AN OTHER STORY
It was October 1950. I was riding Little Putt, my Servicycle, northwards from New Orleans. I came to a Mississippi town called Laurel. I’d read about Laurel. A black man had been tried there, accused of raping a white woman. Condemned to death. I didn’t know much more, but was curious.
I stopped, had coffee – it was pretty poor coffee – asked around. Some of the locals, Whites, soon told me that there had been no rape, but – worse – misgegenation. Interracial sex. That black Niggra, Willie McGee, had been sleeping with a, the, that, white woman, for four years. When he wanted to break it off, leave, she cried "rape". McGee had been condemned to death, but not yet executed.
Me, I am, was, a journo. It sounded like an interesting story. Soon learned that most of local Negroes (we didn’t yet say: Blacks) were scared. Didn’t really want to talk to me, about the case. "You come, you ask, you leave, we stay here, with the shit. No thanks!" But some people did. Talk. I heard the facts. Definitely a story! Wrote up my notes. Got onto Little Putt, started North.
Didn’t get far. Before I reached the town line two squad cars overtook me. Easily. The servicycle’s top speed was 35 miles an hour, 55 km/h. Screeched to a halt, one before, one behind me. Four cops in uniform jumped out, waving their pistols at me. Yelling: "You ran through a red light!" I realised this wasn’t it, in fact later realised that there had been no traffic lite at all, red nor green, on that road. The cops were off their heads, foaming at the, their, mouth(s). "Fucking Nigger-lover". . I was scared. "You’re under arrest… " Now what ?
They made me drive back into town, between the two squad cars, I wondered if they’d run over me, "a traffic accident" … They still had their pistols out. Or: shot trying to escape? In the town center, a jail, they pushed me inside. I was rather glad. Figured they wouldn’t shoot me now, too much paper work. Locked me up. The servicycle, good horse, stayed outside. With its California license plate, my swag, some papers and books, my machette, rolled into my sleeping bag, on the back carrier.
After a long while, maybe eight hours, a man in suit, and tie, showed up. The Laurel District Attorney. He, they, had opened my stuff. Wallet. Were looking at it. They’d found my press card, from "Challenge". Perhaps fortunately it didn’t explain that Challenge was the British Young Communist League’s Paper. But in any case they had also found a pamphlet by Joseph Stalin, about linguistics. Abstruse. (Stalin thought, or wrote, that language was not class based. Or racial. I don’t think he’d spoken to many Mississippi Negroes).
The District Attorney, an intellectual, wanted to know what I wanted. "To write about that Willie McGee case." Why? Why was I, a Californian, stirring their Niggras up? They got along fine with them, until foreigners (British? Californians? Unclear!) came causing trouble. I, now somewhat uppitty, said it wasn’t me, we, who caused "Jim Crow". Segregation. The DA said he’d put me in a cell with Willie McGee. I said that would be fine, I’d get an interview, a good story. That didn’t happen. With his Liberal Face, the DA said: in a while, maybe a thousand years, we will have got over segregation, Jim Crow. Told me to leave, and not come back.
I said "fine by me" and did. Ooofff.
When I got to New York I ran, with my story, to the Daily Worker. Some lawyers. Poured it out, thought I had a scoop. Alas, it wasn’t so. I was told, almost pityingly, that everyone in the Willie McGee defense had long known there had been no rape, just sex, inter-racial. A no=no. The defense hadn’t even used that line. "It would just have got him lynched, right away."
It was a time of defeat, retreat. I was harassed by the army, the FBI, justice Department. I left. Heard no more from Laurel, except, recently, that they had killed Willie McGee. In 1951. And that Bella Abzug, then a pregnant civil rights attorney, trying to save his life, had had a bad time there. Thinking back, I guess I had been lucky.
28 years later, in 1979, Erka and I drove thru Laurel, again. It was 2 am and we’d been driving, almost non-stop, for days. We stopped, had a coffee. In a road-side diner. It was integrated. Half the slumped down diners were Black. It had not taken a thousand, only (less than) 28 years. To abolish Jim Crow in road-side diners.
The coffee had not improved.