August 2020

Breakthrough Verdict?

After seven years of Black Lives Matter, and looking back at several decades of mass incarceration, justice on paper seems less of a triumph.

by Ellie Campbell

“If the Klan don’t get you, the police will; if the police don’t get you, the courts will.”

– Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth[1]

On December 2, 1965, for the first time in Alabama history, a state jury convicted a white man for killing a Black man. On a hot July evening four months earlier, Hubert Damon Strange left a “white man’s rally” in downtown Anniston, Alabama, got into a car with several of his friends, and headed west on Highway 202. Strange fired a rifle three times into a passing car of four Black men, who were headed home after a long day’s work at a local foundry. One shot hit the driver, Willie Brewster, in the back of the neck. Brewster died three days later in the segregated ward at Anniston Memorial Hospital. Fed up with years of violent attacks and under pressure from local African-American organizers, over 250 locals took out a full-page ad in the Anniston Star to announce a $20,000 reward for information on the murder and included all of their names. A witness stepped forward, and his account led to the arrest and conviction of Damon Strange for the murder of Willie Brewster.

I first wrote about the Strange case for a law school class at the University of Alabama in 2011. The Strange case was mentioned in a few histories of the Civil Rights Movement, and I was interested in writing my hometown’s legal history. In the paper, which was subsequently published, I depicted the case as a triumph for the movement.[2] But the events of the past few years have caused me to question my initial position. While I was editing my paper for publication in 2012, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin. Two weeks before I took the bar exam in 2013, Zimmerman was acquitted, and the Black Lives Matter hashtag began trending on Twitter. Over the past eight years of endless police killings of African-Americans and the return of far-right militant movements in America, I’ve come to see the Strange case in a new light. Though I want to respect the immense effort it took to shift Anniston’s culture and the real feeling of victory that organizers felt on that day, the past few years have made it harder to accept that narrative.

Willie Brewster’s name on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo by Leon Reed, available here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/leonandloisphotos/9097151645/.

Why Anniston? Why 1965? There was no dearth of violence in Anniston, in Alabama, or in the South, but previously the all-white, all-male juries in the region had opted for acquittal or conviction on lesser charges, giving tacit approval to racial terrorism. Four years earlier, a jury in Anniston failed to convict anyone for the local bombing of a Freedom Ride bus and beating of its passengers. Other communities in the South also suffered racist killings and failed to convict, most famously in the trials of the killers of the three Civil Rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County, Mississippi. What made this case different?

The Freedom Ride bus bombing on May 14, 1961, just west of Anniston, brought national attention to the Civil Rights Movement and galvanized local African-Americans. The failure to convict anyone also emboldened local white supremacist groups, who celebrated the anniversary of the bombing for the next several years with more violence.[3] The city attempted to chart a moderate path; pressure from African-American leadership led to a biracial committee to address desegregation. Demands included opening city jobs like policeman and fireman; desegregating the library, the city parks, swimming pools, golf courses, public transportation, and theaters; opening restaurants, soda fountains, and lunch counters; letting everyone use the same bathrooms and water fountains; and desegregating the unions that operated in the pipe shops and foundries on Anniston’s West Side.[4]

Initial efforts were tepid. One white member later characterized the committee’s attitude as “how little we can give and still keep demonstrations and boycotts from happening.”[5] Nevertheless, each attempt brought a backlash. The “white man’s rally” that Strange attended before killing Brewster was a response to plans to desegregate Anniston High School. The Anniston Star published an article the next day linking the shooting to the rally, quoting one speaker’s ultimatum, “If it takes killing to get the Negroes out of the white man’s streets and to protect our constitutional rights, I say, yes, kill them.”[6]

Something had shifted. Rather than ignore the violence or call for more slow accommodation, white and Black citizens gathered reward money for information in the shooting. A full-page ad ran in the Anniston Star on Sunday, July 18, declaring:

“We, as a community, are determined that those who advocate and commit secret acts of violence will not control this county. We are determined to fight with the weapons of law to retain the dignity of this community and to punish those who struck down a respectable and industrious citizen. Therefore, we, the undersigned, pledge the sum of $20,000 to the person who supplies information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the shooting Thursday night of Willie Brewster.”[7]

Over 250 people from Anniston and the surrounding communities donated and agreed to list their names in the paper; one was my grandfather, J.J. Campbell. Three men were arrested in conjunction with the murder a month later, and the case landed before the recently appointed Judge Robert Parker.

Alabama’s courts offered little help to seekers of racial justice. Not only was white opinion against it, the state’s legal system operated on an “outmoded procedural system” that had not changed substantively since 1852.[8] It was tied “to a system so formal that substantial justice was frequently sacrificed to precision of wording.”[9] Cases and their appeals could, and did, turn on proper use of grammar.[10] Courts did little to ensure impartial verdicts when whites were accused of crimes against Blacks. In Strange’s case, Judge Parker defied these judicial trends; he paid close attention to every aspect leading up to the trial in an effort to ensure due process.

Calhoun County Courthouse and Willie Brewster historical marker. Photo by Mark Hilton, available here: 
https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=106626

This included the jury commission pulling a striking “blue ribbon” jury pool, made up of white leaders from all over Calhoun County.[11] Potential jurors included upper management and owners of local banks and businesses like Farmers and Merchants, Monsanto, Southern Bell, First National Bank, Sawyer Office Supply, Sunset Land Company, and the First State Bank of Oxford.[12] They also included management at the local Social Security Administration and Fort McClellan, and the mayor of Jacksonville.[13] Unusually for the time, the potential jurors also included eleven Black men.[14]

Judge Parker addressed other concerns; Strange requested a notorious white supremacist, J.B. Stoner, as his attorney. Stoner was believed to be behind a series of bombings of synagogues and African-American schools across the South, and often served as an attorney for white supremacists. Stoner had represented local Klan members, including a man named Kenneth Adams, in the Freedom Ride bus burning trial. A fellow judge who was familiar with Stoner advised Parker to let him take the case, as Stoner was not known to be a particularly good lawyer.[15]

Judge Parker also had to allay the fears of the district attorney, Clarence Williams, who was “scared to death” of the local Klan, particularly Kenneth Adams.[16] Adams was Anniston’s most active white supremacist. He had also been part of a group that attacked Nat King Cole when the singer desegregated Birmingham’s municipal auditorium in 1956 and had been instructed by the Birmingham Klan to attack the Freedom Ride bus in 1961. Adams had connections across the state, including to Asa Carter, who had founded a Birmingham chapter of the Klan, orchestrated racist violence across the state, and served as George Wallace’s speechwriter and connection to Alabama’s white supremacist groups.[17] Both Stoner and Adams spoke at the July 14 “white man’s rally.” In response to Williams’ concerns, Judge Parker called the highway patrol and had them send over troopers to protect the courtroom.[18]

The trial started on November 29, 1965, and took four days. There was never any doubt that this case was more than a simple murder trial. As a threat, Kenneth Adams sat at the table for the defense with Stoner, but was forced to move to the audience by Judge Parker.  

Stoner brought up the movement: “I think that most of you jurors have heard threats by Martin Luther King that if a jury failed to convict white persons charged with an offense against members of his race, he would march on the courthouses here in Alabama.”[19] Stoner also asked if any of the potential jurors were members of the NAACP and whether they “consider[ed] this a civil rights case?”[20] Williams objected, claiming, “Nobody has interjected civil rights in here except Mr. Stoner.”[21]

Stoner struck all the Black members of the pool, and after lunch they had their jury with Roy Rigney, owner of Rigney Typewriter Company, as the jury foreman.[22] Issues with the jury did not end there. They were sequestered during the trial, which meant staying overnight at the courthouse on the fourth floor.[23] This was an unpleasant prospect in the best times, as the top floor had neither air conditioning nor heating.[24] One juror nearly caused the case to go to mistrial on the second day when he became ill, but Judge Parker talked him into staying on the jury and called a doctor to attend him during deliberations.[25] Another shock came two days into the trial when a man was escorted from the courtroom; the police had found a gun in his pocket.[26]

The trial itself was far from open-and-shut. The best witness for the prosecution was Jimmy Glen Knight, who had attended the rally with Strange and saw him later that night at a friend’s house, where Strange bragged about shooting into Brewster’s car.[27] On cross-examination, Stoner had Knight reveal that he was being held in the county jail on two counts each of burglary and grand larceny when he heard about the reward for information in the Brewster case and asked to speak to the officers concerned.[28] Stoner’s main tactic was to make Knight look as bad as possible, and then give the jurors an out by providing Strange with an alibi.

Willie Brewster historical marker. Photo by Mark Hilton, available here: 
https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=106626.

In his closing argument, Williams reinforced the community’s hopes that racial violence would no longer be tolerated; he told the jury, “we must see that law violators are punished for what they are doing,” and defended the reward, claiming “we should be thankful we have men who believe in law enforcement enough in this county to back it up with their money.”[29] Stoner, meanwhile, hammered Knight’s character, arguing that the case “boils down to whether you’re going to believe a liar and a thief against an innocent man when there is no other evidence pointing toward the defendant.”[30] Stoner also accused the community of using the reward to create an atmosphere of “convict, convict, convict.”[31]

The jury asked Parker for a mistrial several times, but Parker refused to accept.[32] The judge “went back a couple of times and give ’em pep talks…[like] whatever your decision is we’ll back it.”[33] Parker urged the jurors, “this case is tried as good as it will ever be tried and twelve people have got to decide it. Y’all are good citizens. Compromise, don’t forget a conviction you have about something but rethink your case.”[34] They stayed overnight and returned a verdict the next morning: Strange was guilty of murder in the second degree, with a twenty-year sentence.

The Anniston Star reported “Verdict Shocks Parties” and called it “the first Alabama conviction in recent history of civil rights strife of a white man charged with killing a Negro.”[35] The story spread all over the nation; the New York Times reported “a white man can be convicted in the South,” though the paper expressed concern that convictions might still be rare.[36] Time Magazine claimed, “it had become axiomatic that Southern white men do not convict other Southern white men for racist murders,” and that the Strange case, along with a conviction in Montgomery several days later for the killing of Viola Liuzzo, gave hope “for the survival of the local jury system.”[37]

Back in Anniston, Kenneth Adams, J.B. Stoner, and other friends raised Strange’s bond, and he was let out in early January. Stoner continued to pursue an appeal, which was granted on August 23, 1966.[38] The appellate court affirmed the conviction on September 19.[39] Strange never served a day of his time. He was shot to death in November during a bar brawl.[40]

In his mammoth work on the Civil Rights Movement, Taylor Branch called the Strange case “a breakthrough verdict.”[41] Recent histories have been more cautious. In Baptized in PCBs, her work on a later fight for environmental justice in Anniston, Ellen Spears notes that while Strange’s case did mark a change, it mostly meant a shift towards upholding racial inequality by “quieter means,”[42] including the creation of local segregation academies.[43] Violent attacks on African-Americans continued throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the city struggled with desegregating the school systems and addressing employment discrimination.

From my perspective as a law student in 2011, justice in court seemed sufficient. Anniston had finally refused to be terrorized by Kenneth Adams and his followers and brought enough pressure to make Judge Parker’s efforts effective. The city might have failed to address racial divides in other ways, but for the first time, the law had been upheld.

After seven years of Black Lives Matter, and looking back at several decades of mass incarceration, justice on paper seems less of a triumph. In the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders and the failures of the legal system in Ahmed Arbury’s murder, Strange’s case appears to be justice in name only, a justice that acts as PR for a system that can’t prevent violence from happening and still requires immense community effort to hold anyone accountable for it. If, as Joao Costa Vargas and Joy A. James argue, “the imagination, mechanics, and reproduction of the ordinary polis rely on the exclusion of ordinary blacks and their availability for violent aggression and/or premature death and disappearance,” the possibility of justice under that legal system seems impossible.[44]

Fortunately, the response to Floyd’s murder charts another path. Six months ago, I could not have imagined seeing millions of people protest white supremacist police violence for several months, nor multiple pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, or The Atlantic calling for police and prison abolition. I’ve only begun to learn about modern abolition over the past couple of years; I certainly didn’t encounter those ideas in law school. Yet today I see law school friends openly supporting the defunding of police on social media and hear law students calling for bringing those discussions into classrooms.

If we’ve reached a moment in America where millions are encountering abolitionist ideas at protests and rallies, the Strange case now seems to me to suggest that we need to consider not only the abolition of police and prisons, but also the transformation of our whole legal system. What would it take for America to truly value Black life? Rather than ask what it would take to uphold the law, what it would have taken to prevent Brewster’s death entirely? Our laws and courts deal with violence after the fact. The abolition movement asks a better question: what would it take to transform society to defend Black life, rather than requiring Black death as a condition for the upholding of law?

Ellie Campbell is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Law and Reference Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She holds an M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi, an M.A. in American Studies from King’s College London, and a J.D. and an M.L.I.S. from the University of Alabama. She is from Anniston, Alabama.

Further Reading:

[1] Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home 136 (Simon and Schuster 2001).

[2] “Breakthrough Verdict: Strange v. State,” in New Field, New Corn: Essays in Alabama Legal History (Quid Pro Press, 2015).

[3] Id. at 107.

[4] Phil Noble, Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town 102-103 (NewSouth Books 2003).

[5] Id. at 103.

[6] John McCaa, Bullet Hits Negro Driving in County, Anniston Star, July 16, 1965.

[7] $20,000 Reward, Anniston Star, July 18, 1965, at 5A.

[8] Tony A. Freyer and Paul M. Pruitt, Jr., Reaction and Reform: Transforming the Judiciary Under Alabama’s Constitution 1901-1975, 53 Alabama Law Review 77, 96 (2001).

[9] Id.  

[10] Id. at 109.

[11] James M. Campbell, Memo on the Strange v. State Venire Roll (October 26, 2011) (in the possession of the author).

[12] Id., see also venire roll.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Author’s interview with Judge Robert Parker, (Oct. 16, 2011).

[16] Id.

[17] Carter was most famous for penning the famous line, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” from Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address as governor.

[18] Parker, supra note 25.

[19] Transcript of Record, Strange v. State, 197 So.2d 437 (Ala. Ct. App. 1966).

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] John McCaa and Jean Quillen, Juror’s Sickness Raises Possibility of Mistrial In Damon Strange’s Trial, Anniston Star, November 30, 1965.

[23] Parker, supra note 25.

[24] Id.

[25] Id., McCaa, supra note 32.

[26] Id.

[27] Trial transcript, supra note 29.

[28] Id.  

[29] John McCaa, Jurors Get Instruction, Anniston Star, December 1, 1965.

[30] Jean Quillen, Jury Decision Expected in Damon Strange Case, Anniston Star, December 2, 1965.

[31] Id.

[32] Parker, supra note 25.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Jean Quillen, Strange, Convicted of Slaying Negro, Sentenced, Placed on $10,000 Bond, Anniston Star, December 3, 1965.

[36] Fred Graham, A White Man Can Be Convicted in the South But, N.Y. Times, December 5, 1965.

[37] Turn in a Dark Road, Time, Dec. 10, 1965, at 27-28.

[38] Strange v. State, 197 So.2d 437 (Ala. Ct. App. 1965).

[39] Id.

[40] Obituaries, Hubert D. Strange, Anniston Star, November 7, 1966; see also Parker, supra note 25. 

[41] Branch, supra note 12, at 391.

[42] Spears, supra note 4, 113.

[43] I attended one of these schools for thirteen years.

[44] Vargas and James, “Refusing Blackness-as-Victimization: Trayvon Martin and the Black Cyborgs,” in Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics (Lexington Books, 2014).

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