"Tell 'em Spano . . ."
Dennis Roberts

One of my favorite memories of C.B. King is the way he liked to make a point by attributing it to some real or mythical confederate hero, which put white folks in a quandary because they took these things absolutely seriously and couldn't imagine you were joking about it — after all these were apparently the words of some G*R*E*A*T Confederate hero: "As the Honorable Beauregard B. (for Bubba) Smith oft noted . . . "

Sometimes he went pretty far, too. But it was always in a vein that the crackers had to swallow it. "As Beauregard Bucknellington Wellington III, a famous Confederate General who liberated the City of Dogpatch, Georgia, once said: 'No matter how we might personally feel about Nigras, our constitution requires that all be treated equally and this, most unfortunately, includes Nigras . . . .'"

Or as my friend Ken Cloke remembers (Ken is a Boalt Hall/U.C. Berkeley graduate who spent a summer working for C.B. in Albany after I left, who loved C.B., and whom C.B. enjoyed tremendously), when C.B. had a comment to make on some atrocious and evil aspect of Southern culture, taking his bass voice down another sonorous notch, he might start out, "When the mellifluous perfume of honeysuckle and magnolia blossoms wafts heavily upon the evening zephyr" . . . and that gave him plenty of leeway to get his atrocious point well in before the prosecutor or whoever could recover from his reverie.

In court he cited cases just above or far beyond the ken of his opponents. It didn't always matter that the case was specifically relevant or not if it had the proper intimidating effect!

As I learned many a lesson in poise and grace in life from C.B. just by being in his presence every day I worked with him, from all this I learned an invaluable practical lesson in the law.

Once we were called to Moultrie, Georgia, by a notable figure named Herman Kitchens. Herman — or Humm'n, as the name was pronounced — was a businessman, a man of parts, who had joined the Movement, one day a Movement hero, the next a man of affairs, well known to us all and also to the Law, who no longer knew how to take him — and in this he was like a lot guys who had always made their way in the business and social byways of the little old southern towns, and could operate on that plane, and now were joining the Movement too, presenting the authorities a puzzle on any given day how to take them, and guys like Humm'n were having to keep an ever more delicate balance.

Anyway, Humm'n had been steering a criminal matter through Moultrie City Court by himself (not uncommon to do so, if you knew the local powers as a guy like Humm'n certainly did) — and local judges allowed a nonlawyer like that who had some local standing or other to appear like that figuring the alternative was that damn C.B!

In these cracker towns, usually the Black undertaker (the wealthiest Black man in town) would accompany other Blacks to court and sort of represent them — generally entering guilty pleas and having them praise and apologize to white folks generally and to the particular victim (usually the object of a petty theft, really petty). Judges encouraged this as it moved the case along and they didn't need to deal with a Black man who insisted on self-representation which generally slowed the "justice train" which ran between the community and state prison.

But although Humm'n had thought to take care of his own business expeditiously and favorably to himself, now with the trial a day off, he for reasons known to himself deemed it wise to convince C.B. to come on down. We both assumed it was some kind of Movement arrest, since Herman Kitchens ran the local voter registration drive and was a genuine Movement hero — but after we got there, and walked into the courtroom, it turned out to be a gambling charge!

Seems a local cop climbed up on a bench on the porch of the SNCC house. The Movement was overloaded with snitches. Or maybe this cop was on his own and got lucky. He peered over the top of the curtains where old Humm'n was, heaven forbid, dealing out a poker hand with money on the table. But, as this officer of the law was noticed peeking through the window, at the moment of his entry both the cards and the money had entirely disappeared.

So that was what we faced, once we had arrived in court and with kind of "huh!?" expressions we looked at each other. C.B. made a perfunctory suppression motion knowing that even in Moultrie we should win. C.B. cited the case of Dolly Rae Mapp vs. the Great and Glorious Commonwealth of Ohio [367 U.S 64 (1961)], the leading U.S. Supreme Court case on suppression of illegally seized evidence making the Fourth Amendment ("the rights of the people to be secure from illegal searches and seizures . . .") applicable to the state courts as well as the federal courts. His citation to Mapp gave the judge some pause, so he inquired of the City Solicitor (district attorney), "Whud'ya think 'bout that, colonel?"

(As a footnote here, the confederate lawyers who entered the military during the Civil War were given the honorary rank of colonel, and it stuck as an honorific title of respect for all — white — attorneys.)

In response, the City Solicitor announced, like a child who has remembered where he put his lollypop, that Mapp was about carrying stuff out and taking it with you where this case was just about what the cop saw. We were stunned. In Moultrie? This was beyond rudimentary. This was an idiotic distinction but the judge was going along with it. We both realized that this worthless distinction was going to go down. C.B. leaned over to me to ask if I had any ideas as to what to do now, having dropped his heaviest bomb to no avail.

That was my moment, when everything I had learned carefully watching him came into play. My mind, as C.B.'s apparently went blank, began to move cautiously. I could not think of a case which discussed the seizing of tangible evidence versus the illegal viewing of same, so, forcing my thoughts back to law school I said, "Tell him Spano v. New York," a case having absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand but was a coerced confession case, although it was another Warren-era decision applying the Fourth Amendment to the states.

So C.B. reared back as was his manner, grabbed his lapel, and in his most sonorous intonation said, "Your honor, let me then cite you to Spano versus the People of that Great Commonwealth of New York." The Judge looked over at the Solicitor, who apparently couldn't parse that one and announced after a solemn moment, "Guess he got us there, Judge." And old Humm'n was free.

We laughed hysterically all the way back to Albany. That was a main item between C.B. and me from then on. I'd whisper to him at least once in every trial, "Tell 'em Spano." That would do it for us.

This is a favorite story, because C.B. had given me not only courage but the kind of instant's grace that has also stayed with me, and it hasn't been the last time I have "cited Spano"!

Copyright © Dennis Roberts

Copyright ©

Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the story belongs to Dennis Roberts.

Webspinner: webmaster@crmvet.org
(Labor donated)