News & Politics

Ed Koch in Mississippi


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September 3, 1964, Vol. IX, No. 46

The Mississippi Front

By Edward I. Koch

On August 17, 1964, I left Jackson, Mississippi, to attend a court hearing in Laurel, Mississippi, two hours away by car. Court started at 3 p.m. at City Hall. The hearings was comparable to an arraignment here in New York.

Three Negroes and two whites had filed charges against local white men who, they claimed, had assaulted them. One Negro youth of 20 said he had been struck on the head with a baseball bat when he ordered a soda at the Kress Store lunch counter. Another Negro, a boy of 12, and his mother claimed that the boy had been threatened by a woman bystander. According to them, the woman had come up and said, “Boy, you better leave.” When he replied, “I’m not finished with my soda, ma’am,” the woman reached into her pocketbook and showed him a pistol. He left.

While waiting for court to start I saw a white man walk over to a white youth, speak to him, start pounding him over the head with his fists, and then, ever so calmly, walk into the court house. I later learned that the young white was a COFO worker engaged in voter registration. He was still dazed when several COFO workers and I rushed over to find out what happened. He told me — his name was Anthony Lynn — that he was waiting for a Negro woman whom he had brought down to City Hall to register to come out of the building when the man walked over to him and said, “Are you one of them civil rights workers?” When Lynn said he was, the man’s fists began to fly.

We went back into the court house and Lynn swore out an assault complaint. The man was arrested in the courthouse and was immediately released on $50 bail. He kept saying, “You better be sure, boy.”

At 4:30 p.m. the court terminated its session. Daniel Perlman who attends Columbia Law School and who had been in Mississippi for several weeks, and I left City Hall to go to the County Courthouse cross the street to get certain records. As we walked out of City Hall we were followed down the street by a number of the defendants. Dan suggested we go back into City Hall because it looked bad. We made a quick about-face, surprising the group that was following us, and walked right through them. As we walked into City Hall, I met the City Prosecutor with whom I had been speaking 15 minutes earlier.

I was scared. I said to him, “You are an officer of the court and so am I. Mr. Perlman and I are being threatened by defendants who have appeared in this court this morning. I expect you do something.”

“What can I do?” he asked. “Have you told this to the Chief of Police?” I told him that would not help, because the Chief had told me that morning that we were not wanted here and that he would not give personal protection to any of the COFO people. I asked the prosecutor if he would take me to a telephone — there are no public telephones in City Hall which we could use — so that I could call the FBI. He took us right into the Mayor’s office and let us use the secretary’s phone…

…The City Prosecutor, the only decent person I met in that town, said we had better leave through a side door. We did and were able to get into our car safely and drive away.

…On Friday, I returned to Laurel to assist in the trial of two more cases. This time they involved two white COFO workers, a young man and woman who had been engaged in voter registration. They had been assaulted — thrown to the ground, kicked and beaten — at a gas station while buying cokes. Their alleged assailant appeared in court with witnesses who testified that he had been at home during the time of the assault watching “Bonanza” on TV. The cases were dismissed.

…On August 22 I was to leave Jackson for my home. I put my files in order so that the attorneys who would follow me would be able to see what I had done and pick up the cases from there. I had been working on about eight files, and had drawn complaints for money damages for each of the persons who had been assaulted. While it was impossible to get a damage judgment for COFO people in the courts of Mississippi, the cases had to be pursued to the end — there was always that very slight hope for justice.

That afternoon, the hearings of the credentials committee at the Democratic convention were televised. I watched what was happening with five other white lawyers who were in the office at the time. As the testimony of the Democratic Freedom Party delegates unfolded the barbarism of Mississippi was exposed to the whole country. It was a painful and moving experience. My eyes were wet, so were those of the other lawyers in the room. No one was embarrassed.

When ADA’s Joe Rau made his brilliant speech in favor of the Freedom party, there was applause in the room in Jackson. I was elated. I thought that it just might happen.

That evening at supper, I prepared a telegram to be sent to the credentials committee urging the seating of the Freedom Democrats. I signed it as a Democratic District Leader and thought it might have some effect. When I showed it to the other lawyers at the table, they unanimously advised me not to send it until I was out of Mississippi. They felt that there was a risk of my being picked up by the police on a phony charge when I tried to board the plane.

When I landed in New Orleans in the State of Louisiana, I felt the way refugees from Germany must have felt when they arrived in Holland or France. This may sound melodramatic, but that’s the way it was and that’s the way I felt.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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