Last summer, in a small town in Mississippi, a white policeman shot and killed a 21-year-old black youth, rekindling for three months the fear, tension, confusion and racism of the 1960s South, and triggering an economic boycott that recalled the early civil rights days of the Freedom Riders.
The incident, in late June, developed during the long, hot Mississippi summer from an isolated case of questionable police force in to a far-reaching and traumatic example of the persisting racial polarization that continues to haunt the New South.
Byhalia, Miss. isn't much of a town. Straddling U.S. 78 as it winds its way south from Memphis through the decayed northern Mississippi countryside, it is little more than a somnolent side-street with a few general goods stores, a town square, and a soaring water tower. The population of the town is 750 persons, and although 70 per cent of them are black, the mayor, the town leader and all the merchants are white.
On June 29, two of Byhalia's three policemen were chasing a black youth, Butler Young Jr., in connection with a suspected hit-and-run accident. They caught him outside of town and put him in the back of their patrol car, but he managed to escape and began to flee. The officers pursued him through a neighborhood, and one of them, Morris Hanna, shot and killed Young during the chase.
The Byhalia police first reported to the Marshall County Sheriff's Department that Young had died as a result of a broken neck. The country coronor, however, found a bullet hole in Young's left shoulder and ordered an autopsy which determined he has been shot at close range.
Little happened for two weeks while the sheriff investigated the incident. Both policemen were suspended from the force and in the middle of July, Hanna was bound over to a grand jury on charges of manslaughter.
Byhalia blacks considered the charge overly lenient. Black leaders said they wanted Hanna charged with murder, but Sheriff Johnny Taylor maintained that only manslaughter was justified because no premediatation was involved in the killing.
On July 10, the United League of Marshall County, a black political and civil rights organization claiming 4000 members, began an organized boycott and picketing of the 19 white-owned stores in Byhalia. Alfred Robinson, president of the organization, told reporters that the United League formed the boycott because the Byhalia mayor "showed no interest in the killing. It took nearly two weeks to make an arrest in this case, and the county attorney refused to talk with us about it."
The blacks, in groups of about 100, marched with picket signs in front of Byhalia stores as sheriff's deputies and Mississippi Highway Patrolmen policed the town. Tentative negotiations between the blacks and town leaders were held, but quickly collapsed. As tensions grew the first week, the mayor imposed a curfew on the town, and merchants were asked to close their stores early.
The boycott almost immediately became surprisingly effective. The merchants reported that business fell off by as much as 95 percent as virtually no blacks and only a few whites ventured into the stores. Some stores were forced to close completely.
Each side had its case. The businessmen complained bitterly that they were caught in the middle. They maintained that they had no control over the grand jury proceedings or the district attorney's office, and could not be held responsible for the legal actions taken against Officer Hanna. Even if they agreed with the black demands, the merchants said, there was nothing they could do about it. To severely punish them economically was not only unjust, but pointless, they insisted.
The blacks, however, viewed the situation not as an isolated incident of a police killing, but rather as an example of far-reaching social, political and economic discrimination. Soon after the boycott started, and when it became clearly effective, the United League vastly expanded the number and scope of their demands. Not only did they want Hanna and the other Byhalia policeman indicted for murder, they also demanded representation of blacks on the town board of aldermen, the county supervisor's board, and the local electric utility; an improved local sewage system; the addition of blacks to the police force; action to attract a doctor to the town; and increased employment opportunities for blacks in local businesses.
The blacks maintained that the boycott of businessmen was justified because it was literally the only avenue of protest they had; without social or political power in the town, it was both logical and necessary for them to bring their strong economic power to bear. A number of the merchants, they said, were members of the board of aldermen, and if substantive changes were ever to come in Byhalia, the merchants had to be pressured. If the merchants could not make the changes themselves, then they at least had the social and political capability to pressure those that could.
By the end of the boycott's second week, tensions in Byhalia were running high. Scattered skirmishes between residents and picketers were reported, with each side blaming the other. Dudley Moore, mayor and president of the town bank, said the Byhalia whites were "getting fed up" with the continuing protest. "It's getting pretty aggravating to see people marching around," he said. "Their demands are ridiculous and all blown out of perspective."
Towards the beginning of August, the businessmen made their first attempt to legally break the boycott. They circulated a petition among themselves asking the county court to issue an injunction restraining the picketing and boycott; 18 of the 19 Byhalia merchants signed. The merchants also filed a $2,450,000 lawsuit against the blacks, claiming to be victims of an illegal conspiracy.