A Bit Player – Civil Rights Movement

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was a time of turmoil in our country.  Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where I was City Attorney from 1969 to 1972, was no exception. The Civil Rights Act of 1966 established a framework for civil rights signaling the beginning of the end of segregation, although there were many battles still to be fought.

Downtown Cape Girardeau

In early 1970s blacks began to assert their rights by picketing businesses and engaging in other activities urging change in Cape Girardeau. Confrontation was used as a means to defy old established values in an effort to bring about change. As city attorney, I did not get to pick my side. I just did my job, which included prosecuting violations of municipal ordinances.

As the regional center for the area, Cape Girardeau – population 32,000 – attracted protesters from other communities such as Cairo, Illinois a town about 40 miles southeast of Cape, which sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers, with Pruitt Igoe housing projects and a large minority population stuck in high unemployment and poverty. It was clearly one of those failed communities like East St. Louis, Illinois.

One of the confrontations in Cape Girardeau in the early 1970’s involved the picketing of a grocery store and bothersome activities in the adjoining shopping center retail stores that did not violate the law. The bothersome activities involved selecting merchandise from the store shelves and filling a shopping cart, which was pushed to the checkout counter at which time the protester would present his or her gasoline credit card for payment. When the protester was told that a gasoline credit card could not be used to purchase the merchandise, the protester left the store leaving the clerk with the job of putting the items back on the shelves.

Bobby Williams, the leader of the protest movement and spokesperson for the United Front, was at a small retail store in the shopping center when a picketer from a nearby grocery store rushed in to tell Bobby that there was a commotion at the nearby grocery store where the civil rights picketers were engaged in a confrontation with the grocery store clerks. Bobby immediately ran a half block to the grocery store to find that the police had arrived and were trying to separate the picketers and the store clerks. Naturally, Bobby immediately interjected himself into the middle of the confrontation and when asked by the Police Chief what he was doing Bobby called the police chief,  “A no good, MF,” which immediately resulted in the arrest of Bobby, who was charged with a violation of the peace disturbance ordinance. Under the circumstances, these were fighting words with the potential to incite a riot not protected by the free speech clause of the constitution.

I tried the case in the municipal court where Bobby Williams was found guilty and fined $20. You would think that would have ended the matter, but Bobby wanted to make a statement and filed a de novo appeal to the circuit court of Cape Girardeau, County asking for a jury trial. On the day of the jury trial Bobby showed up in court with his attorney, Dick Snider, who was an incredibly nice guy and the perfect civil rights lawyer. Dick was a midget who I understood to also have a bone disease, which caused his bones to crumble. He was on crutches and as he moved about the courtroom I knew the jurors were watching him, admiring his strength and perseverance.

Court of Common Pleas Building, Cape Girardeau

Bobby Williams was another story. He showed up in Army fatigues wearing a black beret. Judge Osler Statler, presided over the case as Dick and I took turns asking prospective jurors questions to determine if they were qualified and could judge this matter fairly. Dick Snider questioned the jurors first and asked about civil rights matters giving me an opening. I followed up with questions about whether or not any of the jurors or their family were members of the NAACP, SNCC, the Black Panthers, the United Front (the local umbrella organization for the protest movement with close connections to Cairo) and other black organizations involved in the civil rights movement. Almost immediately, it became apparent to the prospective jurors that this case was more than your run-of-the-mill municipal ordinance violation. As I questioned the juror’s, they began to drop like flies from the panel, requiring Judge Statler to bring in additional jurors. Finally I completed my voir dire and we ended up with a jury.

I presented the case on behalf of the City based upon the protest activities in the retail store, the picketing of the grocery store, and the confrontation between Bobby Williams with the Police Chief where he called the Police Chief, “A no good MF.” Dick Snider followed by putting his client on the witness stand giving me the opportunity to cross-examine Bobby. I was worried that the jurors might consider the use of this phrase just one-time inconsequential. After all – unless you led a pretty sheltered life – almost everyone has heard or used these words. To emphasize the explosive nature of this situation I asked Bobby what he was doing before, during and after he called the Police Chief, “A no good MF.”

The jury deliberated quickly and returned a verdict of 90 days in jail. Once again, I thought this ought to take care of it, but there was another problem. The City jail was in the basement of an old converted Church that was literally a dungeon with cages in the basement serving as jail cells and a low ceiling preventing you from standing up straight. I immediately struck a deal with Dick Snider based on the fact the City did not have any authority to arrest Bobby outside of Cape Girardeau County. The deal was if Bobby Williams would just stay out of the Cape Girardeau County he would not have to serve jail time, although there would always be an arrest warrant on file for Bobby in case he returned. I do not know if this worked although Bobby lived in Cairo, Illinois, while his family continued to reside in Cape Girardeau.

There was also another protest that started with the arrest of a number of black mothers who were picketing. The Municipal  Court Judge released the mothers on their own recognizance, but they refused to leave the jail even though they could have just walked out of the jail without posting bail. A few days later there was major confrontation at a late evening City Council meeting where the protesters has signs with stating:    “Free The Mothers.”   OK, now I understood.  The signs , “Free The Mothers”  would not have worked at the City Council meeting if the mothers were free.  In the middle of this packed and highly charged meeting the lights went out for about 15 seconds, making the room pitch black. Fortunately, no one moved or said anything until the lights flickered back on. I attribute this to self preservation, since the narrow wooden stairs to the second floor City Council meeting room was  blocked with protesters.  The mothers left the  jail the very next day having served their purpose as symbols for the protest.

A few months later matters reached a fever pitch with the burning of Mayor Howard Tooke’s  lumberyard along with a number of city trash trucks.  The local newspaper pleaded for calm and reason.  I am sure that Mayor Tooke was a major influence in preventing any further escalation of this matter by  urging calm. After all Mayor Tooke was the one that lost the most and had the moral authority to speak on behalf of the community. Finally things settled down and the protests ended. In a few years, the Vietnam War ended along with  violent protests by blacks.  By the mid 1970’s our country and communities settled back into more normal times.

Howard Wright@2011

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