Production Team: A
Interview Date: November 2, 1985
Camera Rolls: 137-140
Sound Rolls: 1115-1117
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with James L. Hicks, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 2, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Sound Roll 1115, Camera Roll 137-140
[Camera Roll 137, Sound Roll 1115, Mr. Hicks, Blackside. Color tone please. Sound number 1.]
OKAY THE FIRST THING I WANTED TO ASK YOU WAS, YOU WERE A VETERAN IN WORLD WAR II AND YOU TOLD US WHEN YOU CAME BACK THAT THE BLACK VETS FELT A LOT LIKE THE VIETNAM VETS, THEY HAD SOME DEEP FEELINGS BUT THEY DIDN'T REALLY EXPRESS THEM. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT AND CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE INFLUENCE THAT RETURNING BLACK VETERANS HAD ON THE COMMUNITY AFTER WORLD WAR II?
Well, I think that to begin with the veterans of World War II, when they returned they had their a, that is the black veterans, that they were really an influence and so much so that they were activists and they had been trained and of course when they said no more of this Jim Crow or what have you, the people picked it up, that is the black people and they I think that they set the tone for what came later with King and the rest of us. That is following King, he knew that he had some truth.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IT WAS THAT MADE THE BLACK VETERANS SO ACTIVE?
Well, being over there, and moving in concert with whites, so that when somebody said, let's do it, they were trained to get up and do it. So that when they came back from overseas, they automatically a, some of those who a, possessed leadership would step into the knots where the officers had been and they would take over and say lets do it.
YOU WERE A VETERAN OF WORLD WAR II AND YOU WERE TELLING ME ABOUT THE WAY THE BLACK VETERANS FELT AFTER WORLD WAR II. COULD YOU DESCRIBE THAT FOR ME, WHAT YOU AND OTHER BLACK VETERANS FELT AFTER THE WAR AND THE INFLUENCE THAT THEY HAD ON THE COMMUNITY?
Well, I was a veteran and I spent three years overseas in New Guinea and I became an officer during that period and I had been eager to exercise what I considered authority and when I got authority it was spit and polish and we a, I was put back into the same unit that I had been serving as a first sergeant in and the, I was tough on the men and the men respected me because we were the only off… we were the only officer back there in that period in New Guinea. So when we got out, it was just one more step to say well look, we aren't going to take this anymore.** And a, believe me, a it, I knew that I had some followers and this was something that was understood by officers, you take the 369th and the 332nd, these people were officer material, and when they said you guys come on, well, they were talking to people who had been serving under white officers and without question and so when they said, follow me, there was no question about it, the veterans would follow them and pretty soon we looked around and there were civilians that came under influence and they picked up on it because he knows, he, he's, lets get behind him and a, I think that this is why so many people in the air forces for instance, got in top level positions because it was not only them, but it was the veterans behind them that would back them up in civilian life.
DO YOU THINK THERE WAS A LOT OF RESENTMENT AMONG THE BLACK VETS WHEN THEY CAME BACK?
Oh, yes. Well, you asked me if there was resentment, I think that there was extreme resentment because they felt that I paid my dues over there and I'm not going to take this any more over here. Because that was a war time and now its peace time and a, we're just going to, I'll get myself ten men and straighten this thing out.
NOW GETTING BACK TO THE TIME PERIOD OF THE FIFTIES, WHEN YOU SET OUT AS A REPORTER TO COVER THE TIL TRIAL. WHAT KIND OF PRECAUTIONS DID YOU TAKE BEFORE GOING INTO THE SOUTH. CAN YOU DESCRIBE FOR US, WHAT IT WAS LIKE FOR BLACKS IN THE SOUTH AT THAT TIME.
Well, you asked me how, what situations that we encountered going in, a, after the war. This was a situation that we sighted up, one of the greatest editors I've ever seen, who, he was a black man who trained in Heidelberg for some reason, I don't know, but he was the publisher and editor of the Afro-American papers and one of the rays, on, one of the things that we agreed upon was that, number one, if I were going to a city or town that was, loaded with race hatred, that the first report that I would get into was to go to the FBI office and ask them, could I make a phone call from there. I mean I would ask them, what was the, what was the situation regarding so and so and so and so, but the point of actually visiting was that I would ask the agent to allow me to use his phone and then I would call Carl Murphy in Baltimore and I would say that I'm in the FBI office and I wanted to know so and so, and so and so, and we'd go ahead on with that. So he said, he would say, you in the FBI office, and a, you in Memphis, or wherever it was, that I was there, and this would be recorded and so that when and if I would disappear, the paper would be able to say the last word that I heard from him, was, he was in the offices of the FBI. And this was something that worked out to a good degree because I think the FBI knew what we were doing at that time.
WELL JUST HOW DANGEROUS WAS IT FOR BLACKS TO COME DOWN TO THE SOUTH?
Well, it was, of course you got, you must remember that there were blacks there all the time in the south, but it was danger because if you were gonna be a uppity nigger, as they called you down there, it was something, you were something that a, a thorn in their side and they would try to get rid of you by peaceful means, get out of town, or violent means, through the Klan or the Citizens', a, Clubs that they have down there that, you would a, become discouraged if you didn't have stamina and guts. So, it was difficult, because I mean, I think that the Chaney case illustrates that, that the, you know the three fellows that disappeared in three freedom writers, one of them was black and I mean they a, found them eventually in the bayous of Mississippi.
YOU WERE TELLING ME SOMETHING ABOUT THE DEER BEING OUT OF SEASON AND THE QUESTION. CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THAT?
Yeah, well I, the a, that was Dr. T.R.M. Howard and he told me when I first went into Mississippi that people down there, the white men down there didn't think any more about killing a black man than they did about shooting a deer out of season. And I was shocked and a, I said, you're kidding aren't you? And he said, no I'm not kidding. And later on, doing the Imatio trial, I saw that. I mean, I understood it that this was something that a, I mean this was like well you know what he crown was, I mean he was, he had some change, and in that store, it wasn't a, you didn't touch a white woman, even hand to hand, so he did like that took the change from her hand and a, that was just, she told her husband, and what they do, they come and got him. They came in the middle of the night and got him.
[Camera Roll 138, Sound 1115, continues]
WE CONTINUE, I WANT TO ASK YOU A FEW MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TRIAL SPECIFICALLY, AND NEXT WHY THE WHITE PRESS BECAME SO INVOLVED IN THE COVERAGE, I MEAN WE TALKED ABOUT THIS THAT THERE WERE SO MANY AN GENERALLY KNOWN AS A DANGEROUS PLACE WHY THIS ONE?
I WANT TO TALK WITH YOU ABOUT THE TILL TRIAL, EVENTS THAT WERE HAPPENING THERE AND IN MONEY, MISSISSIPPI. FIRST OF ALL WHY WAS THE NATIONAL PRESS ATTRACTED TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY? THERE'D BEEN HUNDREDS OF LYNCHINGS OF BLACK PEOPLE BEFORE THIS HAD BEEN COVERED, WHY THIS STORY NOW?
Well, I think that the Till case aroused the suspicion, the, angered people, both sides because there had been a thrust of a, black people in that area, because the freedom rides were going on and everything.
[Sound Roll 1166. Camera Roll 138 continues]
WELL, I'D LIKE TO GO DIRECTLY THE TRIAL ITSELF. CAN YOU DESCRIBE FOR US IN SENSE OF WORD PICTURES WHAT THE TRIAL WAS LIKE AND THE WAY IT WAS RUN IN THE COURTROOM, THE SENSE OF IT…
Uh, I can describe what happened in the trial, in the Till case… the trial, the ah, two races and this to me was uh, unbelievable in uh, many respects because uh, I had covered courts all over this nation but uh, I never saw anything like the case before. And it was stemmed from number 1, it was a segregated courtroom and uh, the uh, veteran whites, the white veterans were all deputized. The press table was denied uh, the black press, we had to sit at a bridge table far off from the jury and uh, the uh,
THANK YOU. START WHERE YOU JUST STARTED… BEGIN DESCRIBING …
Well, you asked me about the case, the, I had covered the courts in many areas of this country, but the, the Till case was unbelievable, I mean I just uh, didn't get the sense of being in a court room uh, because uh, it was first place, segregated. And uh, the press itself was, the black press, sat at a bridge table uh, far off from the court. The jury itself plus the judge and whereas the uh, white press sat right under the judge and the jury. I, right up front at uh, a reserved section. We had a bridge table, and uh, I had the displeasure of seeing not only us and the boy's mother come down, they sat her there at the bridge table, with us, plus the United States Congressman, at that time, Diggs, he came down and uh, I was the one that got him in because uh, he uh, the sheriff wouldn't let him in. He had sent a telegram to the judge to say, I'd like to come down and observe this, um, to see the trial. The judge was the one white person that uh, he appeared to be fair minded. So that he wired Diggs back and hold him that come on down and you'll be welcome. Well there came a recess in court and uh, everybody went outside. The uh, whites went to the right side to wait till the court opened again. And the blacks went to the left side uh, so while we're out there standing, in the meantime the local people uh, who tried to get in, they had to stand back until the whites came in and filled up the place and they sat in the back of the courtroom. This court room was a uh, was a huge place compared to that town. Uh, it was probably the biggest building, certainly that in the section that I saw, was the biggest building in there. And uh, the the, ah, courtroom occupied more or less the whole floor. So uh, uh, when this when the people started coming, they fill up the white then the blacks would fill up what's left. When Diggs came down the room was filled. He couldn't get in. And uh, so he, at recess time he came by and he said uh, I knew him before so he said uh, Hicks, can you get into the courtroom. He said, I said yes I'm in there all the time but I was Jim-Crowed. And he said well look, I I would like to have this judge uh, give my card. Take my card up there and tell him uh, that uh, that I wrote to I wired him from Michigan, you see. So he gave me his card when the court opened I went straight up and started for uh the judges bench. He hadn't come in yet but on the way up to the bench, I was stopped by one of these veterans who had been deputized. And he said "where you goin nigger?" And uh, I said uh, "I'm going to see the judge." And I said there's ah, ah, I pulled open the ah, the ah, my coat pocket and there I had Diggs' card in it. I was going to hand it to the judge but uh, I mean O.K., he after me so I said you give it to him, them. So he said, just a minute, just a minute. He called another deputy over and this was, ah, it took place I wrote this, this was something that I never seen, ah, I'd never had really seen it before. He said to me, or he said to the deputy that he called over, he said, this nigger here said there's a nigger outside who says that he's a Congressman, and he has corresponded with the judge and the judge has told him to come on down and uh, he would let him in. He said, but uh, the uh, sheriff, won't let him in so he's sending his card up there so this guy said "A nigger congressman?" And he said, "that's what this nigger said. I said to myself my God, I have never seen anything like this in my life** and uh, we we we ah, so he went then to the sheriff and uh, the sheriff says I'll being him in here but I'm going to sit him at you niggers' table. And, I mean, ah, when he brought Diggs in, that's where he sat, right there at the table.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE ROLE OF THE PRESS CORPS AND TRYING TO COVER THE TRIAL AND GIVE IT THE MAXIMUM PUBLICITY.
Yes, ah, the so far maximum publicity concern, you asked about maximum publicity uh, from the standpoint of the press the uh, both sides of the Dailies and the Weeklies but more the heavily the weeklies because it was a lynching and uh, it was us involved and so I think that ah, it ah, most people, or most papers tried to muster somebody down there to ah, over the trial and either through a syndication or a one man or ah, the ah, just ah, well, taking it out with the ah, it…
DO YOU WANT TO STOP FOR A SECOND?
Yeah, let me stop.
NUMBER 139 Sound Roll 1116 CONTINUES
CAN YOU DESCRIBE FOR US THE MOMENT WHEN MOSES WRIGHT STOOD UP AND IDENTIFIED THE KILLERS OF TILL. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT WHAT THAT WAS LIKE AND THE TENSION THAT THERE WAS IN THE COURTROOM.
Yeah, we had been told at ah, well, ah, you talk about Moses Wright now and the testimony and the uh, when he got up we had been told that the stuff was going to hit the fan when ah, ah, he gets up and points his finger at these two murderers.
CAN YOU SAY MOSES WRIGHT? CAN YOU SAY HIS NAME? OK?
Well now, what we're talking about is uh, what you're askin about is Moses Wright's testimony and Moses Wright was a 70 year old man, I guess and uh, he was called, he had he was the boy's uncle. And he called, he was called up on to testify as to uh, could he see anybody in the courtroom identify anybody in that courtroom that had come to his house that night and got the ah, ah, Emmet Till out. He stood up and there was a tension in the courtroom because we had been told that people in our motel that uh, hey, the stuff is going to hit the fan when they uh, stand up and identify when Moses Wright stand up and identified J.W. Milam and the other fellow, I forget, anyway, he in his he's not schooled so when the question was put to him uh, everybody called Uncle Mos and that was resentful to, I mean, but he said ah, Uncle Mos, can you identify the people that came to you that night? And he looked around and there was a tension and he says in his broken language, Dar he**, and uh, so it was uh, well I had been alerted and uh, I told you everybody had been deputized and uh, there was a a veteran white sitting near us and he had a .45 on. And uh, it was sitting just like this on, he was sitting on a chair that uh, didn't have this arm around it a whatnot and ah, this .45 was sticking out like that and I told the felloe that table that cause we were saying what in the world are we going to do when ah, we were up there on the second floor and I said ah, I said I've got a gun and ah, naturally they what do you mean? And I said the man who sits the deputy who sits daily in front of me ah, white, he has a .45 which I was equipped with in the army and ah, I said ah, everyday I've been checking it to see whether the safety's on or not and uh, this was uh something that ah, well I did agreed course there was one bright girl, and we said well she'll get out but it ah, it was a terrific tension in the courtroom at that time but nothing happened. This is the thing that was a let down. I mean, what I mean is that no outbreak came at the, ah, but I think that was because of the judge.
WHAT DID THE JUDGE DO?
The judge ah, he was pounding on his gavel and ah he was saying order, order, like that because I I would assume that he had already ah been a alerted also that ah, it was going this was the peak of the trail when ah it come down to the identifying of these people. That, ah, anything could happen. And ah, just say he was a good judge.
DO YOU THINK SOMETHING MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED IF THE JUDGE HAD SPOKEN OUT?
I believe it. I believe it cause we had we had ah, a work it out where I was going to get the gun, somebody else was going to get the gun, somebody else was going to take this girl to the window, she was going to go ot the window two floors down, we don't know what was going to happen to her and then we were just going to grab the chairs that we had and fight our way out if we could.
CUT PLEASE. WAS LIKE WHEN YOU GOT JUMPING AHEAD TO LITTLE ROCK, IN 1957, WHAT WAS YOUR SENSE OF THE TOWN WHEN YOU ARRIVED THERE?
when you asking about Little Rock and, uh, I can recall having been stationed at Fort Joseph T. Robinson I think it is ah, anyway, in the army, I had been stationed and that's right outside of Little Rock, so that ah, I was there with the ah, I remember being in the army from there you know? But I knew that it was a segregated town and ah, ah, it was not unlike Mississippi, but, ah I did not feel that ah, they would bar people from the schools and of course when I got there they barred these people from the schools. This was quite a shock to me. And I looked up Daisy Bates and we sat down ah, it was just something that I couldn't imagine.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT DAY WHEN YOU WERE CAUNGHT IN THE MOB, THE DAY THE BLACK STUDENTS FIRST ENTERED THE SCHOOL?
Yeah, this was, a, this was the first day ah, that they people was admitted to the school. And we went in, too, the black press. Moses Newsome and myself and Alex Wilson. We went into Daisy's house, stayed there ah, early that morning, we had a cop …
YOU CAN PICK UP YOUR STORY AGAIN, WHEN YOU GOT TO THE HIGH SCHOOL, CAN YOU?
Ah, on that first day, we went, we traveled by car the three of us, by car to Central High School. Daisy and the Little Rock nine were in back of us in another car. We arrived at the school when there was a mob already out in front of the school. And from that point on, we didn't see Daisy and them until afterwards because they went into and she's clever, we they didn't come right in the front door, they went into a side door. And pretty soon we were out there on the mall in front of the school and the word got to the crowd outside that the niggers are in the school. And so, they said to us on the outside, "Did you decoy, did you lead these people in, you come out here as a decoy and let other people slippin' into the side of this building?" So, ah, I mean, this was something that ah, I said "Hell no" like that, you see.** And ah, the, rest of us said this was ridiculous. But, I remember one man who came upon me. He was a one-armed man. But now, this was a mob all around us, about I mean, we were out-numbered I guess about 500 to one. And so they started getting smart and what not. And pretty soon, this one man, he put his arm around my neck, like this and the others start attacking me. But I was able to look up and see that whereas, I was being held and my clothes torn off, Alex Wilson, somebody had a brick in his hand and instead of throwing the brick, cause he was too close, and he didn't want to, I guess, throw it, he hit Wilson, up the side of his head, with this brick I mean a full brick it picked up um, and slapped him like that. Of course, Wilson was more than six feet tall, an ex-Marine, he went down like a tree.** Uh, the, Newsome, he was mauled, I was mauled, I remember being the one thing that I remember was that when I bent over like this, and he was circling me to see if he could get up underneath me, I mean I'm bent double like this, and he was trying to get his foot, I mean, kick me in my stomach, you know, like that in the groin. And ah, so ah, we started running but it was hardly anyway to run because they were surrounding us, you see. We saw the FBI, who did nothing, but ah, we finally ran away and got down to the black section of Little Rock. But the kids got in school.
[Camera Roll 145 (OR 140) Sound 1117 continues]
THIS LAST QUESTION IS REALLY ABOUT COURAGE OF THE LITTLE ROCK CRISIS WHICH HAS BEEN VERY CONTROVERSIAL AND PROBABLY EVEN AS NOW, IT'S BEEN SAID THAT THE TELEVISION JOURNALISTS REALLY CUT THEIR TEETH IN THE LITTLE ROCK STORY AND, I WONDER IF YOU FEEL LIKE IF THEY REALLY GOT THE STORY THAT WENT OUT. DID THEY GET THE RIGHT STORY?
I never saw it because I ah, actually I was moving around and ah, ah, sometimes when you're on the road, you look and see but there was no paper that I read that had the story that I witnessed out there. As a matter of fact, some people say that we served as decoys and that simply was not true. I mean, they ah, we represented, the three of us represented the whole black press I mean, ah, and frankly, I don't think television at that time was ah, coming up with anything new I mean, ah, and they had the cameras but I don't see, maybe it maybe was timidity that they did not get into ah, the kicks and bruises that ah, was centered on us. I mean the three of us down there.
THERE'S A LOT OF NOISE OUTSIDE. I THINK THAT WE'RE GOING TO ASK YOU THAT ONE… IF YOU AGAIN, CAN JUST TELL US ABOUT THE WHITE PRESS COVERAGE.
Well they they, ah, first the white press did not pick up on the fact that four of us would not let the blacks in the black press into his press conferences. The ah, the three of us represented the black press, that was all, and we were kicked around by the mob, our clothes were torn off ah, the New York Times, put on the front page the face Wilson, picture of us, with hit with the brick. And ah, that was notorious. But uh, the, ah, the media, the electronic media did not come in on anything that ah, I could read about that, was anything bearing resemblance it what I was there. You know, what we saw.
YOU SAID A MOMENT AGO, YOU THOUGHT THEY WERE TIMID OR AFRAID??
Well, that's what I think that it was ah, ah, timidity on their part to get out there and get into the middle of the mob, because, believe me, I was running and I mean, I don't see any, anyway that that ah, electronics media could have been in front of that school and and ah, not get the three of us running away from that mob and ah, when ah this was the only thing that ah, the press came up with stills of a story, but ah I don't know whether it was timidity or whether they were thinking about their equipment, or what I don't know.
IF YOU CAN DESCRIBE DAISY …
Well, Daisy Bates was ah, had a husband, they were publishers of this state paper and ah, it was not a fat paper, that is, it had no ads, very few ads, but ah, it was somebody who was trying to hold up for the black people, and ah, I don't know of whether she's got a college degree or not, but ah, she was out in the street and ah ah, just keeping the faith, as we say, and ah, very attractive woman, ah, but, it was, the big thing was that she apparently sensed that this town was up in arms and that ah, that the she had a nice home, but ah, this was, they were at one another and ah so their fault was not helping.
WAS SHE A VERY DETERMINED PERSON, YOU THINK?
Yes, I think so, I think so, as a matter of fact, she seemed to be the backbone of the newspaper, although her husband was the publisher. And then of course this is something that ah, you know, a black man has to try to keep his hand in with the wife's so that he could get a few crumbs and all his wife is ah possibly, the one time, especially during that time that could be show any militancy.
DO YOU THINK WHAT KIND OF RELATIONSHIP DID SHE HAVE WITH THE STUDENTS, DO YOU REMEMBER?
Oh, they were, they were, they adored her. I mean, she I don't think that Daisy has any kids at all. I don't believe so but, they made her home their home. And ah, what's the name of this former Secretary of Labor? Ernest Ernest Green, right right, he was a youngster then, very, very young. And he was one of them and Minnijean Brown and they all worshipped Daisy. And Daisy would say, you can go you can make it, you can make it.
I THINK THAT COVERS EVERYTHING.