The Algiers Motel Incident
by John Hersey
Knopf, 394 pp., $5.95
The Torture of Mothers
by Truman Nelson
Beacon, 121 pp., $4.95
About midnight of July 25, 1967, during the period of racial tension in Detroit usually referred to as a summer riot, three young men—Carl Cooper, Auburey Pollard, and Fred Temple, were shot to death at close range in the Algiers Motel, on Woodward Avenue—a modern place with TV, swimming pool, and room phones too plastic to seem an appropriate scene for tragedy. All three victims were, of course, Negro. They were among a group of friends who were being interrogated—if the word may be used in so broad a sense—by an aggregate of Detroit police, Michigan State Troopers, National Guardsmen, and private guards who had been directed to the scene. The commander of the National Guard detachment who had been instructed to “protect the building” of the Great Lakes Mutual Life Insurance Company a block north of the Algiers “from any kind of disturbance” had heard shots, and immediately telephoned his “high commander” that “we were being fired upon.” According to two of the policemen present in the motel, their dispatcher had announced “Army under heavy fire” as he gave them their orders.
So far as any investigator has been able to discover, the shots heard were from a starting-pistol used to begin track events, which the young men were playing with, mocking the hyperactivity of the police during the early stages of the riot. Even this pistol has not been recovered; and the survivors have given conflicting testimony about its use; it would, in any case, have been incapable of firing a bullet. All it could be used for is to signal the start of an event, or series of events.
The exact circumstances of Mr. Cooper’s slaying—he was the first—are still unclear; his body was found in a unit across the hall from the motel room in which Mr. Pollard and Mr. Temple died. Patrolmen Ronald August was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder of Auburey Pollard. He had himself identified Pollard from a photograph as a man he had killed in a struggle over a shotgun the Patrolman had brought into the motel; and National Guard Warrant Officer Theodore Thomas, who had heard the putative sniper fire and turned in the alarm, had identified August as Pollard’s killer. On rather less clear-cut evidence Patrolman Robert Paille was identified as having shot Fred Temple and was charged with his murder. The two policemen were arraigned and taken to jail: “‘They held us,’ Paille, who in his time on the force had taken a good number of citizens to jail, told me, ‘for one night in the county prison. It was the most awkward night of my life. During that time there, I tell you, it was really something. We were confined to an area there, isolated, and—we were both together—and jeez, it was, you know, it was almost unbreathable in that place, it was closed and no windows or anything. It was hot in there, it was …