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Ernest Rice McKinney

Two Who Remain in Tennessee’s Jails

(14 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 41, 14 October 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A monstrous crime has just been perpetrated and a horrible tragedy was performed at Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. I refer to the Columbia, Tennessee, trials which have just been concluded and in which 25 Negroes were being tried for attempted murder. Before the trial of the 25, 103 Negroes were kept in jail and two of them were killed by “officers of the law” for “attempting to escape,” for attempting “violence” while being questioned, or for some equally vague offense in the presence of the “guardians of the law” such as it is in Tennessee and the entire South.

What is the crime and what is the tragedy? The perpetration and the organization of the crime began on February 25 in this year of Lynching, the Four Freedoms and the American Way of Life. On that night in Columbia, following a simple altercation between a Negro and a white man, a white mob composed of uniformed policemen and armed white civilians organized for the purpose of “mopping up” the Negro section of the town, with all the usual savagery and blood-lust of the Southern white mob on a recurrent campaign of “teaching the Niggers to stay in their place.”

Negroes Fought Back

The Negroes, who knew what to expect after some brave Negro had dared be a man and defend himself against insult, withdrew to their section and armed themselves for the defense of their persons and their homes. Such action of course is not tolerated from Negroes in the United States. These courageous Negroes huddled in the darkness of “Mink Slide” and waited for the white mob. During the night four white “officers of the law” were shot. And during the week the State of Tennessee and the mob carried on a reign of terror in the Negro section. Negro business establishments were destroyed and 103 Negro men and boys were jailed. White supremacy had triumphed, the nobility of white manhood had been demonstrated, and white womanhood had been given full protection!

The state’s case against these Negroes was based on the fact that four white policemen had been shot. Who shot them was of no concern to the state or of its “decent white citizens.” All that concerned these white people was the fact that Negroes had armed and were determined to die with the dignity of human beings and not like vermin tramped under foot or burned at the stake. Of the 103 arrested, the state selected 25 for trial on the charge of “attempted murder.” Ten of these 25 Negroes had only recently returned from service in the armed forces, making the world safe against Hitler or any future Hitler. They thought they were fighting against fascism, and for freedom and equality.

It is really not strange that the state included 10 Negro ex-service men among the 25. Above all, Negroes who have seen other countries and other peoples, not as savage as white Southerners, must be taught a lesson. They must be taught that Jim Crow still rules in the U.S. and that where Negroes are concerned, the mob is the law.

Vincent Sheean, in his reports on the trial to the New York Herald Tribune, was surprised at the way the trial was conducted. He need not have been. This trial was conducted as the trial of Negroes is usually conducted in the U.S. and particularly in the South. It must especially be borne in mind that this was no ordinary trial. It was the trial of Negroes who had dared defend themselves and not run like scared rabbits. These Negroes armed themselves and shot back. Nowhere in the U.S. does the law of self-defense apply to Negroes as it does to white men. In this country the usual legal procedure about self-defense is distorted, twisted and perverted whenever and wherever Negroes are involved. This perversion is covered over with unctuous and hypocritical talk about “law and order,” seeking the protection of the “law,” and a pretended concern with attempts to discover whether or not one’s life and home were really in danger.

A Kangaroo Court

The trial was conducted in a manner to make even the most hard-boiled and corrupted shyster lawyer blush. The court permitted the state prosecutor to do and say pretty much as he pleased. The procedure was a frame-up procedure and the trial was a mere imitation of the proceedings of a lynch court, just before the victim is burned at the stake. All the rules of cross-examination were violated in the case of the defense. The defense not only had to contend against the prosecutor but the judge. Any evidence or tactic which would have put the best face on the case for the defendants was ruled out. The judge barked and snarled at the defense attorneys. No limit was put on the prosecution but some of the most telling evidence attempted by the defense was ruled out. The state’s witnesses lied and lied, but the defense was not permitted to demonstrate that they were lying.

In his closing address to the jury the prosecutor, one Bumpus, called for the elimination of “rats,” “lice,” “skunks,” “punks,” and “pimps” who had come into the South from the North. He demanded more hangings because the Nuremberg trials were not going to cause enough hangings, he was against people with such names as “Stinkski” and “Eleanorski.” This was the way this little shyster and ignorant blatherskite addressed a jury which was expected to decide the fate of 25 Negroes according to the law and the evidence.

After the deluge of filth, venom and malignity the jury decided that two of these 25 Negroes were guilty as charged. Not one of them had been proved guilty and not one of them had had the opportunity to be properly defended. Their lawyers were on trial in this court of “law” along with the 25. It was an offense in this trial for a defense lawyer to be presumptuous enough to demand either the right of cross-examination or the right to present relevant evidence. Furthermore, no one on the side of the State was interested in the fact that these Negroes had been attacked by a mob, that they were defending themselves, that two of them had been murdered, that their stores had been smashed in and that the whole Negro population of Columbia had been intimidated and brow-beaten for weeks and months.

Saving Face

But the sovereign State of Tennessee had saved its face. ALL of the hated victims had not been acquitted. At least some lesson would be taught to Negroes who dared shoot at white men. This court would teach them to cry for mercy and be shot like rats the next time a white mob decided to invade the Negro section.

Vincent Sheean, who wrote some excellent articles on this trial before the verdict, succumbed to the usual liberal pap and nonsense after the verdict was in. He was elated that only two of the men had been convicted. Democracy had triumphed: only two innocent men were to be railroaded to the state’s dungeon. It might have been 25. The jury was composed of men of “courage and decency.” It had the opportunity to send all 25 up for 21 years and had courageously and decently refrained.

The New York Times was also jubilant at this demonstration of the democratic spirit, the American Way of Life. Only two innocent victims were convicted. We must have patience. The Negroes of Columbia and of the nation must have patience. It’s not as bad as it might have been. The South has done better in days past. Things are improving. All the Negroes need do is turn their guns over to the “decent” white citizens, work harder and pray more.

We say again: a monstrous crime was perpetrated at this, trial and conviction. Only fools, scoundrels of “good will” and cowards can rejoice over the outcome. But tragedy was present also. There were Negroes present testifying for the state. This was the tragedy. Not the fact that Negroes appeared as witnesses for the state but the way in which they became the state’s witnesses. Everybody knows how they got there. They were intimidated, terrorized and maltreated. They were made to sign statements and give evidence which had been prepared for them. We have no quarrel with these Negroes. Even if they went voluntarily, we still have no quarrel with them. They live under a constant reign of terror, intimidation and brutality. Anyone, black or white, who casts a stone at these Negroes who testified for the state at that trial, is a man or woman not fit to live; or suited for the association of any decent human being.

There is only one bright spot in this whole sordid affair. It is the Negroes of Columbia who defended themselves and shot back on February 25. The Workers Party and this paper salute these brave Negroes.

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