Beneath the gold draperies that canopy the long, high-ceilinged stage of the Montgomery, Alabama, City Hall sat the officers of the local White Citizens Council and their honored guests—the top officials of the city, county, and state police forces. Montgomery Safety Commissioner L. B. Sullivan, who heads the police and fire departments of this city of roughly seventy thousand white and fifty thousand Negro citizens, stood at the rostrum and told his appreciative public audience:
Since the infamous Supreme Court decision in 1954, we in Montgomery and the South have been put to a severe test by those who seek to destroy our time-honored customs ….
I think I speak for all the law-enforcement agencies when I say we will use all the peaceful means at our disposal to maintain our cherished traditions.
So stand the police of Alabama—on the side of law, order, and the cherished traditions of the white citizens. Indeed, the topic of this particular meeting in April, 1960, was “A Salute to Law and Order.” I attended it with a young man and woman who live in Montgomery, and we sat throughout the proceedings in silence, neither clapping nor rising from our seats during the several standing ovations. Throughout the speeches I was taking notes, and this, along with our failure to rise and applaud at appropriate moments, was evidently enough to brand us as outsiders. When we walked toward the door at the end of the meeting a middle-aged man in a brown business suit followed along beside us and began to shout at me, “Did you get enough information? I hope you got all the information you wanted!”
I said yes, thanks, I had all the information I wanted. He continued to follow, shouting and pointing at us, and other people began to stop and stare. He yelled out, “I know who you are! I know who all three of you are!”
By the tone of his voice and the look on his face, he seemed to be under the impression that we were, at the very least, three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I extended my hand and told him my name, but he drew back and shouted, “Never mind, I know who you are! You’re not welcome here!”
We walked on out of the door, and when we got to the street, several young sport-shirted men and one elderly citizen fell in behind us. We walked on in silence to the car, which was parked around the corner from the City Hall, across the street from the fire station. Not looking back, we seated the girl in the car. I got in next to her by the door, and the other young man walked around to get in the driver’s seat. Before we got in, my door was yanked open and two of the men who had followed us were grabbing at me, cursing and trying to pull me out of the car. They grabbed for my arms, legs, and the notebook and papers I carried, tearing at my clothes and ripping my jacket.
The young man who had come to the meeting with me quickly hustled the girl out of the car. She ran across the street to the fire station, where four or five Montgomery city firemen were standing outside watching us. She ran toward them yelling for help, and they hurried inside, retreating into a back room of the fire station refusing to answer when the girl pounded on the door.
My own shouts by now had become quite loud and sincere, and the zealous citizens, who still had not managed to pull me out of the car, finally ran off down the street and out of sight. My two friends got back into the car, and just before we drove away the firemen appeared again outside the fire station across the street. They were smiling at us. Evidently they too were unmoved by, or unaware of, the doctrine of the uses of “peaceful means” in preserving tradition that their boss, Safety Commissioner Sullivan, had espoused in behalf of himself and his men at the meeting a few minutes earlier.
Who could say that the citizens who attacked us were not just doing their best to “accommodate” some “outside meddlers”?
In fairness to the inspired citizens who attacked us, however, it ought to be explained that the Citizens Council “Salute to Law and Order” program was not exactly a Gandhian conference on the merits of love and nonviolence, and L. B. Sullivan’s text was far from being The Sermon on the Mount. One of the significant and dangerous features of the respectable racism practiced by the White Citizens Councils is that, although their leaders and orators never fail to mouth a firm dedication to law and order at every public gathering, they also stir the passions of their crowds with provocative and outraged attacks on all those who oppose their principles, and deliver soul-searing declamations on the sacred cause of white supremacy. If zealots leave these meetings and vent their passionate dedication to the cause by violent means, the Citizens Council officials can, of course, deny responsibility by citing their statements upholding “legal, peaceful means” of action.
Safety Commissioner Sullivan, for instance, could disclaim any incitement to violence in his speech by pointing to his clearly stated belief in “peaceful means” of preserving the threatened white traditions. But after that affirmation (a not too radical stand for a city police chief), he got down to more alarming matters. The city of Montgomery, he explained to his audience, was selected long ago as “a site for racial agitators and troublemakers to attack our cherished way of life.” The pressure had increased of late, he said, because of the efforts of civil rights groups to influence politicians in Congress and in the coming presidential elections. The rabble-rousers had so far met with little success, he reported, but there were dangers ahead:
Not since Reconstruction have our customs been in such jeopardy …. We can, will, and must resist outside forces hell-bent on our destruction ….
As if this weren’t enough to inflame the breast of any loyal white Citizen, Mr. Sullivan went on to state: “We want these outside meddlers to leave us alone”; then, in a slow, meaningful tone of irony: “If they do otherwise, we’ll do our best to ‘accommodate’ them here in Montgomery.”
And who could say that the citizens who shortly afterwards attacked us were not just doing their best to “accommodate” some “outside meddlers”?
The audience also had been informed that outsiders were the real cause of the attempted Negro prayer march to the steps of the state on March 6,1960, which barely was prevented from turning into a riot when an angry mob of five thousand whites assembled to stop the demonstration. Program chairman Don Hallmark of the Montgomery White Citizens Council told the meeting that “the people who sponsored this demonstration were disappointed—they had a lot of money in it.”
The Citizens Council “Salute to Law and Order” was held to honor the officials for their work in dispelling the mob and preventing violence at that demonstration. But one of the important groups that took an active part in controlling that explosive Situation was not represented on the platform along with the city, county, and state police officials feted by the Council. This was the group of armed horsemen whose appearance on the scene marked a new addition to the law-enforcement procedures of the South. The band of mounted “deputies,” led by Sheriff Mac Sims Butler, was composed of wealthy cattlemen from the surrounding area who now are on call for emergencies, and have several times come into town with their horses in trailer trucks for “civil defense” drills. During the prayer-march demonstration, they roughed up and threatened three press photographers, two from Alabama papers and one from Magnum of New York. One of the photographers was arrested for refusing to obey an officer (deputy) who told him to move back. These nonuniformed mounties are unknown by face or name for public record and have been especially vigilant in preventing any pictures being taken of them.
Reasons of secrecy no doubt prevented them from appearing on the Citizens Council platform to share the honors with the city, county, and state police, but perhaps that was all for the best. The volunteer horsemen might well have been disappointed at the public’s appreciation of their efforts. An estimated five thousand of their fellow white citizens had turned up to form the mob that they helped to hold in tow on March 6; but not more than fifty sat scattered in Montgomery’s large city hall on “Law and Order” night. When Don Hallmark stepped to the front of the stage to open the meeting, he looked around the nearly vacant auditorium and asked: “Where is everybody?”
The only answer was an uneasy shifting as necks craned around at empty rows, and Mr. Hallmark, after asking those scattered at the back and the sides to come on down front and center, attempted to dispel the momentary gloom with the hopeful appraisal, “We think we make up for numbers in quality here …. ”
It is easier to assemble larger numbers of white citizens for a mob than for a meeting. But that is not hard to understand—a mob at least offers excitement, but even the most ardent white supremacist must at this stage be weary of the ceremonies of the Citizens Councils. It is now six years since the conception of the W.C.C. sprang full-blown from the forehead of Robert “Tut” Patterson in Sunflower County, Mississippi, and with occasional and usually minor variations, the meetings of these defenders of the faith throughout the South remain as unchanged in rhetoric and style as high school graduation ceremonies.
As is usual custom at these proceedings, Chairman Hallmark harangued the conscience of his audience on the need for financial as well as moral support of their principles. (Last year Alabama’s white citizens coughed up only $4,500 for the cause, while their brothers in Mississippi gave $160,000.) In the same familiar formulas, Mr. Hallmark reaffirmed the organization’s principles (“states’ rights,” “segregation,” “preservation of our cherished customs”) and its unbending allegiance to them (“despite Federal prisons or anything else, no force can make us integrate”).
It was Safety Commissioner Sullivan who provided the only new notes in the evening’s incantations. If there were any skeptics present who had doubted the feelings of the police about their role in quelling the mob at the prayer-march, Mr. Sullivan soothed their minds. He complimented the mob for its “cooperation” with the law-enforcement officials by finally dispersing without drawing blood, and made it clear that the police had been there not only to preserve the peace, but to preserve the white traditions as well. “Spring is here, and birds are singing,” Mr. Sullivan said, “but with the help of our law-enforcement people, the blackbirds aren’t gonna sing on the capitol steps.”
The white citizens laughed, and rose to a standing ovation.
I took the plane for Atlanta the next morning, with the relieved feeling of flying out of the jungle to a safe and cosmopolitan city; Atlanta seemed, in the circumstances, very much like Paris to me.
… Looking back, I think that the South for me, as for most of us journalistic intruders, is only a hotel room. Whether it is one of the old ones with a fan on the ceiling or the new type with air conditioning, still there is the ice water brought, and the unfamiliar phone book at your side, the indolence that grows on you like a fever and restrains your hand from the telephone, lying there just a little longer with the ice melting in the glass and the bourbon helping to numb the senses that have not already been pulverized by the atmosphere. That is my South: a strange hotel room with a fan on the ceiling, a pint of bourbon and a telephone book on the bedside table, and a sense that outside lies a cruel puzzle whose pieces have cutting edges and defy sensible construction; pieces that anyway keep coming out to the same monotonous and sorrowful pattern of stalemated black and white.
As far as I can honestly decipher my own emotions, the depression brought on by the thought of going back there is due not only to the fear and anxiety involved in being an enemy outsider, but also to the deadening sense of sameness. The towns and their cast of characters come to seem the same, repeating the same phrases and expressions. So is the reporter’s ritual the same: the seeking out of the NAACP man, the Citizens Council man, the local white liberal, and the hesitant minister, all of whom come to seem in every town and city like the same tired repertory company trapped on the same sweltering set with the same tired lines to speak.
Sometimes I think the greatest hope is that the time will finally come when the Klan will be unable to stand the sight of one more burning cross, the Negroes unable to sing one more chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” and the visiting reporter unable to scratch his name across one more hotel register. Perhaps then out of sheer exhaustion people could reach that disregard of externals like color that so fruitlessly occupy their dreams and nightmares now. James Baldwin wrote in his “Letters From a Journey” (Harper’s,May, 1963) that “I have said for years that color does not matter. I am now beginning to feel that it does not matter at all, that it masks something else which does matter; but this suspicion changes, for me, the entire nature of reality.” When each of us is able to entertain that suspicion we will have no choice but to move ahead, out of the easy poses of public rhetoric and into more difficult interior territory. All of us then, black and white, will be forced to grapple with the far more important calculation of what Henry James so rightly and eloquently called “the terrible algebra of your own existence.”
[Photo Credit: Phil Davis c/o The Art Institute of Chicago]