[left: cartoon from William's magazine 'The Crusader', illustrating the concept expressed also by Malcolm X / Malik El-Hajj Shabazz that Black people in the US should see themselves, not as a minority but as the majority of anti-imperialist masses across the world struggling for their rights ]
An NAACP Chapter Is Reborn in Militancy
My home town is Monroe, North Carolina. It has a population of 11,000, about a quarter of which is Negro. It is a county seat (Union County) and is 14 miles from the South Carolina border. Its spirit is closer to that of South Carolina than to the liberal atmosphere of Chapel Hill which people tend to associate with North Carolina. There are no trade unions in our county and the southeastern regional headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan is in Monroe.
There was also, at the time of my return from the Marines, a small and dwindling chapter of the NAACI‘. The Union County NAACP was a typical Southern branch-small, not very active, dominated by and largely composed of the upper crust of the black community-professionals, businessmen and white-collar workers.
Before the Supreme Court desegregation decision of 1954, the NAACP was not a primary target of segregationists. In many places in the South, including Monroe, racists were not too concerned with the small local chapters. But the Supreme Court Decision drastically altered this casual attitude. The Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils made it their business to locate any NAACP chapter in their vicinity and to find out who its officers and members were. Threats of violence and economic sanctions were applied to make people withdraw their membership. Chapters, already small, dwindled rapidly.
A Veteran Returns Home
When I got out of the Marine Corps, I knew I wanted to go home and join the NAACP In the Marines I had got a taste of discrimination and had some run-ins that got me into the guardhouse. When I joined the local chapter of the NAACP it was going down in membership, and when it was down to six, the leadership proposed dissolving it. When I objected, I was elected president and they withdrew, except for Dr. Albert E. Perry. Dr. Perry was a newcomer who had settled in Monroe and built up a very successful practice. He became our vice-president. I tried to get former members back without success and finally I realized that I would have to work without the social leaders of the community.
At this time I was inexperienced. Before going into the Marines I had left Monroe for a time and worked in an aircraft factory in New Jersey and an auto factory in Detroit. Without knowing it, I had picked up some ideas of organizing from the activities around me, but I had never served in a union local and I lacked organizing experience. But I am an active person and I hated to give up on something as important as the NAACP.
So one day I walked into a Negro poolroom in our town, interrupted a game by putting NAACP literature on the table and made a pitch. I recruited half of those present. This got our chapter off to a new start. We began a recruiting drive among laborers, farmers, domestic workers, the unemployed and any and all Negro people in the area. We ended up with a chapter that was unique in the whole NAACP because of working class composition and a leadership that was not middle class. Most important, we had a strong representation of returned veterans who were very militant and who didn’t scare easy. We started a struggle in Monroe and Union County to integrate public facilities and we had the support of a Unitarian group of white people. In 1957, with out any friction at all, we integrated the public library. It shocked us that in other Southern states, particularly Virginia, Negroes encountered such violence in trying to integrate libraries.
We moved on to win better rights for Negroes: economic rights, the right of education and the right of equal protection under the law. We rapidly got the reputation of being the most militant branch of the NAACP Obviously we couldn’t get this reputation without antagonizing the racists who are trying to prevent Afro-Americans from enjoying their inalienable human rights as Americans. Specifically, we aroused the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan and a showdown developed over the integration of the swimming pool.
The Ku Klux Klan Swings into Action
As I explained in the last chapter, the swimming pool had been built with Federal funds under the WPA system and was supported by municipal taxation. Yet Negroes could not use it. Neither the Federal government nor the local officials had provided any swimming facilities for Negroes. Over a period of years several of our children had drowned while swimming in unsupervised swimming holes. When we lost another child in 1956 we started a drive to obtain swimming facilities for Negroes, especially for our children.
First, we asked the city officials to build a pool in the Negro community. This would have been a segregated pool, but we asked for this because we were merely interested in safe facilities for the children. The city officials said they couldn’t comply with this request because it would be too expensive and they didn’t have the money. Then, in a compromise move, we asked that they set aside one or two days out of each week when the segregated pool would be reserved for Negro children. They said that this too would be too expensive. Why would it be too expensive, we asked. Because, they said, each time the colored people used the pool they would have to drain the water and refill it.
They said they would eventually build us a pool when they got the funds. We asked them when we could expect it. One year? They said “No.” Five years? They said “No,” they couldn’t be sure. Ten years? They said that they couldn’t be sure. Finally we asked if we could expect it within fifteen years and they said that they couldn’t give us any definite promise.
There was a white Catholic priest in the community who owned a station wagon. He would transport the colored youth to Charlotte, N.C., which was twenty-five miles away, so they could swim there in the Negro pool. Some of the city officials of Charlotte saw this priest swimming in the Negro pool and they wanted to know who he was. The Negro supervisor explained that he was a priest. The city officials replied they didn’t care whether he was a priest or not, that he was white and they had segregation of the races in Charlotte. So they barred the priest from the colored pool.
Again the children didn’t have any safe place to swim at all-so we decided to take legal action against the Monroe pool.
First, we started a campaign of stand-ins of short duration. We would go stand for a few minutes and ask to be admitted and never get admitted. While we were preparing the groundwork for possible court proceedings, the Ku Klux Klan came out in the open. The press started to carry articles about the Klan activities. In the beginning they mentioned that a few hundred people would gather in open fields and have their Klan rallies. Then the numbers kept going up. The numbers went up to 3,000, 4,000, 5,000. Finally the Monroe Enquirer estimated that 7,500 Klansmen had gathered in a field to discuss dealing with the integrationists, described by the Klan as the “Communist-Inspired-National-Association-for-the-Advancement-of-Colored-People.” They started a campaign to get rid of us, to drive us out of the community, directed primarily at Dr. Albert E. Perry, our vice-president, and myself.
The Klan started by circulating a petition. To gather signatures they set up a table in the county courthouse square in Monroe. The petition stated that Dr. Perry and I should be permanently driven out of Union County because we were members and officials of the Communist-NAACP. The Klan claimed 3,000 signatures in the first week. In the following week they claimed 3,000 more. They had no basis for any legal action, but they had hoped to frighten us out of town by virtue of sheer numbers.
In the history of the South in days past, it was enough to know that so many people wanted to get rid of a Negro to make him take off by himself. One must remember that in this community where the press estimated that there were 7,500 Klan supporters, the population of the town was only about 12,000 people. Actually, many of the Klan people came in from South Carolina, Monroe being only fourteen miles from the state border.
When they discovered that this could not intimidate us, they decided to take direct action. After their rallies they would drive through our community in motorcades and honk their horns and fire pistols from the car windows. On one occasion, they caught a colored woman on an isolated street corner and made her dance at pistol point.
At this outbreak of violence against our Negro community, a group of pacifist ministers went to the city officials and asked that the Klan be prohibited from forming these motorcades to parade through Monroe. The officials of the county and the city rejected their request on the grounds that the Klan was a legal organization having as much constitutional right to organize as the NAACP.
Self-Defense Is Born of Our Plight
Since the city officials wouldn’t stop the Klan, we decided to stop the Klan ourselves. We started this action out of the need for defense because law and order had completely vanished; because there was no such thing as a 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution in Monroe, N.C. The Local officials refused to enforce law and order and when we turned to Federal and state officials to enforce law and order they either refused or ignored our appeals.
Luther Hodges, who is now Secretary of Commerce, was the Governor of North Carolina at that time. We first appealed to him. He took sides with the Klan; they had not broken any laws, they were not disorderly, he said. Then we appealed to President Eisenhower but we never received a reply to our telegrams. There was no response at all from Washington.
So we started arming ourselves. I wrote to the National Rifle Association in Washington which encourages veterans to keep in shape to defend their native land and asked for a charter, which we got. In a year we had sixty members. We had bought some guns too, in stores, and later a church in the North raised money and got us better rifles. The Klan discovered we were arming and guarding our community. In the summer of 1957 they made one big attempt to stop us. An armed motorcade attacked Dr. Perry’s house, which is situated on the outskirts of the colored community. We shot it out with the Klan and repelled their attack and the Klan didn’t have any more stomach for this type of fight. They stopped raiding our community. After this clash the same city officials who said the Klan had a constitutional right to organize met in an emergency session and passed a city ordinance banning the Klan from Monroe without a special permit from the police chief.
At the time of our clash with the Klan only three Negro publications-the Afro-American, the Norfolk Journal and Guide, and Jet Magazine-reported the fight. Jet carried some pictures of the self-defense guard. Our fight occurred two weeks before the famous clash between the Indians and the Klan. We had driven the Klan out of our county into the Indian territory. The national press played up the Indian Klan fight because they didn’t consider this a great threat the Indians are a tiny minority and people could laugh at the incident as a sentimental joke-but no one wanted Negroes to get the impression that this was an accepted way to deal with the Klan. So the white press maintained a complete blackout about the Monroe fight.
After the Klan learned that violence wouldn’t serve their purpose they started to use the racist courts. Dr. Perry, our vice-president, was indicted on a trumped-up charge of abortion. He is a Catholic physician, and one of the doctors who had been head of the county medical department drove forty miles to testify in Dr. Perry’s behalf, declaring that when Dr. Perry had worked in the hospital he had refused to file sterilization permits for the County Welfare Department on the ground that this was contrary to his religious beliefs. But he was convicted, sentenced to five years in prison, and the loss of his medical license.
The Kissing Case
In October, 1958, two local colored boys, David Simpson, aged 7, and Hanover Thompson, aged 9, were arrested on the charge of rape which is punishable in North Carolina by death.
This was the famous “Kissing Case.” What had happened was that David and Hanover got into a game of “cowboys and Indians” with some white children one afternoon. After a while, the white girls in the group suggested they play “house.” One of the little white girls, Sissy Sutton, sat on Hanover’s lap and suddenly recognized Hanover as her old playmate. Hanover’s mother worked for Sissy’s mother and until Hanover reached school age his mother had taken him with her when she went to work at the Sutton house.
When this little girl discovered that Hanover was her old playmate she kissed him on the cheek. Later on in the afternoon she ran home and told her mother how she had seen Hanover and how she was so happy to see him again that she had kissed him.
Sissy’s mother got hysterical when she heard this and called the police. Before the two boys had even gotten home they were arrested and thrown into the county jail. If a person is arrested for rape in North Carolina he is not permitted to see anyone for a period of time while the police investigate. Therefore the police didn’t notify the boys’ parents.
A few days later when we finally found out what had happened and where the two missing boys were, we tried to get help. But the national office of the NAACP wouldn’t have anything to do with the case because it was a “sex case.” A seven-year-old white girl had kissed a nine-year-old Negro boy on the cheek and the national office didn’t want any part of it.
The children were sent to the reformatory soon after they were arrested. I called the civil rights lawyer, Conrad Lynn, and he carne down from New York. First thing, he went to talk with Judge Hampton Price, who had passed sentence.
The Judge said to Lynn that he had held a “separate but equal hearing.” Lynn asked him what he meant by a “separate but equal hearing.” And the Judge told him how on the morning of the trial he had called in Mrs. Sutton and her daughter, and Mrs. Sutton had made a statement, and they were sent home. Then in the afternoon the two Negro mothers were summoned to the Judge, and their boys were brought in. Then the Judge said to Lynn, I told them what Mrs. Sutton had told me and then since they were guilty- I sent them up for fourteen years at the reformatory.”
The NAACP national office still wasn’t doing anything about the case but an English reporter who was a friend of Lynn’s visited the reformatory and sneaked out a photograph of the boys, which appeared along with a story on the front page of the Dec. 15,1958, London News Chronicle. Then all of Europe got wind of the case and there were protest demonstrations in London, Rotterdam, Rome, and Paris. Only then did many American newspapers begin to express “concern” about the ‘Kissing Case.”
At the end of December, 1958, Dr, Perry, Conrad Lynn, and I were called to New York by Roy Wilkins and he offered me a job in Detroit if I’d leave Monroe. I flatly refused his offer.
By now so much pressure was building up abroad and even in the U.S.A. that the NAACP national office entered the case-this case that had until now involved such dreadful sexual implications. In late January there was a hearing, but the children were sent back to the reformatory. Meanwhile, world pressure was mounting. An example is that of the petition signed by the 15,000 students and faculty at a Rotterdam, Holland, high school named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The petition called for the release of the children and it was sent to Mrs. Roosevelt.
Somebody said something, finally, to President Eisenhower, and finally he said something to our then Governor Hodges, and on Feb. 13, 1959, the children were released.
“We Will Meet Violence with Violence”
In 1969 Mrs. Georgia White, a Negro mother of five children who worked in a Monroe hotel as a maid, was kicked down a flight of stairs into the lobby of the hotel by a white guest. He said he kicked Mrs. White down a flight of stairs because she had been making too much noise while working in the corridor and had disturbed his sleep. When we asked for an indictment, the chief of police, A. A. Mauney, refused our request. Finally when we threatened to take legal action by bringing in NAACP lawyers, he relented and placed this man under a $75 bond. Even though this white defendant subsequently failed to appear in court for his trial, he was not convicted.
That same day there was another colored woman in court, Mrs. Mary Ruth Reid. Mrs. Reid was eight months pregnant. She was the victim of an attempted rape by a white man who came to her house, drove her from her house, and then beat her. He caught her while she was trying to escape down the main highway and knocked her to the ground. Mrs. Reid’s six-year-old boy was running along the side and when the white rapist beat his mother the boy picked up a stick and started hitting the man over the head with it while his mother escaped. She went to a neighbor’s house and her neighbor called the police and gave her aid. The neighbor was a white woman and she came to court that day with Mrs. Reid. She came and testified that she had seen the defendant chasing Mrs. Reid and that Mrs. Reid had come to her house in an excited and hysterical state, without shoes, and with her clothes torn from her. This testimony required considerable courage on the part of Mrs. Reid’s white neighbor.
During the trial the defense attorney arranged for the defendant’s wife to sit at his side as if she were also involved in the case. Then the defense attorney appealed to the jury. He said, “Judge, Your Honor, and ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you see this man. This is his wife. This woman, this white woman is the pure flower of life. She is one of God’s lovely creatures, a pure flower. And do you think this man would have left this pure flower for that?” And he made it appear as if the colored woman was actually on trial. Then the defense ended by saying, “It’s just a matter of whether or not you’re going to believe this woman or this white man. Judge, Your Honor, this man is not guilty of any crime. He was just drinking and having a little fun.” The man was acquitted.
Mrs. Reid had several brothers who had wanted to kill her white attacker before the trial began. But I persuaded them not to do anything. I said that this was a matter that would be handled legally, that we would get a lawyer-which we did. We brought a lawyer all the way from New York who wasn’t even allowed to take the floor in court. So I was responsible for this would-be rapist not being punished.
The courtroom was full of colored women and when this man was acquitted they turned to me and said, “Now what are you going to do? You have opened the floodgates on us. Now these people know that they can do anything that they want to us and there is no prospect of punishment under law and it means that we have been exposed to these people and you’re responsible for it. Now what are you going to say?” I told them that in a civilized society the law is a deterrent against the strong who would take advantage of the weak, but the South is not a civilized society; the South is a social jungle. So in cases like this we have to revert to the law of the jungle; it had become necessary for us to create our own deterrent. I said that in the future we would defend our women and children, our homes and ourselves with our arms. That we would meet violence with violence.
My statement was reprinted all over the United States. What I had said was, “This demonstration today shows that the Negro in the South cannot expect justice in the courts. He must convict his attackers on the spot. He must meet violence with violence, lynching with lynching.”
The next day in an interview with the Carolina Times I again pointed to the lack of protection from the courts. I said, “These court decisions open the way to violence. I do not mean that Negroes should go out and attempt to get revenge for mistreatments or injustices.” I made this statement again on the same day over a Cincinnati radio station. Later that evening in a telecast interview in Charlotte I again made clear that I was speaking of self-defense when the courts fail to protect us.
Since the principle is so obvious, I couldn’t understand the commotion my statement aroused or why it should receive so much national publicity. Two years previously, when we had shot up the Ku Klux Klan in self-defense, not a single white newspaper in America reported the incident. We were only serving notice that we would do more of the same, that Negro self-defense was here to stay in Monroe. So I didn’t feel we were doing anything new. I realize now that we were establishing a principle, born out of our experience, which could, and would, set an example to others.
Looking back, it is clear that racists made a big error in publicizing our stand. Even though it has caused me and my family a great deal of suffering, the result has been to force a debate on the issue. It also shook up the NAACP considerably out of its timid attitudes and forced an official reaffirmation from the NAACP of the right of Negroes to selfdefense against racist violence.