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.
On August 2, a county chancellor in Ripley, Miss., issued an injunction specifically prohibiting picketing, boycotting, threatening persons from trading and "otherwise interfering with the business." The chancellor said he based his decision on a state law making it illegal to conspire to boycott a business when there is no "responsible grievance" against it.
"There's no question on Earth that you folks are entitled to an injunction," the chancellor said during the hearing. "You have them conspiring and gathering and planning to boycott folks who have no control over what their boycott is about." Marchall County law officials told the court the boycott was "violent and unjust." Mayor Moore said it was caused by "outside agitators." The injunction was issued Friday morning, August 2.
At 2 a.m. that night, one of the downtown stores in Byhalia caught fire and burned to the ground.
Saturday morning, Byhalia was crawling with sheriff's deputies, Highway Patrolmen, and reporters from Memphis. The atmosphere of the town was a mixture of fear and panic as rumors spread that at least three other merchants had received telephone threats that their stores would be fire-bombed. The board of aldermen met in special session throughout the afternoon, and decided to deputize several local residents to assist county and state police in patrolling the town that night. After the meeting, a reporter asked the mayor whether any black residents would be deputized. He replied, "You can't get a Negro to stand up and do anything."
Though most stores were open Saturday, the businessmen were clearly terrified that the situation had gotten out of hand. With few exceptions, the merchants greeted reporters with hostility, refusing to answer questions and in some cases, physically throwing them out of their stores.
Not one person in the town questioned that the fire was caused by arson; the only question was by whom it was set. The whites charged that blacks had set the fire as a response to the injunction. The blacks charged that whites had started the fire--it destroyed a store owned by Hubert F. Mills. And Mills was the only merchant in town who had refused to sign the petition requesting the injunction.
Hubert Mills did not care who set the fire; to him it was an almost crushing tragedy. A placid and grandfatherly 80-year-old man, Mills had owned and operated the small general goods store in Byhalia for more than 50 years. He held no animosity for any person or any group in town. He said he could understand and even sympathize with the demands of the blacks, as well as the position of the whites. His reason for not signing the petition was that it would do no good, solve no problems. "You can force them off the street," he said, "but that won't make them trade with you." He was a man caught in the middle, and he paid a heavy price for it.
The Byhalia blacks halted their picketing that day as the injunction went into effect. Milling, but not marching, on the town square, they vowed to continue the boycott and take legal action to overturn the injunction.
Much of August was taken up with legal manueverings in court by the two sides. The United League filed suit in district court, charging that the injunction denied them First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. The blacks, who were not notified of the county court hearing and had not been given the opportunity to present their case, told the court that the boycott was "designed to publicize" the black community's grievances against the merchants and administration of Byhalia.
A week later, the district judge refused to lift the injunction. Noting in his opinion that the blacks have the right to picket and boycott, the judge said this had to be balanced against the "rights of merchants, who are in no position to correct the demands." The judge also told the blacks that the injunction prevented only picketing of stores, and he strongly suggested their cause would be more effective if they picketed city hall.
The situation was further complicated at the end of August when the grand jury finished its investigation. It refused to indict Hanna for manslaughter, and dropped all charges against him and the other officer involved in the killing. The district attorney called the grand jury probe "full, complete and very thorough." United League president Robinson called it "one of the lousiest investigations that has ever taken place in the state of Mississippi."
"The county attorney and the state investigator's plan was to not introduce enough evidence to indict these men," Robinson said. "The blacks here are quite disturbed about it. It is going to be a setback for Marshall County."
A certain amount of mystery surrounds the grand jury proccedings. Despite the initial report by the Byhalia police that Young died of a broken neck, the grand jury said there was no evidence of a police cover-up in the shooting. And, although grand jury proceedings are secret, the district attorney leaked selective evidence to the press to indicate that the killing was an accicent.
"The investigation reflected that the bullet which killed Butler Young actually hit another object before it ever went into his body," the attorney said. "The evidence shows that the bullet was partially mutilated. In my opinion, it hit something like a brick wall before it ever hit him. This would indicate to me that the policemen were firing around or above him."
But without the full proceedings of the grand jury, the circumstances surrounding the shooting remain unclear. Last week, as the boycott entered its 11th week, events took an ugly turn when a group of white youths apparently tried to kill four leaders of the United League, including Robinson.
The blacks were standing outside the Marshall County Court House in neighboring Holly Springs when two shotgun blasts were fired at them. No one was hit, and police later arrested a 19-year-old white youth, the son of a Holly Springs policeman, and charged him with intent to murder.
The situation, as it stands now, has reached a stalemate. The blacks--strongly motivated and tightly organized--seem fully prepared to continue the boycott indefinitely if necessary. They may, in fact, attempt to broaden their demands and expand the boycott to neighboring Marshall County towns in an effort to push for wide-spread reforms.
The merchants--bitter, frustrated, and confused--are at a loss for what action to take to halt the protest. Suffering from a severe drop in their business, they agree with the district court judge that if the blacks have a complaint, they should tell it to city hall, not to them.
But Mayor Dudley Moore and his city hall have proposed no solutions to the problem. In his statements throughout the summer, the mayor professed a lack of understanding of what the blacks want, or why. No white political leader in Byhalia or Marshall County has stepped forward to provide any direction or creative ideas as to how the impasse may be broken.
Thus, as the summer turns into fall in Byhalia, the tension and fear remain. The burning of Hubert Mill's store and the apparent attempt to murder the United League leaders could be only a premonition of worse violence to come, as the businessmen lose more money, the blacks make more demands, and the political leaders flounder in indecision and inactivity. A clash of perspectives and values, unmediated by a viable and responsive political system, is inevitably a volatile situation.
The impression left to the observer is that what happened this summer in Byhalia is slightly anachronistic. The tactics of boycott, the picket signs demanding racial equality, the stridence of black demands, the inability of whites to respond--all are problems that confronted the South ten years ago, and were seemingly solved.
The still unresolved story of dusty, hot little Byhalia should belong to a traumatic and unhappy part of southern history. But the death of Butler Young, Jr., the tragedy of Hubert Mills, the threats to Alfred Robinson, the bewilderment of Dudley Moore indicate otherwise.
Some things--at least in Mississippi--never seem to change.