My First Case
Dennis Roberts

In the summer of 1963 when I was still a law student, C.B. [King] sent me to Newton, Baker County, as he had a trial there but couldn't make it as he also had a trial in another jurisdiction (it may have been Americus).

See, the state was divided into judicial districts which usually centered around the largest community. The judge of a district "rode circuit." As an example, maybe Baker County Court held trials on the first Monday in May and the first Monday in September, or whatever. Well, maybe the Superior Court of Schley County, in another judicial district, also held court on the first Mondays of May and September. Usually there was so little business that the court was only open on that one day.

In the rural South you could have the undertaker or another "man of means" sort of unofficially represent you if you were a Black man. That was what Humm'n [Herman] Kitchens was doing that day when C.B. and I showed up thinking we were there to represent him on Movement business only to find out it was a gambling charge — that is, he was in fact representing himself according to this local tradition. Just let the local Black "attorney" bring 'em in and plead 'em out. In fact, this was an economical way to punish a Black who had not committed a serious crime, i.e., just "cheatin' and swindlin" (this is not bullshit, this was an actual charge).

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 us 335 (1963), had only been decided in March 1963 and few crackers had ever heard of it. Once crackers got the message that they had to provide counsel to indigents, this was a more efficient way to do it. But even prior to Gideon it was a typical paternalistic pattern in the South. It was okay to allow another "culud" [colored] to represent a friend or even to sort of hold himself out as an "atternity" as the word was generally mispronounced. It was quite common in these little shitheel villages.

Back to "cheatin' and swindlin" — the substance of the crime was that if you were a sharecropper and lived off the Cap'n all during the season, he loaned you money for seed and groceries (purchased of course at the Plantation store — remember, "Another day older an' deeper in debt. St. Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store" [lyrics from "16 Tons"] — or something like that). If the crop was shit, coupled with the incredible markup in the "company store" you owed Cap'n money. The reason sharecroppers couldn't just walk away is that they would be charged with "cheatin' and swindlin" which carried a presumption that when you got into debt you had already planned not to pay your bill. Hence, slavery never really ended for the lumpen.

Well, if it was a serious felony you wouldn't have the "local lawyer" representing you. But let's say on "cheatin' and swindlin," or on a Black on Black "cutting," or probably a Black on Black murder where no one gave a shit about the outcome, then the undertaker (or in Moultrie, Humm'n Kitchens) would appear.

By the way, Black on Black crime was not only not taken seriously, i.e., they could know who the murderer was but not charge him as he was Cap'n Bob's "property" and the victim was a "shiftless, no account" culud boy; these crimes were generally known by another common term of art, as it were, that is, as a "nigger mess." And I don't mean it was a term used only by low life whites, ignorant bigoted crackers, and the like. It was a term used by sheriffs, white lawyers, and judges. "Waal sheeeit, wud'cha charge em wid then, huh?" "Naw, it was just a nigger mess" — i.e., carrying either no charge, or if charged and convicted, an extremely light sentence. Now the identical crime committed against a white person usually carried death. Of course, that was not called a "nigger mess." That was a "brutal demented assault on the flower of the South, a whaaaat woman" — the crime might be not stepping off the curb and into the rain-filled gutter fast enough when a "whaaaat woman" should be coming toward you or, heaven forbid, unintentionally bumping her in a crowd.

Well, on the day I was sent to Newton when C.B. was elsewhere detained, what had happened was that usually he sent a telegram giving priority to the older case and that was that. Then the other one would be continued to the next term of court (six months later). Georgia, however, did have a rule that required a dismissal if you were not tried within two terms of court. The bigger counties which had trials going constantly were not covered — it was their way of punishing Blacks who they knew were innocent. You could certainly get a year out of them.

So, I was sent even though he had telegrammed, in order to have the case postponed. I got to Newton plenty early and met our client outside, shaking. C.B. had already telephoned him to say he couldn't make it because of another case, so he was terrified. We went in and the judge called the case (probably the only case on the docket for that term of court). I explained to him what C.B.'s telegram had already told him, that C.B. was detained in the other county with a felony charge against his client much older than the Baker Co. charge, and I asked that the case be continued to the next term (the guy was [out] on bail).

"Nope," sez the Jedge, "You gonna try this case NOW."

"But your honor I protested, I am not a lawyer, I am not a member of any bar. I'se jist down here for de summer, heppin C.B. Onlyest job ah cud get." And so on.

I could "Tom" with the best once the shit started flying. He then told me in no uncertain terms that he really didn't give a shit whether I was a lawyer or not!

I now realize that this was true, I was just another Humm'n Kitchens or some Black preacher or undertaker as far as he was concerned. So he then ordered me to try the case or he'd "make that niggah try it hisself."

One look at my client, silently sobbing, and I knew I was about to do my first trial. I had no idea what he was even charged with but if that didn't trouble C.B, why should it trouble me?

Fortunately, my briefcase was stuffed with Racial Jury Challenge Motions — "One Plea Dennis" they called me — and I filed them on the spot, then announced that I wished to call the Jury Commissioners. Now you can bet your ass Humm'n nor the other jackleg lawyers ever pulled that shit. Judge was so startled (I think it was Carl Crow who had a frightening reputation even among racist judges) that he yelled at me to fetch C.B. for the next term of court and sent me on my dumb ass white boy way.

Copyright © Dennis Roberts

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