Economics and a Murder Trial
By Eliza Heard (Virginia Durr)
Vol. 7, No. 5, 1985, pp. 14-17
The road to Hayneville and Selma (No. 80) leads to dreams of asphodel and honey. The old cotton fields are now meadows filled with slow-moving fat cattle that drift from one patch of shade to the other, and in the Spring they are covered with waves and sheets and masses of the loveliest and most fragile flower that grows, the wild primrose. It varies in color from deep pink to white and it covers the fields, the banks, the center stretches of the road and is accented and made even more beautiful by patches of purple vetch and crimson clover. In the Spring it brings the Black Belt glory and along with the primerose comes the honeysuckle, which is almost too sweet to be borne and drugs one’s senses with its overpowering perfume.
The day of the first Liuzzo trial I went alone through the empty countryside. A gentle wind rippled the primroses and brought the scent of the honeysuckle and I felt I was in Sleeping Beauty Land, everything was silent, empty and stretched for miles and miles under the empty sky. I began to feel a keen loneliness and was glad to pull in at a filling station to ask my way of a Negro youth who was keeping the station and the store. “Where was she shot?” I asked him while he serviced the car.
He knew at once whom I meant and said: “Just half a mile down the road on the left hand side.”
I went just half a mile down the road and there on the left hand side were still the skid marks, scarring the dirt where the car ran off the road with her dead hands on the steering wheel. And on this day in Hayneville a man accused of murder was on trial charged with shooting her fair in the face as he and others came abreast of her car. A cold-blooded, calculated, planned and above all impersonal murder was charged, for she was said to be utterly unknown to them, and simply killed on “principle.”
When I finally got to the Courthouse in Hayneville, through more miles of deserted countryside, I found the Courthouse surrounded, by cars and by State Troopers, great, burly men with guns on their hips. I went past the Courthouse and up the pleasant street of white, green-shuttered houses and parked in front of one of the nicest, with a lovely, flowering garden of azaleas. I noticed a string along the fence with red rags tied to it and I thought it was to keep birds away until a woman called to me from the porch, holding the screen door half open. Her voice was not pleasant when she said: “You can’t park there, I don’t want anyone parking there in front of my house. Didn’t you see the string?”
So the red rags were not for the birds but for me, and this set the tone of the reception the “outsiders” received in Hayneville that day. I finally found a parking place and came back to the Courthouse, thinking, “I’ll never get in, there’ll
be such a crowd.” But when I did get in the courtroom was only half filled. It is a beautiful, tall windowed, high ceilinged old room, and a bird kept flying through the windows which were framed in green. Inside the courtroom, the jurymen were being chosen, sunburned, angular, lean, and white. They looked like all of the other thousands and thousands of white men I had seen all my life in all of the little country towns of the South and I liked their looks and felt at once a sense of kinship with them, so I resented the whispered comment I heard in front of me, “Just a bunch of red necks.”
This came from the newsmen who filled the front of the spectator side of the courtroom. There were over half a hundred: a clotted group of handsome, squat, powerful, long haired and well dressed Englishmen on the front row, and behind them the taller, cigarette smoking, nervous Americans from all the great papers, magazines and TV and radio chains, and mixed in with the Americans and English, a few others from all over the world, notably one young Swede who seemed to have the most feeling about the murder of anyone there.
When lunch time came I was invited by a local reporter, a red-headed boy from Tallapoosa County, to have lunch with the newsmen on the lawn in front of the old white Courthouse. Every drug store and restaurant was closed tight against the “outsiders” but we were permitted to stand in the street and get a cold drink and food handed to us through a wicket. We sat in a circle and the Tallapoosa boy and I were the only ones in the whole group who looked for a conviction. All of the newsmen were intelligent, experienced, polite and cynical and, I must also add, contemptuous. They looked on this trial as just another of the folkways of a barbaric Southland, for which they felt no affinity and no responsibility. They spoke casually of “fascism” and Nazism, compared the South to South Africa and seemed to think that here in the South was the repository of original sin.
Since none of the white residents of Hayneville would speak to them, they asked me a thousand questions: “Was it true that one man in Lowndes County was known to have killed 15 Negroes and never even got indicted?”
I had heard the same tale, and thought of an old Negro who came by once to cut the grass and in the course of the morning I found he had come from Lowndes County and worked for Mr.——-, whose reputation as a killer was so bad. I asked him, “Weren’t you afraid working for Mr. ——?”
The old man shook his head, “No, Ma’m, I won’t scared of him. He won’t no bad man, he wouldn’t do nuthin’ to you–that is less you ‘sputed wid him.” Evidently the old man had “sputed wid him” as he was seeking sanctuary in Montgomery County.
I also remembered the tale of Walter Jones. The first white man ever hung in Montgomery County, he had come up from Lowndes County where he too was known as a killer, and had hunted down his enemy, a white doctor who was sitting in a train at the Union Station, and poked his gun in the window of the train and “blown his head off.” I had heard that tale with embellishments a hundred times. And the tale always ended the same way, “The mistake he made was doing his killing in Montgomery County. If he had just waited till Dr.—— got back to Lowndes County he would never have been hung.”
By the second day it was plain to see that the man charged with Mrs. Liuzzo’s killing would not get hung and probably not convicted. The feeling in the courtroom was not one of horror at the slaying but resentment that it had taken place in Lowndes County.
During that day’s recess the reporters and I again had dinner on the grounds. Here, various groups sat rigidly to themselves, all eating from the same kinds of boxes and on the same ground, but having no word to say to each other.
The KKK group was large. There were there, also, weary looking women, handsome children and sunburned men, country people, some who had gone to town and worked in the steel mills and suffered the torments of Hell in the burning mills and the dirty, smoky, town of Bessemer. Such as they are not only exploited but looked down on by the other citizens of Birmingham and Jefferson County. “Poor white trash” is the usual term applied to them. I remembered from way back when the men in the mills worked twelve hours a day and 24 on the swing shift in heat and flame and danger, with no union and no protection or compensation for the injuries they received. They lived when they were off work in dingy company houses, traded with scrip at dingy company stores, and all day the smoke hovered over them, lit by the flames at night. We used to ride out to see a “run” and watch the little figures working with the molten steel and wondered how any human beings could stand the heat.
And out of this life had come many Alabama Ku Kluxers, the men looking slightly askew and their women weary and with that vague, wan look that suggests pellagra some time in their lives. Some looked as if they had had pellagra of the body, mind and soul. And I thought once more of the times when the mills closed down and the men were out of work and the credit cut off at the store and while the mules were watered and fed, the people were thrown out of the houses, not fed, not watered, and expected to provide for themselves. I had worked with the Red Cross all during the Depression and I could look back now and see vividly just these same kinds of people coming to the door, so ashamed of having to take charity and trying to excuse themselves for their failure, as if it was their fault. And I remembered the gaunt, fanatic preachers who hollered at them that they had sinned and that their suffering was the price of their sinning, and who, as though they did not have Hell enough on this earth, sent them to an even hotter Hell each Sunday.
Out of these conditions had come these fanatic, joyless, pitiful and ignorant people who were filled with hate of the “riggers” and of all who helped them out.
There was a public relations man at the trial, looking like a parody of an old southern colonel, big, black hat, string tie, dirty white shirt and dirty white whiskers, passing out hate literature which went after not only the “riggers,” but the Jews, Communists, and Catholics, the U. S. Supreme Court, the President of the United States and the United Nations. Hatred seemed to take in just about everybody.
Sitting close to the Klan was the Law, the big, powerful state troopers, not only close to them in presence but it seemed in spirit; there was a communion there between the Kluxers and the troopers that could not be missed. Once
again the newsmen said contemptuously, “Storm Troopers.” Sitting to themselves were the County Prosecutor and his Assistant and the Judge, proper gentlemen doing a painful duty, and not happily.
The third day was the worst when the defendant’s lawyer, Matt Murphy, began his wild tirade to sway the Jury. A massive man, he had the same noble brow and handsome looks of all the famous aristocratic Percys from Mississippi. His uncle and grandfather had been general counsels for the steel mills and had been gentlemen and men of integrity, and had both died of their own hands.
But here was a descendant of the Percys, having descended into the Pit and dragging all of the rest of us with him. He was unutterably and unnaturally vile. He accused the poor, dead woman of the nastiest sort of sex mania and the Negro boy of even worse. She had only come South for purposes of sex, she was driving with the Negro boy for purposes of sex, she was going out to park with the Negro boy with no other purpose than sex. He piled vileness upon vileness until the whole courtroom stank. And all in the name of “Southern Tradition and pure white Southern Womanhood.”
The visiting reporters were not so polite that day. I was the only example of pure, white and certainly southern womanhood they could talk to and they made it plain that they did not think I was worth the vileness that had taken place in my name and in the name of all “pure, white southern womanhood.” Since I am an old time grandmother I did not get offended as I agreed with them; I, too, felt shame that such a cesspool should have overflowed into the courtroom in the name of “southern womanhood.” I did not feel we women deserved it but then I did not feel we protested enough against it, and still again I did not think we were the real reason.
Killing may be done in our name but the real reason is much deeper and has been there forever, since the beginning of man, and that is the desire of one man to keep another man in bondage to him, so he may live at ease and the other man must do the hard work.
Life is pleasant in Hayneville and in all the other little southern towns; that is if you are white and have even a small amount of money. You wake up in the morning to the sound of someone stirring in the kitchen, and come in to a hot breakfast. During the middle of the day, you sit on your porch and direct a black man digging in the yard while another black woman cooks the dinner, cleans up the house, washes and irons the clothes and, above all, looks after the children. Cheap labor is one of the greatest luxuries of life, and to give it up is one of the hardest things there is to do.
And it is cheap labor and the power over cheap labor that is at the heart of Bloody Lowndes. The men accused of killing Mrs. Liuzzo were jobless steel workers.
Many southern white men have been brutalized and oppressed themselves and given nothing to comfort their souls but that “they were better than riggers.” They feed their souls on it and when that support is removed, they must face the fact that they are nothing but “poor, white trash” with no one to look down on, but rather looked down on from above with the same kind of contempt and disgust they show Negroes.
There in Hayneville, the white men who own the county
and control it simply want to “keep the Negro in his place.” They are determined to do so and when the jury came with a mistrial I realized that even this was better than I had hoped for. Matt Murphy had not won them over with his mad cries of “race mixing.” As the jurymen said for the newsmen, “That guy must have thought we were awful ignorant.” (But they did not find the Ku Kluxer guilty. In a second trial, a jury exonerated him. The defendant and other Ku Kluxers had taken delight in their actions and were still proud of themselves after the first trial was over, as they went to konclave after konclave to be worshipped and admired.)
I drove back by myself after the trial was over. Still alone in the empty countryside, for the first time I became afraid, and for a moment I had a feeling of terror such as I never had before. Just halfway between Hayneville and the junction with No. 80, on. a perfectly empty road with empty fields stretching on either side, I saw a big red car coming behind me which must have been going at least 80 miles an hour, and I thought it was going to strike me deliberately and knock me off the road. It came close but it did not strike, and I saw those pale, fanatic, askew faces of the defendants, Matt Murphy beside them as they roared off up the road. I stopped the car until I could get my breath and my heart could stop beating so hard. I knew killing would strike again. For the white people of Hayneville had condoned the killing whatever they might say; there was killing in the air.
And it did strike again. This time a young white Episcopalian priest was killed by a white man who comes from one of the “leading families” of Lowndes County and a young Catholic priest lies at the point of death from the same man. Bloody Lowndes is living up to its reputation and this time it is not just “uppity riggers” they are killing but “outside agitators” who come “meddling.” I remember a white woman I knew from Hayneville who told me once, “I simply love living there; it is all just like one big family.” Of course she meant the white people, and they do all stick together; the idea that the white man who killed the Rev. Mr. Daniels would be convicted was absurd.
Matt Murphy was not at this trial. he had been killed in an automobile wreck not long after the Liuzzo trial. But vileness was there, and this time the charge was merely manslaughter, and the verdict–not guilty.
I cannot see that just the “right to vote” is going to change these kinds of counties very much, and they are the dark heart of Dixie. Lowndes County has a population of 81% Negro and 19% white, but the white people own almost all the land and practically all the businesses. So the Negro people are economically entirely dependent on the white community. Even if the federal government does come in and insist that they be registered and their right to vote protected, what can the government do about giving them a living if they are fired? After the Civil War the federal army was down here to protect the right of the Negroes to vote, but they never got the 40 acres and a mule, and much good voting did them. As soon as the federal troops were withdrawn, the Negroes were thrown back into bondage.
Into these Black Counties have gone the SNCC kids, jeans, beards, sandals and long haired girls, with courage that seems almost beyond belief. They live in the Negro communities, work and eat there and never walk alone, every minute in danger, and they know it. Suppose they do get every Negro registered, what then? How are the Negroes in Lowndes County going to make a living? The landowners were already going from cotton to cattle to get rid of labor, and now they are mechanizing as fast as they can to get rid of even more labor. Lincoln said “a necessitous man is not a free man” and I see no way to make them free until they have a way to make a living, and in Lowndes County I don’t see how they are going both to live and be free. Will Bloody Lowndes live up to its name again and again before it gives the Negroes life, freedom, and a living?
(Editor’s Note) In October 1965, the Southern Regional Council published “Economics and a Murder Trial” in its journal New South. The essay, a first-person account of the Hayneville, Alabama, trial of a Klansman indicted for the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, was one of several written in the mid-1960s by Virginia Foster Durr under the pen name of Eliza Heard. At the time, Virginia and her husband, attorney Clifford Durr, lived on a small farm near Wetumpka, Alabama. (See the accompanying article in this issue of Southern Change.)
“I was the only Southern white woman who went to the trial,” Virginia Durr recalls. “I drove over by myself to Lowndes County every day. And all the journalists–who had come from throughout the world–wanted to take my picture. I said, ‘You think you’re doing me a favor, but you ‘re just going to ruin me. All that will come out in the papers, you’ll be gone to the next story, and I’ll be the one who gets the late night phone calls and the threats. ‘ So they didn’t run the pictures.
“For the same reason, when I wrote about the trial for Maggie Long (editor of New South)–and I had to write about it because I was so mad–I felt I couldn’t sign my name. Cliff and I were in enough trouble already. So I thought of Eliza Foster–my great-grandmother on my father’s side–and Virginia Heard–my father’s mother–and I signed “Eliza Heard.”