15 SEPTEMBER 1961, Page 10

Bar Sinister

Monroe Doctrine


MR visiting relatives in California, while on holiday in America, I came to stay for a ..eek in Monroe, a small town in North Carolina, twenty-five miles from Charlotte, near the border of South Carolina. I had arranged to stay with Robert Williams, the editor of an anti-segregation newspaper, and to help on the paper while there. I did not know Mr. Williams, and had never read his paper. I did not know then that it was in this town that the infamous 'kissing ease' occurred in 1958, when two Negro children aged eight and nine were imprisoned and sent to a reform school for playing a 'kissing game' with a little white girl aged seven; or that here in 1957 Dr. Perry, a devout Catholic and a prominent Negro, was convicted on obviously trumped-up charges of performing an abortion on a white woman.

I arrived in Monroe on the evening of August 24, to find that seventeen Freedom Riders were staying in Mr. Williams's house and in the Free- dom House, two doors along, which they had temporarily rented. Robert Williams I im- mediately liked and respected; a big, bearded man with a love of justice burning in his heart. He has written poetry and music; in his library are books on every subject from religion and logic to psychology and biology. When he says 'Better to live for three minutes standing on your feet like a man than for a thousand years crawl- ing in chains,' it is no empty rhetoric. And I will not forget his wife, ever calmly by his side; nor the people of this community, a proud people who react to trouble with laughter and swearing and singing. They speak of the Klan not with bated breath but with mockery; of the police, with indignation, not fear. Some of them refused

You realise that all this would pay the fines of five-thousand fl-ntarchers every week for twenty years.. . .


apologetically to join the pickets outside the courthouse, because they knew they could not take a blow without returning it or listen to in- sults in silence.

But many from the local community, and the Freedom Riders, were picketing the courthouse when I arrived, demanding police protection for their homes and families and a restoration of the rule of law. (A twelve-year-old boy, Prentice Robinson, was beaten up by three white youths the day I arrived; the police knew their identity; no arrest has followed.) The pickets were calling upon the county authorities to ask for surplus food for the starving families of Union County (which the Federal Goverment would grant on request); protesting against discrimination against needy Negroes in the granting of welfare (white children on welfare obtain school meals free, Negro children on welfare must pay for theirs); and, most of all, protesting against the segregation which creeps into every corner, a per- petual insult to Negro and white man alike.

We picketed for five days. A city cart sprayed us with insecticide; Ed Bromberg was shot in the stomach with an airgun; Richard Griswold was knocked down for taking photographs; various others were struck. On the Saturday evening we were accompanied on our walk home by scores of hooting cars which attempted to run us down; a woman ran out of a house into our midst brandishing a knife; her husband (a preacher) threw bottles al us; but the local people were out on the streets as we came in and the cars fled.

Late on Sunday afternoon, when the crowd became really threatening, the police intervened —to arrest the Negro driver of the car into which I had been put to be taken to safety, for using profane language (to himself, not to the crowds). Our spokesman, James Forman, was struck on the head by one of the mob with a shotgun which a policeman had just given to him; blood poured down his face on to his shirt and my blouse. The officer ignored requests that the gun be taken away from the man, or 'that he be arrested; but the mob was now completely wild, and Forman and I managed to persuade him to take us to the police station for protection.

Others were already there for the same reason, and more were arriving. Brown Massey, a local boy of fifteen, had been so badly beaten by the police that he could hardly walk, yet when the policeman said 'You, boy, sit there,' •he pulled himself upright and said, 'You don't tell me what to do, I can stand.' His four sisters, Leonora (with the full beauty of a film star), Ola Mae (who looked like paintings of Madame de Pompadour), Dorothy and Josephine, when they heard that Brown was hurt, walked with their mother to the police station through the dangerous streets and through showers of rocks to see him, and when this was refused, stayed there with us for protection, joking to keep the tears from their eyes. After some time an officer told us that we—who were in the police station at the time under protective custody--were under arrest for inciting a riot (it is an old Southern custom to arrest the victim for the crime), and I was put in a cell block with the four Massey sisters; we spent much of the time singing and praying. Richard Griswold was put in a cell with a white man of known violent tendencies (he had already assaulted someone else in the prison), who attacked him and heat him nearly uncon- scious before he was removed more than fifteen minutes later, but he was given no medical atten- tion, apart from an X-ray the next day. We were kept incommunicado until Tuesday (though I was allowed to receive two phone calls); only on Monday afternoon did we learn that our bail had been set at $1,000 each, that Robert and his family had left the town and that he was being sought for kidnapping. I was convinced then of his innocence, as I am now; it seemed to me that the last force for justice and truth had left. The lands beyond Union County seemed very far away.

On Tuesday evening, when our lawyer obtained a reduction in the bail to $25, and local people were able to leave on bond, the girls re- fused to go if it meant leaving me on my own in the cell. When we did come out, late on Tuesday night, a retired schoolteacher offered me her hospitality, because, she said, 'I saw you the other day and I thought—her mother is a long way away.' Though Robert was gone, his spirit re- mained; his people had accepted us as members of the community, and we felt as though we had been born and bred there, without the slightest" trace of awkwardness or selfconsciousness. This, I think, infuriated the white people of the town more than anything else : and many of the Free- dom Riders now felt themselves committed to the struggle for life.

On Friday we all came up before a magistrate's court, with one member of the white mob who had been arrested. Their only complaint against us was that we had been picketing. The magis- trate admitted that picketing was normally legal, and the police admitted that they had at no time warned us that the picketing might constitute an incitement to riot or told us to stop picketing; but we were all found guilty of inciting to riot. The magistrate, who had insisted on trying all the cases en bloc, gave us sentences ranging from six months to two years in prison, to be suspended on condition that we did not picket or engage in any similar activity in the county of Union, and that those with the longer sentences pay also a fine of fifty or a hundred dollars.

I shall soon be coming home* No doubt it will take me a little while to accustom myself to the fact that a group of white people on a corner are probably just waiting to cross the road and that not every person with a black face is going to treat me like a long-lost sister. But one cannot expect to enter the lives of other people in such circumstances and emerge a week later un- changed. I feel that in some part I now belong to Monroe, that to some extent I shall -always be a citizen of that town; and that some day I will return.

• Miss Lever returned to England earlier this week. Her article is referred to in a leading article on page 340.