A VICTORY IN CHATTANOOGA
and a Challenge to White Organizers
Speech Given to the National Anti-Klan Network Conference, Atlanta, June 19, 1982
by Randolph Scott-McLaughlin
Urgent Tasks No. 14/Fascism in the U.S.?
Good morning. Before I begin to discuss the legal case of Chattanooga, I'd like to give you a little background on how the case began and the type of law we used to win that case. As many of you know and some of you may not know, the National Anti-Klan Network had its beginnings back in May of 1979 when a Klan group in Decatur, Alabama, decided that Blacks were not going to march in that city any longer, and viciously, violently, openly and in broad daylight, with police assistance, shot into and attacked a peaceful SCLC demonstration protesting the jailing of a young black man named Tommy Lee Hines.
A call was sent out by SCLC for organizers and those concerned about human rights to come to Decatur, and to show the Klan that this was not 1879, it was 1979. A month later some two to three thousand individuals came from across the South and the North and we determined that it was time to not respond to the Klan in an ad hoc fashion, that that was very dangerous; it was time for us to plan an organized, consistent response combining a variety of techniques. The technique that I became involved in was the legal technique.
Now, some may say, "What role can a lawyer play in the anti-Klan movement?" We did feel we did have a role to play, and toward that end we organized a legal task force of some one hundred lawyers from across the nation who were interested in this type of work and helped to form certain strategies. The lawyers for the anti-Klan movement, as we indicated earlier assisted in the February 2 Greensboro mobilization of 1980, filing lawsuits on behalf of demonstrators. In other cases we assisted when anti-Klan activists had been arrested and charged with criminal violations because they had defended themselves against Klan terrorists.
Let's make no mistake about it: there's all this talk about "terrorism" and currently I'm defending two men in New York who are accused of being terrorists, but the real terrorists are those who have state power and use it to inflict terror on others and those who don't have state power and use the power they have to inflict terror on the masses of Black people. We have to use that word "terrorist" in its proper context. [Applause]
And finally we decided in the anti-Klan movement that there was another place that we needed to provide with legal support, and that was the area of victims of Klan violence. Toward that end we researched some of the early laws and found that, indeed, there were laws on the books as early as the 1870s designed specifically to deal with the problem of Klan violence.
The Klan first reared its ugly head in the state of Tennessee in a city called Pulaski. It was formed by a man named Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an old Confederate general. Reconstruction was an interesting period in American history, especially for Black Americans, inasmuch as it was the first time — and probably the last time until the 1960s — that we were actually accorded the equal protection of the law, and laws were enacted to benefit our people as human beings and citizens. We ran Southern governments, we established the first public school system in the South, we had more Blacks in the halls of Congress than we have today, we ran the state legislatures of South Carolina and Mississippi, two states that were long steeped in the oppression of Black people. Yes, we ran those states.
The general and the Southern Confederates could not let this pass them by as they slept in their sheets and decided it was time for them to organize another response, which was to put on white robes, dressing in the dead of night, and riding with shotguns at their sides they bludgeoned Black people back into slavery. They whipped, castrated, mutilated, bombed churches, oppressed black people, and tried to intimidate, if not kill them, to prevent them from exercising the rights they had recently won. Congress, which was controlled at that time by people called the Radical Republicans — I guess they were radical for their time, but they never brought that forty acres and a mule which we're still waiting for — nevertheless they passed laws which were designed to benefit us, and those laws were collectively called the Ku Klux Klan Acts.
The first law prohibited conspiracies aimed at violating Black people's civil rights. If you have a Klan group, and they're conspiring, which they always do — "conspiring" is a very simple word; it means a meeting of the minds, and discussion, and agreement — if they conspire to do certain things for the purpose of violating civil rights, you have the right to file a lawsuit to prevent that action or to seek monetary relief — damages, dollars — if they carry out their evil deeds.
Another statute, again passed during that time, is just as important. That statute says that if I know of a conspiracy involving a violation of civil rights and I don't do anything to stop it, I'm just as liable — even if I went home and slept in my bed that night while the Klansmen went downtown to burn crosses — as an aider and abettor, if I did nothing to stop it. And finally, there was a statute passed which was essentially designed to get at state officials, like sheriffs in Wrightsville, Georgia, who assist Klansmen and others in the violation of civil rights.
Well, those are very nice laws, and they were on the books in the 1870s, but any good lawyer will tell you that a law is meaningless unless it's being used. And any good lawyer will also tell you that if the courts are controlled by ex-Confederates as they were in the 1870s, there are very few victories you will win through the law. During that time, Blacks were not permitted to practice the law, and I would say that unless you have your own people protecting you, very likely you will not be protected.
In 1876 something very interesting happened. Two men ran for president, Hayes and Tilden, and they set up a compromise with the former Confederates, and the compromise was that Mr. Hayes, in order to win election, decided to allow the South to handle the "Negro problem." He promised the removal of federal troops from the South, to allow the Southerners to do what they would with their Blacks. That was the deal; we were sold out not for the last time, and the Klan again shed the blood of Black people who were trying to achieve a modicum of freedom in this country.
In 1898, apartheid was legalized in the United States of America. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, they said that separate was equal. And there was much separateness but very little equality from that time until 1954, though I would argue there's still very little equality here.
These laws that I just discussed were utilized by the NAKN legal task force. These laws were still on the books, and they should be used — they were designed to be used — against Klan terrorists, and that was our objective. Well, it wasn't too long before we were given an opportunity to use those statutes.
Chattanooga is a small town in the east part of Tennessee, stuck between two large mountains which were the scene of Civil War violence. One summer night in April of 1981, a small Klan group led by a man named Lyndon Church decided that they were going to go on a spree. They gathered eight-foot wooden crosses and drove to the heart of the Black community and set those crosses up in a very prominent location in that community so that all could see them.
They drove back around and with their double-barreled shotguns filled with buckshot, they drove slowly, saw five Black women walking on the street and aimed their shotguns at these women and deliberately emptied them into their bodies. Not content with that piece of violence, they drove on, reloaded their weapons and opened fire again, this time striking the windows of a parked car. The glass shattered, striking Fannie Crumsey's neck. On her house there are still markings where the shotgun pellets penetrated the walls. Had she been standing erect, she would not be here with us today.
The Klansmen were captured and a criminal trial ensued. They were charged with assault with intent to commit murder. The Klansmen's defense was that they were drunk and had no intention of murder. The key word in that statute was "intent," and unfortunately the prosecutor could not prove that intent. He neglected to charge them with night riding, cross burning, assault with a deadly weapon, going armed, firing weapons. In short, there were a number of other statutes the state prosecutor could have used, but didn't. You have a problem when your fate is placed in the hands of officials you had very little role in electing.
We also had a letter that the head of the Klan there, Bill Church, had written to Bill Wilkinson [head of the Invisible Empire KKK]. And in the letter he said, you know, Bill, I look to you as a model, a great Klan leader, and I want to be more like you. He said, you know, I hate seeing those "nigger-white babies." I can't stand seeing "niggers" and whites dating each other. I "visited" a few of them, and they don't date any more. This is in his letter. This man is a black belt in karate, about six feet five and three hundred pounds. The letter went on to discuss how they were preparing for a race war and a number of other violent actions.
If that letter didn't clearly show the intent of this man to commit murder, nothing else would. The letter was in the hands of the prosecutor and was never introduced as evidence. Strangely. The chief Klansmen, the head of the Klan, Bill Church and his cohort were acquitted of all charges. The other individuals who had been involved in the shooting were found guilty of minor assault. They served six months of a nine-month sentence and were fined fifty dollars. Black folks' lives aren't worth too much in Chattanooga.
Well, we didn't agree with that. By "we," I mean the Center for Constitutional Rights, and we were invited into Chattanooga to file a civil rights suit on behalf of the ladies. We filed two lawsuits in one legal document. The first part of the lawsuit was filed on behalf of the five Black women. In that lawsuit we sought monetary damages for the physical injuries they sustained on April 19, as well as punitive damages.
In addition, we filed a suit as a class action which sought an injunction, on behalf of all the Black citizens of Chattanooga. We said the Klan was a conspiracy to violate the rights of all the citizens of Chattanooga who were Black, that they had conducted certain activities to carry out that purpose, and that the Klan should be enjoined from engaging in certain actions. The injunction we sought was patterned after one the Department of Justice had itself obtained some twenty years earlier in Bogalusa, Louisiana, against a Klan group. They said they had jurisdiction in that case, but they had not taken a single Klan case since then.
During the trial, after some two years of pre-trial investigation and motions, we had learned something very interesting. The National Jury Project, which had assisted in the investigation, had done a survey for us. And that survey found a very interesting occurrence among the whites of Chattanooga. The survey found that whites in Chattanooga had a very different view of what the Klan was all about. They didn't look on the Klan as a terroristic organization. They saw the Klan as an organization that was dedicated to cleaning up their communities, an organization that enforced public morals, preventing "looseness," drinking, running away from your family. And indeed, if you read some of the books about the Klan, particularly the one by Dr. Chalmers, who is here with us today and who wrote an excellent book called Hooded Americanism, you will see that the Klan did do that in white communities.
What the white respondents failed to note is that the way the Klan did that was the way they operated in our communities, using terror, violence and murder. That's how they enforced public morals. We also found that an overwhelming number of the white respondents felt that Black lawyers, out-of-town lawyers, civil rights lawyers had no business taking this kind of case in their city.
Now, as we had an all-Black legal team, all out-of-town and all civil rights lawyers, we knew that much about it. When we began to do our jury selection, the survey was brought out in every detail. Jurors got on the stand and when we asked them what they knew about the Klan, they said it was a good organization that protected white people. They were struck from the jury for cause. However, some individuals remained on the jury who feared the Klan, who feared the violence it involved.
A real conflict emerged with the Legal Services lawyers, who were defending the Klansmen in that case. Let me highlight that: Southeast Tennessee Legal Services, paid out of your and my tax dollars, defended Bill Church, the head of the Ku Klux Klan. When a Black woman came to the stand to be selected as a juror, they maintained that no Blacks should sit on that jury. Their position was that, because Blacks were involved in the suit, they should not sit on the jury, and they tried to strike every Black person from that jury for cause. For an organization like Legal Services, that came into existence from the struggles of Black and other poor people, to argue that Blacks can't sit on a jury. . . . The judge didn't agree with that. After a long battle, one Black woman sat on that jury of six.
We began our proof. We showed through the testimony of the five ladies the violence that had been done to them. Then we showed what the Klan was about, through Dr. Chalmers' testimony. And he testified that the Klan had four basic components. One is what he called "one hundred percent Americanism." The Klan is as old as apple pie in the United States, and has always been what they called in the old days a "native American party." I'm not speaking of Native Americans as we ordinarily think of them but of the pre-Klan formation known as the "Know Nothing" Party, because they didn't know nothing. They still don't know anything. Their notion was that no one but whites from Northern Europe should be here on these shores. The Klan is a continuation of that ideology.
A second component is moral conformity, which I spoke of earlier. Third, the notion of fraternity, of brotherhood. And finally, and most important to us at any rate, is the notion of violent action. They do something about the problems.
It is interesting for us who deal with the Klan to understand what their attraction is. Most of the rank-and-file Klansmen, at least the ones I encountered in Chattanooga, were poor, uneducated, working-class whites. And the Klan gave them something to be proud of; it gave them a perspective, a purpose. And that's the attraction the Klan has for white, working-class America. And unless you all can develop some other method, or some other means of expression, you won't be able to defeat the Klan. When I say "you all," I mean that very specifically.
I mean "you all," not us, because Black folks can't organize against the Klan. We can organize our own community, but can't organize the white workers, because they won't listen to us. So it is incumbent upon white America to organize its own brothers and sisters and to teach them the evils of racism. That's your job. All too few of you — and I'm not criticizing anybody today — but all too few of the organizers I've had contact with do that job. And I love all the anti-Klan demonstrations, but until that job is done, I'm still going to have that problem. We're still going to have that problem. I feel very strongly about that.
The most important part of the case was to show the racist animus, to show not merely that the Klan had engaged in all these sorts of activities but that they had done it because of the race of these Black women. None of the Klansmen was willing to say, yeah, I hate niggers. We had to find a way to get them on this. And the way we did that was two-fold. One, we subpoenaed Church's ex-girlfriend. She was also about six foot three and weighed three hundred pounds. She was a tough mama, yes, she was. The night of the incident, he had beaten her senseless, because she was allegedly hanging out with a detective, beat her, bruised her and raped her and then stole her car, and that was the car with the Klan.
She got on the stand and testified about Church, that his favorite saying about Black people was, the only good nigger is a dead nigger. He had planned and conspired to kill the president of the NAACP in Chattanooga. He had also threatened her life on a number of occasions, for instance on one occasion she was driving along in her car and a Black man drove alongside her in another car and she glanced over at him, and this man, Church, with his huge hands, smacked her senseless for merely looking at a Black man.
Before the trial Church held a press conference — before his Legal Services lawyers told him to keep his mouth shut. At that conference, which we played for the judge, he said that his Klan group was going to reform in Chattanooga, they weren't going to wear Klan robes any more, because you can't do much in a robe and it can be seen from miles away. They were going to wear combat uniforms, green fatigues, which were a lot more efficient for military action. He said that para-military training camps were being conducted in the hills surrounding Chattanooga, that people were being trained in weapons and automatic rifles and bombing techniques. And then a pressman asked him, Bill, I hear you talking about this stuff, but isn't it true that the Klan has a new image of non-violence? Bill answered, son, don't believe a word of it. No matter what they tell you, the Klan is still about violence, castrations and killing.
The jury was out on that case for four hours, and they came back, much to our surprise, and awarded the five Black women a half million dollars in damages. [Applause] Afterwards, a federal judge, who was a patrician type, handed down an injunction against the Klan, and that was the exact injunction we were seeking in our lawsuit, prohibiting the Klan from engaging in violence, terror, coming into the Black community. What's the benefit of that injunction? The benefit is that if a Klansman engages in that kind of action in Chattanooga again, the Black community does not have to rely on some non-interested white prosecutor to think about how it wants to handle the case. We, the Black lawyers, can bring that Klansman into the courtroom, have him jailed for contempt of court and given a prison term. Essentially, it avoids having to go through the whole trial again. You can have an immediate hearing and throw the sucker in jail as quickly as I just said it.
We're pleased about the victory in Chattanooga. It's important that the Klan can no longer function above-board in a legal way; they have to scurry around in the dark of night and get jobs and take pennies under the table. We also ran the head of the Klan out of Chattanooga — he now lives in Virginia and has not joined the Klan since the suit was filed. But we're also realistic and we understand that the legal route is not the only route and indeed may not be the best route for defeating the Klan.
Here in Georgia, Anne Braden described the Klan in the counties surrounding Atlanta as a lynch rope around the city of Atlanta. I think it's important for organizers to remember that lawyers have a role to play in aiding the movement, but that's all we can do is aid the movement. There has to be a movement. And you have the responsibility of building that movement, both in the Black community as well as in the white community. You see, the Klan rarely comes into my community to organize. It comes into yours. And it's important for you to speak out against that when they do come in, and to organize, as Malcolm would say, by any means necessary, to defeat the real terrorists in America. [Applause]