1958: Jeremiah Reeves, Montgomery Bus Boycott inspiration

2 comments March 28th, 2014 Headsman

In 1954, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama hired as its pastor a 25-year-old fresh out of Boston University’s doctoral program.

In his memoir, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his entry to civil rights activism in Montgomery. One of his first steps was setting up a Social and Political Action Committee for his church, prominently emphasizing voter registration.

But his next engaged a major death penalty case that haunted Montgomery throughout the 1950s.

After having started the program of the church on its way, I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. Besides raising money through my church, I made several speeches for the NAACP in Montgomery and elsewhere. Less than a year after I joined the branch I was elected to the executive committee. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face to face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.

Before my arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the NAACP’s energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves, a drummer in a Negro band, had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. One of the authorities had led him to the death chamber, threatening that if he did not confess at once he would burn there later. His confession, extracted under this duress, was later retracted, and for the remaining seven years that his case, and his life, dragged on, he continued to deny not only the charge of rape but the accusation of having had sexual relations at all with his white accuser.

The NAACP hired the lawyers and raised the money for Reeve’s defense. In the local court he was found guilty and condemned to death. The conviction was upheld in a series of appeals through the Alabama courts. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on two occasions. The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to thes tate supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute. After the failure of a final appeal to the governor to commute the sentence, the police officials kept their promise. On March 28, 1958, Reeves was electrocuted.

The Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts. In the years that he sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.

Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

Reeves’s plight struck much closer to home for Claudette Colvin.

A Montgomery native, she was a classmate of Reeves at Montgomery’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a city bus in front of King’s church on her way back from school, and plopped herself down in the middle of it. As the bus meandered on its route, it began to fill up. Montgomery’s segregated-bus rules at the time reserved a few rows up front for whites, and opened the middle rows for blacks … but only until the white rows overflowed, at which point black riders in the midsection were expected to give up their seats.

Colvin refused to do it.

She furiously argued with the police summoned by the bus driver, invoking her constitutional rights.

When they arrested her, she didn’t do nonviolent resistance: she fought back.

“I was really struggling,” she said in Ellen Levin’s Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories.

“Other kids got home and told Mama what happened,” Colvin remembered. “She already knew how hurt I was about Jeremiah Reeves. She knew this wasn’t a one-day thing. This was a rebellious time that started with Jeremiah … I just couldn’t get over Jeremiah being framed.”

Colvin’s spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience predated the more famous refusal of Rosa Parks by nine months. (Colvin’s parents knew Rosa Parks, and Parks was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, which Colvin was involved in.)

Montgomery civil rights leaders were already looking for a test case to mount a challenge against Montgomery buses’ racial ridership rules. Colvin was considered for the part, but ultimately Montgomery’s leaders took a pass on the case: she was an angry teenager, very dark-skinned, and from a working-class family; moreover, she soon became pregnant by an older, married man whom Colvin refused to name. Nevertheless, her name, and her act, became well-known in Montgomery and nationwide. The first pamphlets about Parks’s arrest reference Colvin as the well-known precedent.

Rosa Parks, a dignified and nonviolent matron, was eventually judged the palatable public figurehead to rally behind. Days after Parks’s December 1, 1955 arrest,* the Montgomery Improvement Association — with King at its head — mounted its famous bus boycott. Parks is the name everyone knows … but Colvin was the first.

And Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the federal suit that forced desegregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin’s refusenik notoriety made it so difficult for her to work in Montgomery that she moved to New York in 1958 — the same year her schoolmate was finally electrocuted for that supposed rape.

Days after Reeves died in Alabama’s electric chair, an Easter rally assembled on the lawn of that state’s capitol building to protest the execution — and gird for the struggles still to come.

We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.

But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.

Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.

-Martin Luther King, ““Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves” (pdf transcription)

* Parks would say that she had been thinking on the occasion of her refusal of that summer’s murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1945: Louis Till, father of Emmett

Add comment July 2nd, 2013 Headsman

The Aug. 28, 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers by an all-white Mississippi jury were among the American civil rights movement’s pivotal events.

For a certain indecent number of people, however, the passion of the 14-year-old youth — alleged to have flirted with a white woman — was to be mourned only insofar as it confirmed the menace that insatiable Negro libidos posed to southern way of life.

Further to that end, the months following Emmett Till’s death brought to the headlines the formerly obscure* July 2, 1945 hanging of an American G.I. in Italy: Emmett’s father, Louis Till.

The violent Louis Till ruined his marriage to Emmett’s mother Mamie shortly after his son’s birth. Repeatedly violating her restraining order eventually landed Till pere before a judge, who gave him a choice between hard time and enlistment. Till joined the U.S. Army.

In 1945, he was court-martialed for murdering an Italian woman and raping two others. His execution near Pisa — he’s buried in Europe in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, the same final resting place as Eddie Slovik — was the no-account end of a no-account man for many years thereafter. Mamie Till said that she wasn’t even told what happened to her ex-husband, and was stonewalled when she sought information.

By the end of 1955, everyone knew.

In Jim Crow’s backlash against nationwide condemnation of the Till lynching, Louis Till came back to life in newsprint all that autumn to visit the sins of the father upon his late son: here was the mirror of the young predator all grown up, violating Italian women. Mississippi’s white supremacist senators used their rank to obtain his army file, and leaked it to reporters.

According to Davis Houck and Matthew Grindy’s study of the Mississippi media’s conflicting reactions to the events of 1955, “Louis Till became a most important rhetorical pawn in the high-stakes game of north versus south, black versus white, NAACP versus White Citizens’ Councils.”

The pawn’s sacrifice did not figure in the endgame.

Crude attempts to impose blood guilt for Louis Till’s crimes aside, Clenora Hudson-Weems argues in her Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement that it was Emmett Till’s shocking death that catalyzed the civil rights movement — that the horrifyingly mutilated face at his open-casket funeral and the insouciant confession of his killers once they had been acquitted shook southern blacks and northern whites alike so profoundly as to dispel any confidence that legal briefs or political incrementalism could grapple with America’s race problem. Civil rights lion Joyce Ladner was an 11-year-old Mississippi girl when Emmett Till was lynched; she would tell Hudson-Weems of the shock it delivered in her world coming on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating schools.

A very important thing is that it followed the Supreme Court decision in 1954. It’s like the Whites said that they don’t care what rights we were given … So when the spark came in Mississippi to sit in the public library, for example, people who participated had been incensed by the Till incident and were just waiting for the spark to come. The Till incident was the catalyst.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, launching the famous bus boycott. “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back,” Parks said later.

Emmett Till’s body was exhumed for autopsy and DNA testing in 2005, in part to dispel the old story first promulgated by the attorneys who defended Till’s murderers — that the body wasn’t Emmett Till’s at all. On the corpse’s finger was a ring inscribed with the initials of his father: L.T.

* Louis Till did have one small claim to fame prior to his son’s murder: the fascist poet Ezra Pound chanced to be imprisoned with Till; he mentions the later-famous execution in his Pisan Cantos:

Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Italy,Murder,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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1951: Willie McGee

4 comments May 8th, 2011 Headsman

As of today, it is sixty years since the Laurel, Mississippi execution of Willie McGee for rape — a lightning rod for controversy over race, crime, and justice in one of the Cold War’s principal antagonists.

McGee died silent in the state’s portable electric chair, rigged up in the very courtroom of his trial, right in front of the box from whence his all-white jury had retired two and a half minutes before convicting him. Fifty or so observers were there with him — plus those of the hundreds of local residents milling around outside intrepid enough to scale a tree for an illicit view through the courthouse windows.*

(Given the setting, some sources call this a “public execution,” which is not technically correct. This courtroom tableau was actually a standard deployment for the mobile electric chair.)

But McGee’s own silence hardly muted global outrage: for years, appeals for McGee’s life had deluged Mississippi and the White House from Europe, the Soviet Union, and what was quaintly known as “Red China.”

Oh, yes. The Reds.

Willie McGee’s case popped out of backwoods obscurity when he got from the pinko Civil Rights Congress a leftist young attorney — future U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug.

Once it got out there, it became the Free Mumia case of the nascent civil rights movement and the nascent Cold War. Its appeal to communist countries and cadres only raised the hackles of American establishment types. This was a Negro raping a white housewife literally and metaphorically.


Author Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death) campaigning to save Willie McGee’s life. William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, and Josephine Baker also publicly supported McGee.

Whether there actually was a literal rape is the enduring mystery — the enduring Rorschach blot — of the McGee case. The accused himself remained silent on the matter for years; eventually, he claimed that the two were having a consensual but forbidden interracial affair and that he had been brutalized into a confession.

McGee’s defenders believed that the “victim” herself initiated the affair, and

threatened to cry rape if he refused her flirtatious advances … McGee reluctantly went [along] with Hawkins, fearing the tragic consequences of turning her away. “People who don’t know the South don’t know what would have happened to Willie if he told her no,” [Willie’s wife] Rosalee told a friend. “Down South you tell a woman like that no, and she’ll cry rape anyway. So what else could Willie do?”

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance

(In this version, the manipulative Hawkins executed the threat when her husband — who later witnessed McGee’s electrocution — found out. McGee’s cited reason for changing his story was the very plausible fear of lynching.)

A Laurel African-American who was then a child remembers being taken by his family to view the body, and impress upon him the lesson of its electrical burns: “Don’t mess with white girls.”

McGee’s persecutors considered all that miscegenation stuff so much subversive rubbish, a “revolting insinuation,” in the words of the Mississippi Supreme Court.**

And if at its apex the controversy generated more heat than light, its historical fade to embers has not sufficed to resolve the factual questions.

McGee has benefited from a recent rediscovery — one that indicates such memories of the McGee case as persevere in Laurel still divide starkly along racial lines.

Explore this case and its many resonances (without the Perry Mason big reveal) in Alex Heard’s 2010 The Eyes of Willie McGee (review); and, in a spellbinding NPR series on “My Grandfather’s Execution” by Bridgette McGee-Robinson, which is exactly what it sounds like. (Direct links to several Radio Diaries mp3 episodes can be found from the RSS feed here.)

Both were facilitated by a recording of execution-night radio news coverage fortuitously preserved by a young Hattiesburg reporter.

Book Cover

* New York Times, May 8, 1951.

** McGee did at least win two retrials in Mississippi; federal courts gave him short shrift, with anti-civil rights judge Sidney Mize — later memorable for fighting the legal rearguard against integrating Ole Miss — lecturing Abzug in a last-ditch appeal that McGee’s “guilt is plain” and that “courts ought to rise up and defend themselves.” (Source)

Taken as an obvious given: “actually guilty” or not, a defendant executed for rape in the American South is certainly a black man with a white accuser.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Mississippi,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,USA,Wrongful Executions

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