Harassment Didn't Stop Civil Rights Work
by Corinne Freeman Barnwell

Originally published in New Orleans Times-Picayune, October 6, 2013

See also Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) for related web links.

[Corinne Freeman Barnwell, a New Orleans resident, was married to Ben Smith until 1973. Smith died in 1976.]

Picture yourself at the Airport Hilton in Kenner on Oct. 4, 1963 — a beautiful day. Along with other talented, activist lawyers from across the country you are part of a conference planning assistance for the history-changing Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

Suddenly you hear that your law office on Baronne Street in New Orleans is being raided by the Louisiana State Police. Your secretary is being held at gunpoint; files and personal papers belonging to you and your law practice are being seized. You drive to Baronne Street only to be arrested as a "subversive." Telephoning your home near the Lakefront, you hear that New Orleans police have your wife, daughter, young son and the babysitter detained. Officers are ransacking your house looking for seditious materials. They carry off your framed copy of the Declaration of Independence.

"Ben Smith was among the preachers, lawyers, university professors and doctors who helped to support the young people in the civil rights movement."

This wasn't a bad dream. The late Ben Smith, a talented white attorney from Ruston, was arrested by the state Louisiana 50 years ago. Smith, a Navy veteran and graduate of Tulane Law School, was known to speak out strongly. Accused of being a subversive, he was confined in a jail cell until agitated National Lawyers Guild members found a judge to let him out on bail.

Smith, his law partner and his trusted colleague Jim Dombrowski, were charged with failing to register as members of a Communist-front organization. This was the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), a group that funded interracial meetings, backed the rights of union members and sought an end to the poll tax.

Who was behind the arrests in New Orleans?

Inside Louisiana there was the Joint Committee on Un-American Activities, a committee of the Legislature that specialized in McCarthy-era tactics. Next door there was U.S. Sen. Jim Eastland of Mississippi, who, with his backers, sought to stifle the civil rights movement by arresting organizers. They aimed to prevent the movement from assisting African-Americans to register and vote. The seized materials — including Dombrowski's valuable lists of hundreds of donors to SCEF — were furtively taken to Eastland's office and plantation in the Mississippi Delta in the dead of night on Oct. 6, 1963.

Arresting outspoken white people was a canny strategy. Smith and later I, myself, were among the preachers, lawyers, university professors and doctors who helped to support the young people in the civil rights movement. We raised money around the United States and helped defend civil rights cases on behalf of leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Consequently, powerful authorities such as Eastland had begun to escalate from harassing scruffy students and beating black community organizers. Now they intended to arrest professionals who were systematically attacking Jim Crow segregation.

With help from expert civil liberties lawyers, Dombrowski and the others filed a lawsuit in federal court to enjoin the prosecution. The Dombrowski v. Pfister case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was decided in the spring of 1965. The arrested advocates were completely vindicated. Every year now the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana holds an annual Ben Smith Award Dinner, to honor the person who has been most active on behalf of civil liberties.

The case was a high point for the rights of free speech in America. The court declared that to be arrested and have your files, mailing lists and other papers illegally packed up and handed over to a hostile member of the U.S. Senate was designed to have a "chilling effect" on our rights to speak out and act under the First Amendment.

I met Ben (who by then was divorced) in the civil rights movement in 1964, and we got married in 1965. We'd both been raised as church-going idealists. It was hard for me to hear Louisianians call him a Communist. I knew him as an American committed to the high ideals of the framed document that the police carted away.

Copyright © Corinne Freeman Barnwell, 2013.

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