Murder in black and white

THOMAS LEMUEL COLEMAN, A GOOD OLD BOY from southern Alabama, died during the summer of 1997. He was 86 years old and had worked most of his life as an employee of the state highway department. His family had deep roots in Lowndes County, a red-clay farming area just south of Montgomery. The county seat is in Coleman's hometown of Hayneville, a town of 936 souls. Its nickname was "Bloody Lowndes," a place where, as one observer put it, "a black man who lived to be 21 was `a good nigger.'"

Tom Coleman's death is a reminder of America's confrontation with massive injustice. The brief history needs to be recalled lest even the best of us forget.

Although more than 70 percent of the population of Lowndes County was black in1965, white supremacy was the cornerstone of law and society. According to Charles W. Eagles, a professor of history at the University of Mississippi, "Violence served to support white supremacy, slavery, peonage, and segregation."

For more than a century, white people controlled Lowndes County. Coleman's ancestors were an integral part of that control. His father had allegedly taken part in a vigilante lynching and likely served on juries that sentenced blacks to death for petty crimes while acquitting whites who had lynched blacks. During a visit to a prison farm, Tom Coleman himself had killed a black prisoner whom he judged had threatened him.

From the day he was born, Coleman's life embodied segregation and the entire culture that surrounded it. His was not a philosophical or rational position; it was reactive, almost involuntary. The county employed no blacks, except school teachers. No black had been registered to vote in the 20th century. In fact, a popular saying among whites was that any black who tried to register would be dead by nightfall. Although no lynchings had taken place in more than 20 years, such axioms were part of the folklore of violence that served to keep the "colored" in their place.

It's not likely that Coleman's passing would have been marked outside of Hayneville—much less made it into the obituary page of the New York Times—if he hadn't used his 12-gauge shotgun to tear a young Episcopal seminarian's body almost in two and to rip open the back of a young Chicago priest, leaving him with a lifetime handicap.

After Coleman put down his shotgun, he called his friend Colonel Al Lingo, state-trooper commander in Montgomery, and calmly informed him: "I just shot two preachers. You better get down here." In the weeks that followed, American justice would be abused beyond understanding.

Coleman, then a 55-year-old deputy sheriff, spent 11 hours in jail and was released on bond. The subsequent trial before 12 white jurors would hear 53 minutes of testimony and deliberate for 90 minutes before reaching a unanimous verdict: Tom Coleman was not guilty.

He would spend the next three decades playing dominoes with his courthouse cronies. According to his sister, Hulde, his friends made a point not to discuss the event. If asked, he would answer that he would do it all over again.

Those who went before
Jonathan Daniels was one of five civil-rights martyrs in 1965 and one of 40 who gave their lives between 1955 and 1968, so that people could enjoy such basic rights as a seat on a bus, a stool at a lunch counter, a textbook in a school with indoor plumbing, or a voting ballot.

The worst incident perhaps was the 1963 slaughter of four young girls outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A Klan bomb, planted under a stone staircase just outside the church, exploded, killing the four and injuring 20 more. Only a single Klansman was caught; he died in jail shortly after. "God still has a way of wringing good out of evil," the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said at the girls' funeral. "Indeed, this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience."

The roots of the civil-rights movement could be said to date to May 17,1954, when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools in the case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. One year later, the first of the 40 martyrs was killed. The Rev. George Lee, who had persuaded 92 blacks to register to vote in Belzoni, Mississippi, had half his face blown apart by a shotgun blast from a passing car. The sheriff ruled that his death was caused by unknown causes and that the lead pellets in his face were probably dental fillings.

Although the laws were on the books as early as 1882, full integration is still an unfulfilled ideal more than a century later. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery, the 14th protected the rights of the newly freed slaves, and the 15th gave blacks the right to vote. Yet, between 1882 and 1901, nearly 2,000 blacks were lynched.

In 1896, a new interpretation was introduced. The Supreme Court gave its approval to Jim Crow segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, saying as long as separate treatment was equal, it was legal. In reality, of course, nothing was remotely equal. By the time the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was 10 years old in 1920, the Ku Klux Klan boasted more than 2 million members.

In 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. The 381-day Montgomery bus boycott that followed captured the imagination of the weary black community. It took nearly a year for the Supreme Court to outlaw segregation on city buses.

Again, the issues appeared small. But they reached inside souls. In 1960, for example, four black students sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. "We don't serve the colored here," they were told. They sat quietly until the store closed. Within one year, 20,000 had participated in sit-ins; 3,600 of them were arrested.

In 1957, Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. In that same year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to open school doors to African Americans. In December 1960, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in bus terminals, and by 1962, the campus at Mississippi State was the scene of a riot as James Meredith attempted to enroll. It took 300 federal marshals—28 of whom were shot and 150 of whom were injured—and it cost the life of a French reporter, Paul Guihard, who was found shot in the back. (Meredith would live to graduate but would be shot and wounded four years later during a one-man march through Mississippi.)

In June 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace blocked the schoolhouse door to stop integration at the university. A few days later, civil-rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. His murderer was freed twice by hung juries, but 31 years later, new evidence finally sent him to jail.

In 1964, the payment of the poll tax prior to voting was outlawed in federal elections, and during "Freedom Summer" at least 1,000 volunteers went to Mississippi to recruit voters. Three of them were slain by the Klan, but shortly after that President Johnson signed another Civil Rights Bill, and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

So it went: judicial gavels sounding new legislation, and shotguns responding with fatal accuracy.

Then, in 1965, came Jonathan Daniels and Richard Morrisroe.

In the line of fire
Jonathan Daniels was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire, the son of a physician and a schoolteacher. He enrolled in Virginia Military Institute and later did graduate studies at Harvard, but, following a profound spiritual experience, he decided on ministry. Daniels was 26 and a student at the Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts when King issued his nationwide call for clergy of all faiths to come to Selma, Alabama to support the voting-rights marchers. When the march was over, he decided to stay and work in Alabama.

Dick Morrisroe was raised in an Irish Catholic family near Chicago's Loop. Ordained in 1964, he asked to be assigned to a black parish. At the 2,000-member St. Columbanus Parish on Chicago's South Side, he met Sam Rayner, whose funeral home was just across the street. Rayner took the young priest to hear King and introduced him to the Catholic Interracial Council. Even before leaving Chicago for Fort Deposit, Alabama, Morrisroe had been arrested in Chicago for participating in a lie-down.

Neither Daniels nor Morrisroe had planned on taking part in the demonstration at Fort Deposit. A group of black teenagers was going to picket white-owned stores that discriminated against blacks. Fort Deposit was a Klan stronghold, armed and angry, especially about "outside agitators." But the two clergymen gave the young activists a ride, and once there, they decided to join the protest. They were quickly arrested with 30 marchers for allegedly violating a 1963 ordinance that forbade protests that lasted more than five minutes.

The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover refused to intervene, claiming that they were in Fort Deposit to observe, not to protect. The protesters were arrested together with Stokely Carmichael and Christopher Wylie of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They were driven 20 miles to Hayneville and tossed in jail. Later, five young blacks were released because they were underage. The authorities refused to believe that the youthful Morrisroe was a priest. Daniels' Episcopal friends offered to bail him out, but he refused. They spent six days in a dirty prison with overflowing toilets.

At 2 P.M. on August 20, the group was released without explanation. Daniels and Morrisroe walked some 100 yards to Highway 97. They were in need of a ride back to Fort Deposit and were looking for a telephone. Two of the young women, Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey, accompanied them, hoping to purchase a soft drink.

Coleman had been hanging around the courthouse, playing dominoes with his cronies and listening to the talk about the protesters. He had left his pistol and shotgun in the small, clapboard Cash Store just off the highway. When the group approached, he grabbed his shotgun and shouted, "Get off this property or I'll blow your [expletive] heads off, you [expletive]!"

Daniels saw the shotgun and pushed Sales out of the way, shielding her body with his. Coleman abruptly fired. The buckshot tore a hole in the side of his chest, killing him instantly.

Morrisroe grabbed Bailey's hand to pull her away even as he appeared to be running to help Daniels. Coleman's second blast caught him in his lower right back and side. Later that day it would take 11 hours to dig the shot out of his back. He would spend seven months in Alabama and Chicago hospitals. Despite years of outpatient therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, he still walks with a distinctive limp.

The trial
The trial was a textbook example of justice denied by deep-rooted racial hatred. Judge T. Werth Thagard, who had been elected with Coleman's help, presided. The defense lawyer, Robert Coleman Black, was Coleman's nephew. Even the prosecutors, Arthur Gamble and Carlton Perdue, were friends of his. The all-white jury was composed mostly of jurors who had served many times before. During the preceding eight years, only seven blacks had done jury duty from the 2,748 who were called. African Americans far outnumbered whites in Lowndes County, but even the most illiterate among them could speed-read the Klan writings on the wall.

Coleman's defense team claimed that he was protecting Virginia Varner, the owner of the Cash Store. Two men testified that they had seen weapons—a gun and a knife—in the hands of the seminarian and the priest. No weapons were ever found. The prosecution claimed that the black youths had removed them. The judge refused to delay the trial until Morrisroe could leave the hospital.

Morrisroe's absence made the victims seem even more invisible. At break time, prosecution lawyers and the judge could be seen mingling with the jury. A juror winked at Coleman. State Attorney General Richmond Flowers, who tried mightily for a new trial, called it "a Klan murder."

To carry on
Did any good come of it all? It's difficult to measure precisely, but some minds and many more hearts were changed. The ripple effect of the sea of red blood on the red soil is still occurring.

In a legal case, White v. Crook, the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity and the ACLU challenged the exclusion of women and blacks from the jury system. Their victory set a precedent for other districts. Voter registration received much more support from the federal government, and some black groups, such as the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, helped to elect black officials.

More confident blacks began to put shotguns in their pickup trucks, a privilege once reserved to whites. Soon, the vastly outnumbered whites wisely replaced their shotguns with fishing rods, and the blacks did the same.

The federal government took another look at the separate-but-equal schools and upgraded them. Federal funds magically appeared to pave streets and to install water and sewers. A $1 million grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity made possible a health center, ironically right next to the county jail. A Headstart program was established, and blacks gradually began to attend public schools with whites. Within 15 years of the shooting, 70 percent of the county's homes had full plumbing, more than double the number in 1965. Blacks voted freely, held elective office, served on juries, and now live without violence. The Klan has virtually disappeared. Per capita black income has risen from $935 to $7,493 per year.

It isn't perfect, but it's no longer Tom Coleman's county.

Jonathan Daniels was buried in Keene on the Tuesday following the shooting. After the Episcopal service, as the 800 mourners drifted away, one could hear Stokely Carmichael and others singing "We Shall Overcome." His parish named a church building after him, and a local elementary school bears his name. Fifteen years later, the Anglican Church included him in its Canon of Saints and Martyrs.

Ruby Sales, the young woman for whom Daniels sacrificed his life, is now a student at the Episcopal Divinity School at Cambridge, Daniels' alma mater.

Richard Morrisroe, who supplied most of the details of this article, returned to Chicago. He resigned from active ministry in 1972 and earned a second master's degree in urban studies from Loyola University and a J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law. Today, he is a staff attorney for the Chicago Transit Authority, a part-time professor at Calumet College of St. Joseph, and a doctorate student in ministry at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He and his wife, Sylvia, have two children.

In August 1997, a month after Coleman died, a monument to Jonathan Myrick Daniels was dedicated in Hayneville Square. Morrisroe attended and spoke.

"Jon was too young to die," he said. "But he was also too young to accept the false boundaries between black and white, South and North, city preachers, college students, and tenant farmers....  As we cradle his memory, we strive to inspire our youth to carry on Jonathan Daniels' courage and faith." 

Tim Unsworth is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a frequent contributor to U.S.Catholic. His most recent book is I am Your Brother Joseph: Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago.

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