The Price of Rebellion
By TESS TAYLOR
JUNE 1, 2013
DANVILLE, Va., a small city perched just above the North Carolina border, was the last capital of the Confederacy. Its crumbling “Millionaire’s Row” still includes the brick Sutherlin mansion, where Jefferson Davis, having fled Richmond, met his cabinet for the last time.
By 1963, when my father was growing up there, Danville was a company town; the local cotton mill, where my grandfather, Leigh Taylor, was the director of training, was its lifeblood. It was also a Jim Crow town; nine years after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, its schools were still segregated.
That spring a group of black Danville ministers, including the Rev. Lawrence G. Campbell, decided they could no longer tolerate the separate water fountains or the poorly staffed “black” hospital. They had tried suing the city, to no avail. When they held a sit-in at the library, the library got rid of the tables. Rather than integrate parks, the city closed them.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in March and spoke to packed churches. When school got out that spring, students and workers from Danville began marching. In the beginning, the white city leadership tried to silence the demonstrators by simply ignoring them. Peaceful marches went through the end of May and into June, yet the local paper, the Register and Bee, failed to cover them. For news of the protests, people in town had to rely on TV clips from Greensboro, N.C., or Roanoke, Va.
Archibald Aiken, the municipal judge, then issued rolling injunctions against civic gatherings. When demonstrators were minors, the city prosecuted their parents under legislation (known as the John Brown Act) prohibiting anyone from “inciting the colored population” to riot. By June 8, more than 370 people had been arrested.
Two days later, the police chief authorized an all-white force of garbagemen to use billy clubs on 50 protesters. Mr. Campbell’s wife, Gloria, who’d left her four children at home, was among them. As they approached an alley outside the city jail, firemen turned their hoses on full blast. Falling amid the jets of water, Mrs. Campbell was battered in the hip. Her dress was ripped partway off. She remembers, as she fled, seeing a small girl lying in a pool of water, unconscious. Later that summer Dr. King called the use of police force in Danville among the most brutal he had yet encountered.
Mrs. Campbell’s hip still gives her trouble. She has spent much of her life since 1963 waiting for the city to acknowledge the pain it caused that night. The very history of the beating has been contested. In court a decade later, the police denied involvement in the events entirely.
AMID these details, my grandfather’s story begins. After three years of legal wrangling over Judge Aiken’s questionable injunctions, the process of sentencing the 300-odd protesters — some 50 of whom had been beaten so badly they needed hospitalization — began. The majority were sentenced to fines and hard labor.
After (as I hear it) downing some bourbon, my grandfather fired off a letter to Judge Aiken, whom he knew from Rotary and the country club. He called the sentencing of the protesters a sign of “petulance,” and called Judge Aiken’s decision “inane.”
My grandfather was not a protester by nature. My grandparents did learn to sing “We Shall Overcome” when my uncle came home from college one summer, and they did eventually work to urge their neighbors to allow the schools to integrate peacefully. But my grandfather also scolded my father for watching a demonstration. I doubt he considered marching.
But he found that even writing the letter pushed him over an unseen boundary. He arrived at work the next Monday morning to be served a bench warrant. He was taken to jail, and then the courthouse, where Judge Aiken sentenced him to the same jail time being served by the demonstrators and double the fine they paid, citing contempt of court.
My grandfather’s case got more local press than the first demonstrations had. In contrast to names like Lawrence and Gloria Campbell’s that the paper had refused to dignify, his name made the paper, not only in Danville, but in Richmond, Roanoke, Greensboro, N.C., and Washington. Some lawyers in Danville ran counter-editorials defending Judge Aiken and mocking my grandfather.
When Mills E. Godwin Jr., Virginia’s governor, returned from a meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson, journalists asked him about what had happened to Leigh Taylor in Danville. (Godwin sidestepped the question, calling the whole situation “unfortunate.”)
At the advice of his lawyer, my grandfather, still a mill employee with four children to raise, apologized to the judge. Even then he wasn’t without spirit. Asked what he meant to achieve by his letter, he told Judge Aiken, “I wanted you to know what some people were thinking.”
Then he asked not to be sentenced, saying, “I hope you’d think of my position in the community.” Judge Aiken responded, “Mr. Taylor, you should have thought of my position in the community.”
Judge Aiken eventually vacated the jail sentence, but not the fine. Nevertheless, a chill fell around parts of my grandfather’s life in Danville. Although he was only in his mid-40s, he never got another promotion. He worked the same position in the mill for another 20-odd years.
My grandfather was not a hero. Unlike Mr. Campbell, he did not plan to put his life on the line. He set out as a privileged person expecting to be heard, and ended as a privileged person surprised by backlash. But he did speak up. He was then used as an example of what could happen even to a white man of standing if he stepped out of line. And, in his own way, he spent his life paying for it.
When we look back on our troubled histories, especially at the distance of 50 years, we might like to imagine that we would be Skeeter Phelan, the character in “The Help,” or an abolitionist. My grandfather’s story recalls the painful complexity of oppressive regimes not only to those they oppress most directly but to anyone who dares to question them at all.
It has taken a long time for the tide to turn in Danville; in some ways it is still turning. After decades of denying that the violence on June 10 had even occurred, Danville now has a public plaque to what is known as Bloody Monday. The Register and Bee has issued an apology for its failure to cover the protests and violence, what its editor called “sins of omission.”
But Mr. Campbell still thinks about the retired chief of police, who repeatedly denied the beatings, and of the Rev. R. J. Barber, a prominent white preacher who called him and King Communists.
I often wonder if my grandfather made any difference at all. I recently sat down with Mr. Campbell. After two hours I pulled out some yellowing newspaper clippings about my grandfather, who has been dead for 20 years. I expected him not to remember the story.
But Mr. Campbell looked them over, then told me: “I can count on one hand the white people from this town who said anything at all then.” Among them was my grandfather. I said I felt sadness that my grandfather had apologized to Judge Aiken. Mr. Campbell gave me a long stare. “ Don’t you doubt for one minute that your grandfather went through hell, baby,” he said. “It took a man to speak out.”
He paused. “It took God.” He added: “What your grandfather did was brave. In fact,” he waggled his finger at me, “it was stone cold crazy.”
I don’t know how crazy it was. Sometimes I am proud of my grandfather. Sometimes I feel, painfully, that his act was not enough. In some ways, his efforts are beside the point. But in other ways, they offer me a window into what presses down on a culture that is struggling to change.
Tess Taylor is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection “The Forage House.”