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Notes From a Montgomery Jail

I was first put in Montgomery County Jail on the charge of stealing a newspaper, acquitted, and put right back because the driver of our car had a flare gun in the trunk. Four days ago five of us were driving North and home. Now bail is set at a thousand dollars apiece and since we’re still in Montgomery it’s safer in than out, they say. I’m scared.

Nine of us walking down a night road in Selma remember a car backing up, stopping, and four whites chasing us back amid the shacks. I remember standing security guard at the campsites in Lowndes County with the F.B.I., a colonel, and U.S. marshal McShane within calling distance then. And if the faces were dark we’d let them through, but if they were white we’d chat for a minute first. And when I was relieved late at night I’d get a ride back into Selma with a Negro family and I’d sit low in the back seat. A colored undertaker pressed his business card on me as a joke. I was a marshal in the ring of locked hands that surrounded King and the others as we marched into Montgomery, and in the colored districts the leaders asked the people to join in and march to their capitol. Some clapped and said freedom. Others stood with their mouths and faces shut and I wondered could they still be scared with these thousands marching down Montgomery Street and up Dexter Avenue to the capitol building and its white marble steps? That night after the march my friend and I went back to our friends in Montgomery, but they were nervous and glad we left at six in the morning.

We were arrested about ten miles outside Montgomery. The State Police pulled us over and told us to follow them. We were under arrest for stealing newspapers. We had bought one newspaper on the outskirts of Montgomery where we tried to get breakfast. I saw my friend put the dime in the honesty box. The headlines said a woman had been shot in Lowndes County. We were off the main road now. The police car kept getting out of sight ahead and we didn’t dare speed. There were five of us, white: my neighbor and I from New York, and three students driving back to school who had offered us a ride. We all checked our pockets. The police were parked in front of a town police station. Ten Montgomery County sheriffs stood waiting for us. We got out, were handcuffed, frisked. A young student was carrying a switchblade. He had missed the point of nonviolence. I suppose he thought he was too young to play Schwerner, Chaney, or Goodman. Before they drove our car away they sprayed it with disinfectant. The sheriffs complained that we smelled like niggers and had crabs and lice and syphilis, but no one touched us. A slight man in a business suit walked up and down behind the line of sheriffs. He told them if they ever saw one of us in his county again, shoot to kill. Then we were split up, two to a car, and driven away. Somewhere out on the highway a man in a white Stetson pulled over our sheriff’s car and the sheriff got out to speak with him. I cut the handcuffs into my wrists so the marks would be there if our bodies were found.

I would describe our quarters in detail but I can’t stand the thought of them. If you want to know what Montgomery County Jail is like, it is easy to see for yourself. It’s enough to say there are three cells with six bunks apiece. And the gates are open on the main bull pen from four-thirty in the morning till nine at night. There are five of us yankees in one cell, two Mississippi boys in the middle, and four Alabama convicts in the third cell. They have been pulled out of the other bull pens for getting in fights and for some reason put in with us.

Our bull pen isn’t integrated. I wish it were. Up and down the whole cell block they’ve been calling us niggers, and then the four cons were put in with us. And today the jailor sold us all razor blades to shave with. Two of the cons have made blacks jacks out of socks stuffed with bars of Ivory soap, and they carry them in their back pockets. The eleven of us sit around the steel tables in the bull pen, silent, and the air buzzes. The cons play cards and wait, while the jailor brings one of them dope for his broken nose—he splits it with the others, and the jailor brings more.

The cons knew all about us when they were put in the bull pen. “What part of Russia you from?” I don’t mind the homosexual threats, I’m tall and scraggly. The young ones are frightened. But a fight is just a question of time. Henry’s trying to be nice to them so he won’t be hurt. I’ve told him to shut up. They want to split us up. They think we’ll fight back. Last night the tall skinny one wanted to play a game where he and one of us would cut ourselves with a razor to see what color the blood was and who would bleed longer. He slashed his arm and his blood was very red and profuse. And when Henry was really nice one of the told us about his initiation into a gang here in Montgomery. He had to stab a nigger. “An old nigger came walking down the street, whistling. We were hiding in the bushes. I jumped out and stuck the knife in his back. He started hollering and fell on his knees.” The local boy looked into our faces and maybe he saw something there, though we were not singing “We Shall Overcome.” “I said to them we should call an ambulance, the motherfucker’s going to die. They said no, we better run. The nigger was still kneeling there, hollering, so one of them kicked him in the face and he lay down. We ran, but I never stabbed another nigger.”

When they got us to jail the sheriffs washed off their handcuffs. That first night they put us alone in the Hole, a simple room where you sleep on the floor. In the middle of the night they let another man in with us for half an hour. At first I thought he was our lawyer. We welcomed him. He gave us news. “They got the four men who shot that woman. An old nigger woman squealed. But they shot the wrong person. Should have shot Luther King.” The man was drunk. He had a large cross tattooed under his shirt sleeve. Driving back out to the trial in the morning, a sheriff said, “Looks like they put the old whore on the plane. She should have stayed home with her five kids.”

If we can stay together we might get out of a beating. But the students kept trying to be nice. The cons have split off one kid, and say they won’t hurt him if he stays out of it. They say they like him. The two Mississippi boys are flat on their bunks, they don’t want trouble. One tries to warn me silently, “Don’t do anything.” Both of them have been in the army, they don’t hate us. We’re fair game for the cons, the same way we’re fair game for the police and the county solicitor. Like the rest of Alabama talks tough but it’s the Klan who does the dirty work. I don’t hate Alabama. One of the oldest houses in Montgomery is called the Gerald House, and cousin Jeff Davis stayed there. But you’d have to be Southern to appreciate the lineage.

When we were first arrested I made my attorney’s call to a prominent Montgomery lawyer whom I know and who would probably prefer to remain unidentified. He has claimed to be a man of principle. I told him on the phone that I had been arrested with four others on the lie of stealing a newspaper. One of the students in the car was carrying a switchblade knife. He said his firm did not handle criminal cases and I could expect nothing from him. He decided to let justice take its course.

It’s about to break. They stand there blocking the gate of the bull pen. We are not wearing shirts, we’ve been sweating four days. I tell them that we won’t fight. I am the biggest and they must come through me. I say, “I won’t fight you. I am non-violent. I am a Christian.”

Well goddam!” says skinny. “I don’t care what you are. One way or the other I’ll be in here the rest of my life, and I’d just as soon slit your goddam throat. I’m no Christian.” And there it is and Harvard has given me only limited ways to cope with an answer like that—all to do with turning on my heel—but there are bars behind us.

The steel gates open. The jailer appears. He gives one of the students a message from his mother. The cons stand there. My neighbor from New York walks up to the bars and requests the five of us be moved to Isolation. The jailor is suddenly deaf. The gates and doors clank shut and are locked. A con slams his fist into the side of my head, and I go down gagging. He kicks me. They have their blackjacks out, the others start yelling “Jailer, jailer!” The cons jump them. Wrapped in my non-violent position I can see them trying to hide under the table, or get their backs up against the walls to protect their kidneys. I picked a good spot to go down but I’m still gagging. The con over me just stands there now. The kid is sitting alone like a bride on the steel table. Which side are you on boy? Finally the jailer comes. They want to kill my neighbor from New York for trying to rat. The jailer orders us in our cell and locks us in. The cons roam outside our gate and in the bull pen. They joke with the jailer. Henry keeps trying to make friends with the cons and says it’s all okay. I tell him to shut up or I will be non-violent with him. It is not over. My neighbor from New York cannot sleep. We can hear them talking about what they will do to him in the morning when the gates open. The two of us sleep with our clothes on.

I do not feel heroic. I wonder what charges would have been brought against us if we had fought back? We’ve been interrogated in jail, once by something called Alabama Safety. They wanted me to fill out a form listing all my blood relatives. From somewhere in my wallet or journal they knew I had written a book. It was a novel about a boy in Africa who marries a native girl and they have a child. But I didn’t think they would like the plot. One tried to push me up against the wall to photograph me but I went non-violent and the deputies crowded around the door to see the show. I wonder what would have happened if we fought back tonight….

This morning things are very tense. It’s not over. We do not look respectable. The cons are after my neighbor. He is married, has a child. The head convict has the unset broken nose. I tell him if he gets into a fight he could get killed and I try to explain what happens if a man’s nose bone is pushed back into his brain. He listens in silence.

In the courtroom our lawyer says the county solicitor is asking a year in jail for each of us, on possession of a dangerous weapon. They have a warrant made out against me for criminal anarchy against the State of Alabama because of my journal about the march. I would never have thought of it, myself. But they can not find anyone to sign the warrant. The owner of the car is tried first, and they try to introduce as evidence a source book of Marxist writings from his college course in political theory. He is fined three hundred dollars and sentenced to thirty days in jail for possession of the flare gun. The case will be appealed. The charges are dropped against the rest of us. The judge who went to Harvard Law says, “You boys came down looking for trouble. And after four days in jail, I guess you’ve found it. Any questions?”

We are released. The owner has to go back into the cell alone until his bond is raised. He comes out with bar marks on his face. He’s tougher than when he came. We wait in our lawyer’s office until plane time. There are only Negro faces all around us and I feel safe.

Before my neighbor and I leave for the airport, our lawyer checks us out with the F.B.I. I find that many people have been concerned for us up North, and many phone calls have been made to Washington and Alabama. I fly out of Alabama. It’s lovely to leave. But in a way I’m not our of jail. In Selma they don’t leave, they go back to school. And our Negro attorneys stay in Montgomery. In my journal, photostated and returned to me, are the addresses of friends who have put me up—and they stay. As for Mrs. Liuzzo, someone had to be knocked off to re-establish the old order of fear. When was the last time you were afraid? Live that way four days with the sweat trickling under your arm, frightened in the cell, frightened when you are called alone out of the cell, and then realize that moment as your whole life, you and me who are free, white, and twenty-one.

Letters

Montgomery Jail June 17, 1965

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