Execution in Virginia, 1951
We did have some money in the bank. So when, at the end of January 1951, the Communist Party asked me to join a mass pilgrimage to Richmond, Virginia, to try to stop the executions of seven Blacks for an alleged gang rape of a white woman, I agreed. This was known as the Martinsville Case. As in previous situations in which probable physical danger was evident, I went because I could not find an excuse for not doing so to myself or those who approached me. Absolute apartheid, Jim Crow as it was called, still existed in the American South, and we would have to violate it simply to conduct our protest.
Open, frank Jim Crow was not confined to the South, where it was law. People from Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York came in chartered buses, and by sheer numbers were able to command human treatment until reaching Washington, D.C. But a carload of five from Denver had an experience more typical of a racially mixed group in those years. They had driven three days and nights over frozen roads in a convertible with a torn top, and had lived on candy bars because none would eat where any were barred. One of them, a white woman of seventy-three, had fallen and broken her hip as she stalked in rage from a restaurant in Kansas City that had refused service to the group. She insisted that the others leave her in a hospital and go on. An African-American clergyman in that group, Rev. McNeil by name, had done most of the driving and his right foot had been frozen so badly by the air coming up around the pedal that for a while he feared gangrene.
The Greyhound bus station in the nation's capital was totally segregated. We did not try to integrate it because our purpose was to get to Richmond and not be diverted by possible arrests en route. When we left Washington for Richmond, I realized that I, at thirty-three, was older than all but a handful on that bus. I knew that I was cool in crises and so, remembering the stoning of buses and police behavior at Peekskill, I very reluctantly hauled myself out of my seat and up alongside the driver to deal with whatever came. When I sighted Richmond police squad cars coming toward us on the outskirts of that city, I thought: "Here goes!" But nothing happened. When we disembarked at the bus station and there was no mob awaiting us, I flashed back on the young white war veteran students I had addressed at the University of Mississippi four years earlier and my conclusion that some of them wanted a new South.
Our headquarters in Richmond was to be the Negro YMCA, which violated Jim Crow by the mere fact of accepting us. None of the well-established Black churches in this, the former capital of the Confederacy, would have anything to do with us at the outset, though the [Black] National Baptist Convention of twenty-three thousand churches and 4 million members opposed the death sentences in this case of alleged rape. They were NAACP legalists, and the NAACP at that time had not come around to understanding the need for mass action to pressure the courts. When the civil rights movement of the '60s arose a decade later, this caused young people to reject the term "Negro" as a self-designation, because they associated it with those who could not abandon the caution learned from decades of lynchings.
Our delegation had been organized by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), which believed in mass action, as did the movement led by Martin Luther King later in the decade. Opposition to the death sentences was also voiced by six national labor unions, plus numerous huge locals of the auto and steel unions. Half of the 517 members of the delegation were from unions, and 35 were official representatives of churches and ministers' associations of good-sized cities. There were 23 from Virginia and 40 from North Carolina. William L. Patterson, a Communist and head of the CRC, directed the Richmond action from New York. This Black man's deputy in charge was Aubrey Grossman of San Francisco, a lawyer and one-time UCLA football star, Jewish. The defendants had granted the NAACP the power to conduct their legal defense. It refused to touch the issue of guilt and therefore whether the case was intimidation of African-Americans as a whole. It confined itself to the issue of equal justice: that Blacks should not die for a crime no white had ever suffered death for. The pilgrimage's intent was simply to have a mass of people fill the seats in federal court when it heard this issue. Since it was a federal court, Jim Crow did not apply. Our mass walk to and from the court was phenomenal because many of us, particularly women, were arm in arm, Black and white.
The authorities filled every second seat with newly-sworn deputies. This actually made our presence seem larger, because the majority of us could not get seats, and so we spilled out into the halls and the streets, maintaining perfect decorum. There was no chanting, no picket signs. The court turned the defense argument down, and the men were headed for death.
The YMCA had no auditorium big enough to hold the people who had converged from all over the country, but a minister newly arrived in Richmond from the deep South had a church large enough to accomodate us. He allowed us to meet there. Our integrated crowd was sensational in itself, and the Black press carried pictures of the meeting nationwide. We discussed what to do. Most of us had to return home immediately to hold our jobs, but we agreed that those who didn't have to should remain and fight the case down to the wire, while those going home would organize a barrage of telegrams and phone calls, and try to break into their local press and radio. Despite not having been in bed for days, they stopped in Washington on the way back and picketed the White House, demanding that the seven men not be killed.
On that day, January 31, 1951, the United States government granted clemency to twenty-one Nazi war criminals who had been sentenced to death. They included six former SS men convicted of shooting 142 unarmed American prisoners of war at Malmedy, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. One of those whose life was spared had been the commander of that SS unit. The U.S. needed Germany as an ally in the envisaged war with the Soviet Union. The American most active in the successful demand for clemency was Senator Joe McCarthy. I spent that day commuting between the front of the White House in Washington and the State House in Richmond, participating in picket lines and a prayer vigil in a driving sleet storm and twenty-degree weather. Three dozen people remained in Richmond for the week, including me. Another dozen were willing to, but there was no money to feed them, never mind pay their fares back home other than as passengers on the chartered buses that had brought most of them. We could only afford to rent three rooms with three beds each in the Black hotel and the YMCA, enough to accomodate one fourth of those who stayed, so we slept in hot-bed shifts. In fact we were so busy that the beds were not always occupied.The days that followed were among the most thrilling of my life for the confirmation they provided of my conviction that the most downtrodden have nobility and courage when given a sense of support, and that there was more decency than racism in the plain white people of the South when compelled to confront their consciences.
The local defense committee was headed by a youthful African-American half-crippled by arthritis, James Smith, whose livelihood depended upon his job as a delivery "boy" for a pharmacy, white of course. Another member was a stupendous Black woman-in spirit, energy, smarts-Mrs. Senora Lawson, the middle-aged wife of a railway worker. Most symbolically, she had been born literally in the swamps when, in 1898, the Ku Klux Klan wiped out the elected populist interracial government of Wilmington, North Carolina. She knew that story by heart from family tradition and later related it to me in full detail. With that background, cooperation with like-minded whites was entirely conceivable. She had actually gotten a very substantial vote in a run for the state legislature the previous year. Had she won, she would have been the first African-American in state government in the modern South. Non-Blacks on the local committee included a stunning redhead. This twenty-six-year-old mother of three was an Appalachian white and the wife of a carpenter. There was also a couple who looked like swarthy whites but were Lumbee Indians, a physically assimilated but ethnically self-aware group. They had a tiny farm, owned a small truck, and did odd jobs. There was also a Jewish couple, Communists. Two white medical students, brothers, with an aristocratic name, were most active.
We decided to continue the prayer vigil round-the-clock on the lawn of the State House. A more symbolic action could hardly be imagined, for the building had been designed by Thomas Jefferson, and the lawn was studded with statues of generals who had fought for the maintenance of slavery, in the Civil War, and lost. The police limited us to four people at a time. That worried us greatly, because half a dozen Klansmen could have hurt us badly. We didn't know whether to be glad or sad that no police were assigned to the vigil. We conducted this, too, in accordance with principle. The four always consisted of a Black woman, a white woman, a Black man and a white man. That got us sustained and nasty heckling, but no violence. We huddled around an oil-can fire beneath what we later christened the Martinsville Tree, for the town where the alleged crime was supposed to have occurred and which gave the case its name. The temperature dropped to seven degrees one night. I learned more of the contents of the Bible on my shifts in the days that followed than in all my previous life. We had a large lettered sign: "Join Us In Prayer for the Martinsville Seven."
The convicted men were scheduled to be executed in two groups after the weekend. On my proposal, we decided to call everyone in the phone book, which meant chiefly whites, both because the city was mainly white and because few African-Americans could yet afford phones. We asked if they thought Blacks should die for a crime no white had ever been executed for. If they thought not, we asked them to phone the governor for clemency. Someone walked into the lobby of Slaughter's, the Black hotel where our women were housed (no white hotel would rent to a mixed group) and asked people to phone. One man ran out and got five dollars worth of nickels-a call cost five cents-and a second read off the numbers to be called. A third of the people in the crowded lobby lined up to make the calls. The hotel keeper brought out a free lunch for the man who started it all.
A couple of others in our group went to the Black movie house and asked the manager to stop the show and tell the audience to send wires and phone calls. He did so. When these things were reported to a midnight meeting of our committee, I realized that something new was happening. With eight hours to go before the first execution, I proposed that we call a mass death watch in front of the state house at 6 a.m., despite the police limitation to four people. Some white delegates felt we would get no response, rousing folk in the middle of the night. I proposed that the committee guide itself by the opinions of the Richmond Blacks present. "Sure, the people will come out," they said.
At 2 a.m., we started making lists of names to call. We out-of-towners could call only those people we had gotten to know. I phoned the one African-American owner of a taxi company, and asked him to radio his cabs and spread the word that we were violating the police limit to four at the vigil, and would they spread the word. He did.
Then I tested a wild experience. A white mountaineer who made his living as a pool shark had approached us one midnight at the vigil, said he thought the Martinsville Seven were guilty but should not die because no white man had ever gone to the chair for rape in Virginia. He told me that he had been foreman on a jury in a like case a few years earlier, except that it had involved seven white men. None had gotten more than four years. One had been acquitted as having been too drunk to have gone through with the act. That man was now an announcer on a major Richmond radio station. If I wanted any cooperation from the radio announcer, I should give the name of the one-time jury foreman. I phoned the station, knowing that announcer was on duty at this early morning hour, mentioned the foreman's name, and asked him to air a straightforward announcement of the mass vigil with the earliest news. He did so.
In the wee hours of Friday morning-the court hearing had been on Monday- a dozen of us were in one of the rooms the "Y" had made available to us as headquarters. Those who had just come off the prayer vigil were huddled around the gas heater. Others, for whom there was no bed space in our rented rooms, were lying on chairs with coats thrown over them in place of blankets. Light shone in from the other office. We heard the clicking as James Smith dialed yet another number. He had worked at his job all day Thursday and would again on Friday. He had been phoning for hours. Elder Warner, unpaid preacher of a storefront church who had been an industrial worker in the North, was using the phone downstairs. Mrs. Lawson was calling from her home. So was Mrs. Vaughan, who ran the Black driving school in town, and her son, owner of a repair garage that had customers of both races. Mrs. Lawson's niece and another young woman were phoning from Slaughter's and a hotel around the corner.
The white Richmond people had long since finished calling the few friends who would come to the square. One couple had gone home to tend their babies and catch a couple of hours sleep. The Lumbee man was hauling us to and from the vigil in his truck. Others, too tired to go home, or too far from home to get there and back by six, had stayed at the "Y." It was a moment of pause, and for perspective. We New Yorkers were lucky. We had slept Sunday night before starting for Richmond. The Detroit and Chicago people had left home a day earlier. The carload from Denver had started three days before that, driving day and night.
Someone said that this was the story-telling hour. I said that I wanted to know what had caused each of us to come to Richmond, and why those who had stayed beyond the court hearing did so. A voice said: "I'll tell you," and I took out my notebook. Tape recorders were not yet for sale. A xerox of those notes is in my papers at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. I have retained the original.
The voice, mild, Southern, and with a touch of a lisp, was that of James Goodman. An African-American of about thirty, tall, well-built but not noticeably powerful in appearance, he had been one of the quietest participants all week. Earlier in the evening, however, he and a young Jewish boy from New York had gotten the white male manager and the white female band leader at the huge city-owned dance hall, where it was "Negro night," to stop the music every half hour and ask the crowd to phone the governor to stop the executions. Other than that, we had known him only as a delegate from Brooklyn who had appointed himself guardian of the oil-can fire that kept us from freezing as we sat with our Bible outside the State House. By appearance and speech, he was a workingman.
"I was born in Panama. My parents moved to Nashville, Tennessee, when I was a boy. But I was old enough to remember Panama. My father was one of the three Negro locomotive engineers in Tennessee. He also had a farm.
"When I was fifteenor sixteen I worked in a grocery. One time I made a mistake in an order. The boss said: "'Nigger, don't you know what to do?' "I said: 'Don't call me nigger, you know my name.'
"He come back: 'We kick dumb niggers around here,' and he kicked me.
"I hit him with a coke bottle. He called the cops, and they came to take me to jail. One cop said: 'Who did you hit with a bottle?' "'Robert E. Miller.'
"'Look, nigger, when you talk to white people you gotta say, Sir. When I get you to the station house, I'll teach you how to talk to white men.'
"At the police station, one of them kicked me in the pants, and the other hit me in the jaw. Then they tossed me in a cell, and said: 'This is for niggers and dogs.'
"I would have got two to five years in reform school, but my father paid $500 graft and got me out.
"I kept on asking him to go North or to Panama. But we couldn't leave, on account of his railroad job. I was unhappy about the schools. The whites had brick schools and recreation grounds. The Negroes had frame schools, and they were cold. There were two coal heaters in each room, and we sat around them, instead of keeping class the right way. There was no recreation at all.
"Then the cops were very nasty, too. They would stop any Negro walking through the white section and question him. If they didn't like what he said, he'd get a beating and six months on the rock pile.
"One time I was working as house boy for a white family. I was about seventeen but big for my age. The man's daughter, she was nineteen, she liked me. She told her father: 'When I get to be twenty-one, I'm gonna marry Jimmy.' He went to my father and made me quit that job.
"My mother took me to Chicago. The living conditions, schools and recreation were better than in Nashville. I wanted to stay, but my mother took me home to Tennessee.
"At eighteen I packed my case and went on my own. During the war I was in the Navy. After basic training, I was at Yorktown Navy Mine Depot, not very far from here. I was base electrician. Once there was a wrong circuit in the recreation hall. Civilian white workers were called in, and they couldn't fix it. My C.O. told them he had a man who could fix anything that could be fixed, and he sent me over. One of the whites said:
"'Where did a nigger learn that type of work?'
"I said: 'Don't call me no nigger.'
"We had a scrap, and I got thirty days in the brig on bread and water." I interrupted to say that it must have made him pretty weak.
"No," he continued. "I didn't stay there long enough. The brig was a hut with a cyclone fence around it. I pried it apart with my hands until I could get my feet in. Then I worked it open.
"I drew a suspended sentence for breaking out of the brig, and the C.O. told me to build a new one that prisoners couldn't get out of so easy. He gave me a detail of 12 men, and I built it of steel and concrete.
"Then I went on liberty. The bus to Richmond was crowded. There were two seats up front. Another boy and I sat down. The driver refused to move the bus until we got out of the white section. We wouldn't get up. There was a riot, so he started the bus. The fight in the bus kept on all the way from Yorktown to Williamsburg. There I was picked up and brought into camp. They held me for mutiny. I asked for a general court-martial. I beat the case.
"I told them the bus driver had no right to give me orders, so how could that be mutiny? They had to agree, and they freed me.
"Then we were shipped to New Guinea, and from there to the Philippines. A couple of our officers were Southerners. One was from Mississippi. One day I was on guard duty. Afterward, I started to cut across the white camp over to the Negro camp. The Mississippi officer stopped me. He said: 'Niggers got no right to go through the white camp.'
"We had an argument, and it became a fight. I was arrested. The C.O. told me I had no right to argue with an officer or with any white personnel. I was put in the brig again, and then sent to the psychiatrist. He said I had battle fatigue." I interrupted to say he hadn't told us about any battles.
"I'd been at Iwo Jima with the 20th Amphibians. I operated an LPC boat, carrying twenty men to land. I was hit by shrapnel. I've got a plate in my head. They put me in the crazy stockade. I was there for ten days. Then outside camp and back to the States. That was in 1945. They sent me to St. Alban's for treatment for battle fatigue."
I said they didn't know what kind of battle he was fatigued of. "They sure didn't. I got a medical discharge in 1946....[Then] "I settled in New York. I worked at Bethlehem Steel and Todd Shipyard as an electrician, and studied electrical engineering at night under the G.I. Bill. Sometimes I did longshoremen's work. So I joined the Longshore Club." He didn't say "of the Communist Party," but that was the only organization on the New York waterfront with that name.
"I picketed Ryan's office when they tried to squeeze Negroes off the waterfront." Ryan headed the International Longshoremen's Association. "I picketed Bethlehem in the 1948 strike. Then I worked in the Henry Wallace campaign, and in the Ada Jackson and Hattie Brisbane campaigns," African-American women running for office on the same American Labor Party ticket I had run on.
He stopped, and after a brief silence Fern Owens spoke up. A white woman undoubtedly in her late thirties, for she had come to Richmond straight from her daughter's wedding, she looked a good deal younger. She had a strong nose and a set to her mouth that was the only indication of the person within. Her English was clear and clipped.
"My maiden name was Pierce, and the president of that name, a slave- owners' stooge, was an ancestor of mine. But some of my ancestors were Utopian socialists, in Owens' colonies, and I heard something about that in childhood from a brother, the only radical in the family.
"My father was a sharecropper outside Oklahoma City. I walked to school in town through the Negro community. The lies about Negroes being shiftless didn't impress me, for I saw their homes through the eyes of a cropper, and not of a white of higher class.
"There would be fights. The white boys would stone the Negro girls. That rubbed me the wrong way. One day the white school was surrounded by Negro boys in retaliation. The principal told us to stay in our seats. After a while he and the principal of the Negro school got together, and the Negro boys were called off. But this incident built up my respect for them.
"When I was in sixth grade, a girl in my class had an affair with a boy. They were intimate. Her parents found out, and she was terrified. To get out of it, she said she had been raped by a Negro. A lynch atmosphere developed. Only the fact that the truth was well-known in school prevented some innocent Negro from losing his life. I could never forget this, and this is one reason I'm trying to save the lives of these Negroes framed on a rape charge.
"Later, the Negro neighborhood spread until it completely surrounded the school I had been going to. The white parents didn't want their children to go through a Negro section, and so the school was closed. It was not made into a Negro school, because it was considered too good for them, and the authorities felt that if they had one such school, they would want more. I was terribly shocked when I heard that, because I had had my schooling in snatches when my father didn't need my help, and I appreciated schooling greatly.
"I heard of the Scottsboro Case when it began in 1931. I was still in Oklahoma City, and I went to open air meetings in a park where they talked about it. I believed what they said because of my own experiences in school.
"The Depression got very bad about then. There was much actual starvation. People were evicted and set up a 'Hooverville' under a bridge, Negro and white intermixed. There was an almost spontaneous organization of the unemployed, with both races together. The Unemployed Councils played a role. "There was no city relief [welfare], and one day there was a march on City Hall to demand that something be done. En route we passed a very well-stocked food store. People left the line of march and raided it. The police came with clubs and tear gas.
"A Negro woman near me had taken a ham. A cop came up and said: 'Put that down.' She set the ham down carefully at her feet, then seized a can from the counter at which she was standing and bashed the cop over the head. He dropped in his tracks. She calmly picked up the ham and walked home. "Afterward, the cops set out a dragnet for my brother, thinking him the ringleader, although he was not. He had to hide, and it was a Negro family that offered to take him in, difficult as it would have been for them to explain the presence in the house of a white man.
"In later years I married a Negro. I don't want my husband or my son to face what these men are facing. I think I can understand how Mrs. Grayson feels." Mrs. Grayson was the wife of the only married man of those awaiting death. They had five young children.
(Fern Owens divorced, and married another African-American, Henry Winston, who became National Chairman of the Communist Party.) Jeri Wynne was the next to speak. She was a nineteen-year-old very light- skinned Black woman who had been on her own for two years. "I was born in Cleveland. My father was one of the few men to study electronic engineering before the war. When Western Electric had an opening in this field, there were only three applicants, and he was the only one who qualified. He didn't get the job, being a Negro. This embittered him terribly, and he withdrew into himself.
"My mother's story is similar. Although a graduate of the Cleveland School of Art, she managed only now and then to get some commercial work. "From the time I was four until I was eleven I lived with my grandfather in Mobile, Alabama. He was of a Cuban Creole family, and enormously rich. He owned much of the city. His money came originally from cigars, but he owned entire streets of real estate, and a whole island.
"He had a twenty-room house, and there were lots of kids around. He knew how to handle kids. He was the stingiest man I have ever seen, but on Saturdays when he lined the kids up to give them a nickel to go to the movies, he had a way of making each of us feel wonderful.
"He bought a new black Packard every year, and the family was outraged when, after his death, his daughter bought a Studebaker intead. The five Creole families of Mobile and New Orleans were as aristocratic and snobbish as the Cabots and the Lodges.
"I didn't know that I was a Negro. In color, the family ran from blue- eyed blondes to my color." In a white family, Jeri would be taken as white, and in a Black as Black. "I found out later that my family had been outraged when my mother married a dark Negro. But meanwhile I didn't know, for we children went to a Catholic school for Creoles, where the French patois was spoken. And I hated niggars -we pronounced it to rhyme with cigar. My parents were separated, and I hadn't seen my father since I was four.
"When I was nine, the whole family, with all the children, made a pilgrimage to Macon, Georgia, to visit my greatgrandfather Faustina, who had a thirty-room house out of town, with Negro servants. One day, shortly after we arrived, we children were playing near the railroad track that ran past one end of the place. We heard a lot of noise, and a group of men came along, dragging a Negro. They took some spare ties, stood one in the ground, tied him to it, drenched him with kerosene, and burned him alive.
"For some reason, I just stood there. Greatgrandfather had been watching from the window, for when it was over and we went home, he gathered the whole gang of us in the drawing-room. In the presence of our elders, who were outraged at his destruction of what they had worked a generation to build, he said: 'We are all Negroes here. It could have happened to any one of us,' and he told us the family background. "I turned and fled to my room, and stayed there for two weeks. When I came out, I was a Negro, and no longer a Catholic, for no God of Mercy would let things like that happen in the world."
It was now a quarter to six, and time to go to the square for the mass vigil. A hundred African-Americans showed up on that short notice. A Black restaurant owner gave up his early breakfast business, closed up shop, posted on his front door the handbill our people were distributing, made huge jugs of coffee and trucked them down for free distribution to the people standing outdoors with the temperature at fifteen degrees. The first four men were executed that Friday morning, and the other three were scheduled for Monday. After the first executions, a Black taxi driver drove a young Black Detroit steelworker and myself at night the 225 miles to Martinsville to offer our condolences and help to the families. It was hairy. Scheduled buses had been cancelled because of icy roads. When we became hungry, the driver parked the cab away from the lights of a roadside eatery so no one could see that there was a white among Blacks in the car. He went in, bought sandwiches, and brought them out. African-Americans could not sit down to eat. I felt ashamed, miserable, and demeaned, as I had when required to board that bus in Mississippi in 1946 ahead of an older Black woman.
Death by violence at the hands of government and police was not new, and the parents of the executed men were calm, at least by the time we arrived. Mrs. Hairston asked if there was any hope for the three remaining boys. One home was no more than a room, a bed with a patchwork quilt, a kerosene lamp, and newspaper pasted to the wall to prevent the wind from howling through between the boards.
Back in Richmond on Saturday night the story-telling resumed. Charles Childs, sandy-haired with pale blue eyes, was twenty. His mother had been a textile worker in Tennessee. A strike occurred. She refused to scab, and moved to North Carolina with her five children. There was no husband. Charles remembered how happy he was the day his mother got a job in High Point. She thought she had a good boss, because he let her work overtime. The children would pick up coal along the railroad tracks. The locomotive firemen would deliberately push some over the edge of the tender for them, and did not discriminate between African- American and white children. His mother had died just ten months earlier. The family now consisted of five. He lived with his two sisters, one deeply religious, the other anti-union.
Four years earlier, when he was sixteen, he got a leaflet urging workers to attend a meeting planned by the United Furniture Workers to organize for a five-cent-an-hour raise. Charles made notes about the contents, and showed it to people. He went to the meeting and listened to Mike Ross, a legendary figure in Southern union organizing. He remembered Ross talking about "surplus profit."
In 1948, less than three years earlier, Charles was active in Henry Wallace's campaign for the presidency. He had been drawn in because he was opposed to Universal Military Training, the draft. Meanwhile Charles had managed to get into college. His English thesis was on an "ideal society." He had drafted a Utopia. Charles was sharp.
After the executions of the Martinsville Seven, one of the Black spiritual advisors to the condemned men said to his fellows: "I sure hope the families can get the bodies for a decent burial. There's a rule here that 'rapists' bodies are given to the university medical school." Another clergyman asked: "That white man they also electrocuted this morning really committed rape, didn't he?".
"Yes, but no white man has ever been executed for that. He died for murder."
"And murderers' families get their bodies?"
When one of those clergymen repeated that story to us a couple of hours later, Charles drew the obvious conclusion: "First they reserve the death penalty for rape for Negroes. Then they reserve for Negroes only, therefore, the privilege of being dissected by medical students."
One day Charles and a young woman had been assigned to distribute a leaflet on downtown Broad Street. She said that a degenerate-looking drunk began to berate him. Most people took the leaflets, saying nothing or "thank you," and putting them in their pockets after reading a line or two. The drunk hollered: "nigger-lover!" Charles ignored him, and kept on handing out the leaflets with Southern politeness: "Here you are, ma'am...one for you, sir." The drunk kept it up: "Damyankee! Ought to fry right next to them niggers."
"I was born and raised in the South," Charles said, for the benefit of the passers-by. "Never been away in my life." A Black soldier came along, took a leaflet, walked along slowly reading it, turned around, came back to Charles, and said: "Mighty fine thing you-all are doing."
"I appreciate that, mister," Charles responded.
The drunk exploded: "Mister!" he screamed.
Four years later, when North Carolina Communist leader Junius Scales, a white man, was tried and convicted simply for membership-the only person to serve a sentence on that basis-he was fingered in court by Charles Childs. On cross-examination it turned out that Childs had been an FBI informant for years, paid in the form of a college education. He had told me that government should pay for higher education. In his case it did.
On Sunday morning we decided to organize, that very afternoon, a mass memorial march from the church services to Thomas Jefferson's austere and beautiful State Capitol building. The police were neither asked nor notified. All nine hundred mourners who had filled the church marched, including forty whites. Half a dozen of them were local: working people and aristocrats, none from the middle strata. The parade was headed by two local women, one Black, one white, carrying a wreath. Six clergy followed, of whom one was a white Episcopalian from Chicago. As the parade crossed Broad Street, Richmond's main thoroughfare, the traffic- white Richmond out for a Sunday drive-stopped to let us pass.
The next morning there was another prayer vigil till the last three men's deaths were reported. This time the crowd seemed on the verge of hysteria. So, for the first time in my life I raised a prayer. It was for interracial unity and couched in religious terms: we are all the children of one father. To that I added: "I want to offer a prayer for the day when all men will truly be brothers, and the color of a man's skin will mean nothing. My prayer is for the day when there are no masters or slaves. Abraham Lincoln said: 'If the Lord wanted some men to be slaves, and others to be masters, he would have made some men all hands and no mouths'."
But that night, back in the "Y," although we had planned a mass memorial service, it was clear that it was all over. Someone tuned the radio dial away from the customary search for news and found good dance music. A couple began to dance. All did, interracially of course. Most were in their twenties, often early twenties. The tension had broken.
Two days later there was a final interfaith funeral service in a ghetto church. Two thousand people jammed the church and the streets. A local white workingman known to all for his efforts mounted a soap-box. Police arrived. The crowd would not budge. The police left. Inside, the presiding clergyman paid tribute to the national delegation and asked if any of us wished to say anything.
I felt we should explain our motivations to the people who would come to the service and typed a statement in the expectation that there would be an opportunity to present it. The pastor paid tribute to us from the pulpit, and asked if any of us wished to say anything. I rose in the balcony and read my statement: "I am moved to offer a word of explanation in answer to a question many have asked: 'Who are these people? Why did they come here?' "As for the Negroes in the delegation, their very presence speaks for itself. For myself, I came because there can be no true freedom for the mass of the white people in this country when the Negro people are downtrodden. When you cannot vote...men are elected to the Senate and Congress who do not represent the common people of your state. Therefore, when I want government aid for education for my children, the votes of these men from the southern states deny that money. So I suffer, and all my people, whether they know it or not, because your people are held down....
"So, we did not come down here to be patronizing or nice to somebody else. We came here because we know that our own freedom, our own lives, our own livelihood, depends upon you having freedom and equality.
"That is why I am grateful to you for being here today. You are standing up not only for your people, but for mine, when you assert that you must have an equal right to life and liberty.
"I admire your courage. You have to stay here and face the music. We can go home, away from Virginia justice.
"I want to say one more word. I am not of your faith. I am a Jew. My grandmother can recite from memory over fifty members of my family who were done to death in Hitler's gas chambers less than ten years ago. My people suffered Martinsville a million times over, for 6 million of my faith were exterminated. I know that so long as the idea of racial inequality exists, I face the same fate as the men of Martinsville, for the Jews of Germany were of the same white race as Hitler.
"That is why, for my own sake, I do what I can in a case like this-for my children, and for my country, of which I am bitterly ashamed when something of this kind happens. When we go North and West and South again, we will not forget this. You have taken us into your hearts and homes. I welcome you, for all of us here, to be our guests and friends when you come to our parts of the country."
A couple of days after returning to New York, I was riding home in a subway train. Two Black sleeping-car porters were talking to each other. One had just arrived on a run from Richmond, and he was telling the story of what I had experienced the previous week.
Three years later came the Montgomery bus boycott that propelled Martin Luther King to fame. One of the top leaders was a sleeping-car porter, local rank-and-file organizer for the union.
Copyright © William Mandel, 1999.
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