, informing them. Their report said:
[Deleted] advised that the group was bringing suit against the United States Department of Agriculture in an attempt to obtain free food stamps of negligible cost, for surplus food for the poverty stricken. The proceedings began on the morning of March 25, 1968 in the United States District Court, Washington, D.C. The group was represented by Donald Jelinek, Attorney from Selma, Alabama. According to [deleted], the group planned to sit in the courtroom as witnesses and did not plan to demonstrate, picket, or visit the Department of Agriculture. [Deleted] indicated that the group might depart Washington, D.C. on March 26, 1968 for the return trip home.
The next day, The Washington Post reported on their front page:
"Food Stamp Program is Protested," that "one hundred thirty poor Negro families from six Alabama Black Belt counties, boarded three buses in Selma, Alabama on Saturday, March 23, 1968 for a trip to Washington, D.C., which was organized by Donald A. Jelinek, a New York-born lawyer, who has worked closely with the Student Nonviolent Co-Ordinating Committee in the South, and who is director of the Southern Rural Research Project."
It was the job of my wife-to-be, Estelle, to house and feed the 130, with a 72-hour deadline; with miraculous talent and dedication, she succeeded overcoming my insensitive admonition to her: "Don't fail!" When the group arrived in the three chartered buses the blacks ranging in age from 6 weeks to 75 years, one mother with her 14 children they were all provided for. An Edmunite Priest rode the bus with them, a local church provided a clubhouse for them, another parish provided cots, a college the blankets, a supermarket provided reduced food purchased by a poverty group, others provided towels and soap. The blacks had never before taken showers, only baths, and admitted they were afraid at first.
Church women helped cook, school children pooled their spending money and purchased candy which they wrapped in pretty boxes with fancy bows of silk ribbons for the visiting children, private individuals in a steady stream brought used clothing and children's shoes. The first night, a girls' glee club entertained them with a songfest. Less enjoyable were the medical exams each took administered by doctors from the Medical Committee for Human Rights, who would testify as to the devastating health conditions revealed.
As we walked into the courthouse, some black jurors from another case collected $30 for the group to do some touring of the Capital. When we entered the courtroom, 130 strong, U.S. District Judge George L. Hart, Jr. was already fuming. He rebuked me for "traipsing" the plaintiffs "for what I suspect to be purely political purposes rather than to seek quick justice." He added, "I believe you have done this as a publicity stunt and I can tell you that it leaves a bad taste in the court's mouth." I replied that, "I don't believe I can get justice anywhere but in the Capital of the United States." I didn't add that he was mostly right: the justice I sought was not from the court's hand, but by the political pressures that the appearance of my clients would cause.
I began by explaining the lack of medical help available in Alabama as one of the reasons why we had come to D.C. "If that is true," said the Judge, "that's about as heavy an indictment of the medical profession as I have ever heard. Don't white doctors in Alabama take the Hippocratic Oath?"
"Yes," I replied, "but it's a segregated Hippocratic oath."
By now the commotion died down and Hart announced that he would not permit any live testimony. He would not hear one of the 130 blacks, not one of the doctors who had toured the South, not one of the doctors who had examined the plaintiffs. So . . .
Bruce: I don't understand. How can the judge say you can't put on your case by having witnesses?
Don: Because it's a preliminary injunction hearing and the judge is not required to hear witnesses they can rely on affidavits.
Bruce: So you were asking for a preliminary injunction to force the USDA to do something.
Don: Right, and it doesn't require witnesses. But they couldn't stop me from making an "offer of proof," a summarization of what the testimony would have been, if allowed. This was my moment and I spoke for what seemed like an hour. I told of the SRRP report about the lack of food, the doctors' report, and the specifics in our lawsuit. I told in detail of the woman with the dead baby, the threats, the courage to come here, what had happened to Peter Agee after the last suit.
I then got to the programs. I started saying how even with Food Stamps as low as 50 cents, many can't pay it and thereby receive no food stamps.
"In other words, Judge Hart," I became sarcastic, "if you have no money, it costs you 50 cents for the stamps." Judge Hart scoffed at this and looked to the USDA lawyers for rebuttal, but they just lowered their heads. He mumbled, "You mean it's true?"
Hart started to mellow as I continued describing the horror, in the presence of those who would back my charges if permitted. I would constantly ask him if he would like to hear from the experts or the farmers and he would decline.
Finally, the Judge made a decision. He agreed that the food programs were inadequate based upon what he had heard, that he would accept as true that Alabama's poor people were starving, that there was not sufficient food and that there was an improperly balanced diet that did irreparable injury to the persons involved. (I had quoted one doctor that early lack of protein can cause irreversible brain damage.) But, he concluded, the courts cannot do anything about the problem.
Bruce: To say nothing of pellagra, rickets . . .
Don: Right, but he concluded correctly that the courts cannot do anything about the problem because most of the food laws specifically state that the benefits to the poor and undernourished are an incidental objective for the removal of agricultural surpluses, not for the people. So it's not for the courts to interfere with. But then his final sentence was:
"The remedy I believe is with the Congress, and the sooner the better."
Outside the courtroom I spoke with my clients, who understood we had won because of the Judge's compassionate comments about them. I explained to them, within earshot of the press, that the lawsuit had been filed to try to stop the Secretary of Agriculture from forcing you to leave the South for Detroit and other Northern cities. (Right) President Kennedy promised that poor people would get free food stamps, but Secretary Freeman won't do it. Why? Because he is controlled by Congressman Jamie Whitten of Mississippi who controls the money for the USDA and Freeman is afraid of him. (That's right.) And why does Whitten not want free Food Stamps? Because he wants Negroes out of the South now and if you can't get them out any other way, he can starve you out. (That's right, that's right, But we won't go').
For the clients, it was now tourist time. Bottles of whole fresh milk were brought for the youngsters, but not accustomed to such rich fare, they could not drink it. They did eat bologna sandwiches and then got on the buses to see the Capital. For them it was a "memory forever." President Kennedy's grave and the Lincoln Memorial competed for honors. Some of those who could write, copied parts of Lincoln's Inaugural Address to read to folks back home. Many had never heard the words before. Then they got back on the chartered buses for the long ride home.
I knew we had won even before the story hit the United States and foreign press, but I was amazed at the coverage we received. The N.Y. Times ran a front page article about a Judge who had rejected a demand for free food for families "that doctors had testified were 'starving'." The Times also ran a lead editorial calling for prompt Congressional action. This coverage in the newspaper of record set the tone for the nation's press, mostly front-page stories.
As SNCC and Dr. King had forced the nation to see Southern violence, SRRP had forced Southern starvation into prominence. The issue could not be ignored. By that night I received word that Bobby Kennedy, relieved that I had lived up to my word of no demonstrations, congratulated the effort, as did Dr. King in a telephone conversation, the last time I would ever speak to him he was assassinated little over a week later. Only the South, with its traditional myopic vision, assumed we had lost. In an especially vitriolic editorial, the Montgomery Advertiser gloated:
Probably the most surprised person in U.S. District Judge George Hart's Washington courtroom Monday was Donald Jelinek, lately of Selma. . . . What Jelinek was trying to do was to get the Judge to force the Agriculture Department to give away Food Stamps, rather than requiring some recipient participation. The way the program operates, it requires some initiative. . . . From the ham-handed manner that Jelinek went about it, he doesn't want it that way. Furthermore, it would appear that he actually cares little for the lot of the poor in the Black Belt, since he has done them considerable harm by helping to sway public opinion against them. . . . Jelinek obviously doesn't know what to do and hasn't helped by taking his ducks to the wrong market.
Within three days, Elmore County, one of the non-free food counties was declared a starvation emergency area. In Elmore and elsewhere, the USDA announced its new policy to bypass county control; by July 1, to extend food programs in 165 reluctant counties throughout the country, thus feeding tens of thousands. The USDA agreed to our request to fortify the surplus commodities with vitamins. Organizations were formed all over the country to begin full time litigation to continue the case in every single county. In November, Congress passed Bobby Kennedy's food bill and everybody had a program. This was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Bruce: Deservedly so, well done.
Don: Thank you. I really appreciate that coming from you, with your civil rights background. The case could not be won in court, but the exposure in a court of law topped any court ruling we could possibly get.
After that, within a matter of days, Dr. King was assassinated and I called his long time friend, Dorothy Cotton, and we connected by holding an open line for half an hour, barely speaking. And, of course, then came the death of Bobby Kennedy. I had become lethargic and mournful. My dreams were nightmarish montages of Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy and my dog. I missed Stokely and Rap. Paul and Pat Bokulich had left by now. My work had become very bureaucratic and was meant for someone more disciplined than me. I still loved the people, but I had lost my spirit, and more important, I had lost my instinct for what had to be done.
I stayed two more weeks to work out a smooth transition of leadership to SRRP staff: Dondra Simmons and U.Z. Nunnely, Kathy having left already. For the first time, SRRP would be headed by blacks.
I wrote a farewell to all my friends:
Some of you . . . went with me to various courts and because you stood up for what you believed in, you were shot at, evicted from your homes, or had vital credit cut off. I hope you are not sorry, but feel there has been some success for all the sacrifices.
I pray that we shall live to see a time when you all have enough food to eat, decent homes to live in, doctors to take care of you and your children, and jobs which will take you off the welfare.
I shall always remember you all.
The Edmunites gave me a "last supper" and presented me with a scroll from the book of psalms about freeing the poor.
On September 14, 1968, my future wife, Estelle, and I, drove to the airport and said goodbye to my successors. Ironically that day's newspapers contained headlines that the Bokulich case had officially been won, the Jury Commission was ordered to create an honest jury system. We flew to San Francisco to relocate, for me to take the California Bar exam, to begin a normal life, to surface into the urban Sixties.
And then the pain began. I felt I had betrayed the people I had left, that nothing else would ever satisfy me, that I would never have such close friends again. Like many others who left the South, I stayed away from civil rights veterans for almost 30 years unwilling to accept the pain that would come from reminiscences.
I took a job with American Indian Legal Services, which was in the federal courts where I could practice without a California license. I passed the bar exam but then received a letter that said, in effect: "You're smart enough but not moral enough." Based on my multitude of arrests in the South as a lawyer, they emphasized they rejected me. A year later they gave up and licensed me; I opened my own office, which has been going for more than 30 years now.
The work with the Indians led to my becoming their lawyer when they seized Alcatraz Island in the waters off San Francisco. I lived with them for much of the 19 months they were there. Back on the mainland, I became heavily involved with draft resisters and GI's attempting to avoid Vietnam. And, to my utter delight, I got the opportunity to meet U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas. When the high court's out of session, you have to go to the individual Justice, to sign papers. Only Douglas lived in a place without telephones.
Bruce: That was up in Washington state somewhere?
Don: Gooseprarie, Washington.
Bruce: Yeah, I remember they used to have to send helicopters . . .
Don: The Committee for Conscious Objectors met me at the Seattle airport, drove me to the area: no motels, no hotels, no restaurants. They had sleeping bags and we slept out in the grass. I knew already from their warnings that I had to look like a lawyer, so I shaved in a lake, put on my suit and then went to his door. I told him about the case and he granted the injunction. And to do so, he had to climb to this forest ranger platform to get where they did Morse code, and send it to DC.
Bruce: He was a character.
Don: We stopped a boat load of GI's from shipping out to Vietnam. That was a great case.
In 1973 I became the Legal Coordinator for the 62 prisoners charged with 1300 felonies in connection with the 1971 Attica Uprising in upstate New York.
Bruce: Why were you the one? You're in California, it's a New York case, why were you . . .
Don: Two reasons. They wanted somebody who knew how to handle mass criminal cases only civil rights lawyers knew that. The few who were asked and who were eligible couldn't make the commitment at that time, and I had a New York license, which was a major factor.
Bruce: But you would think Kunstler . . .
Don: Bill Kunstler, who is my hero, never settled down anywhere. He moved from place to place, performing miracles. He wouldn't settle down for a couple years in one spot.
Bruce: And it would take that long to do this case?
Don: To do any major case. It was always his style and he did it magnificently. He tried hundreds and hundreds of cases because he kept moving. After Attica I resumed earning a living. I was successful in a popular local action to bar our subway system (BART) from evicting flea market vendors who used their parking lot (originally, with their consent) on weekends. This propelled me into local politics. I was elected to three terms on the Berkeley City Council and I thought the South was perilous. Later I barely lost an election for Mayor.
In 1984 I was lucky enough to marry Jane Scherr, every Berkelyian's favorite photographer. In 2006 we remain happily married, with two great grandchildren. There's much more, but I will end by quoting a conversation I had with Jane. We were discussing those brief profiles from families of the 9/11 victims that the N.Y. Times was publishing. I told her that if I had been one of them, I would want her to write:
"He had people who he loved and who loved him . . . and he was part of SNCC."
Bruce: Again, well done.
Don: Thank you, Bruce.
© Donald A. Jelinek, All rights reserved
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Don Jelinek.