The Edisto 13: Racism, Justice, and a Reunion
Part 1 told of the 40th anniversary reunion of an interracial group of men and women known as the Edisto 13. Their arrest and trial in the summer of 1965 in Charleston, South Carolina was a stepping stone in the fight to desegregate the state's pubic parks. Here I describe their trial and the reunion events I attended with my husband, David Bernstein, cameraman of my oral history project. We were invited to this reunion by Isaac “Ike” Williams, district aide to Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC), who, in 1965, was a local organizer for the NAACP along with former state Senator Herbert U. Fielding and Marjorie Amos Frazier.
The Great Opponent of Contempt
The American philosopher Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism, described the great fight in every human being between contempt and respect—wanting to be superior to other people and things vs. wanting to know and be fair to them. This fight can be seen in the beautiful city of Charleston. It was a major port in the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, and today one can still see the Old Slave Market building; and also the home of the Abolitionist sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke; Emanuel A.M.E. Church, spiritual home of generations fighting for justice; and the Gullah-Geechee islands and Catfish Row, inspirations for George Gershwin's cherished opera, Porgy and Bess.
The Edisto 13 history and reunion enabled me to see with greater depth the meaning of what Mr. Siegel identified as “the force of ethics working throughout history,” and his statement: “Justice is the great opponent of contempt; justice, loved and studied, can in time have a victory over contempt.”
The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted in 1870, guaranteed black men the right to vote, but in the 100 years that followed, unrelenting racism in the South prevented them from doing so. White state and local officials enacted laws establishing poll taxes, bizarre literacy tests and other Jim Crow methods which made it impossible for black people to vote. These laws engendered fear and emboldened the racists whose beatings, bombings, and lynchings were brutally shameful and rampant.
In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. That year, too, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed equal justice to all Americans regardless of race, color, religion, or background: in voting rights, education, accommodations, employment. Thousands of young people from across the country went South to participate in voter registration drives, to have justice come to people who had been denied it for so long. They included the Edisto 13: Joan Marie Kennedy, Geraldine Gallashaw, David F. Lawlor, Ray A. Nelson, Joseph Frazier, Henry Williams, Julia Ann TenBrink, Hazel Mae Daniel, Bruce L. Miroff, Louis Bryant, Dennis T. Barrett; Carol Saunders, and Marian C. Bennett. They traveled throughout Charleston, holding meetings and barbecues to register voters. Some, like David Lawlor and Dennis Barrett, were law interns for the NAACP; Marian Bennett, who became their historian, was at this time teaching Head Start classes in one of the poorest neighborhoods.
Geraldine Gallashaw, then a high school junior, was “looking for an opportunity to meet people and get some sense of the world beyond South Carolina.” Her family was terrified of church burnings and bombings, and afraid she might be arrested. She promised she wouldn't take part in activities that could lead to arrest. In fact, when the interracial group was denied entry to a church where African Americans were not allowed to worship, they left peacefully.
At the 40 th anniversary dinner, Marian Bennett noted that their plans for a July 4th picnic wasn't about activism. They drove to Edisto Beach State Park to have a friendly, good time. Though all public parks in South Carolina had been closed for ten years to avoid integration, white people, and sometimes black people, used the facilities anyway. But no sooner had the thirteen spread their blankets on the beach than they were arrested—without the option to leave—and were summarily incarcerated in a segregated jail. Russell Brown, then president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, posted the bail bonds and secured their released that night.
Ethics Has Power, Too
The three attorneys for the Edisto 13: Russell Brown, Bernard Fielding and Matthew J. Perry, were in the front lines of the civil rights battles and often worked for little or no pay. They deserve America 's gratitude and respect for their steady commitment—despite threats to their lives—to have ethics prevail in the courts.
Russell Brown handled numerous cases in federal and South Carolina courts. Bernard Fielding, a legal advisor and life-long member of the NAACP, also served as Judge of Probate in Charleston—the first African American to do so. Matthew J. Perry became the state's first black federal judge—appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
Ike Williams referred to Judge Perry as “our bridge over troubled water.” In the book, Matthew J. Perry by W. Lewis Burke and Belinda F. Gergel, Mr. Williams described him as having “a courteous and affable manner that disarmed his opponents. He had the graces of a lawyer that epitomized how you present yourself in a courtroom. You can be tenacious but polite….He was damn sure the quarterback in this state.” Morris Rosen, Esq., former president of the South Carolina Bar Association, was often opposing counsel to Mr. Perry in the ‘60s and ‘70s. What he states in the book, he recently affirmed in an interview with me: “I cannot think of any other individual…who did more to advance civil rights in a peaceful fashion and with decency, honesty, courtesy, and professionalism.”
Last year a $30.1 million federal courthouse bearing Judge Perry's name was erected in Columbia, the state's capitol. The late Strom Thurmond (R-SC), notorious for his fierce defense of segregation, fought to have this court annexed to the federal complex bearing his own name. Though he was backed by other powerful officials, the honor, nevertheless, went to U.S. District Court Judge Matthew J. Perry—a fact which shows mightily that ethics has power, too.
“South Carolina Owes Us a Picnic”
It is hard to read the official transcript of the Edisto 13 trial without both laughing and being horrified. The Honorable W.E. Seabrook, Magistrate of Edisto Island, South Carolina presided, on the evening of July 6, 1965. He exemplifies the absurdity of a racist representing “law.”
At the 40th anniversary dinner, some of the defendants recalled driving to the judge's home where he held court. Judge Perry remembered that Judge Seabrook wanted the trial held under the chinaberry tree, but it was moved to the living-room. In a telephone conversation before the trial began, the Magistrate declared “Sir, they are nothing but a bunch of communists!” adding, “They haven't been found guilty yet!”
Here is some dialogue:
Needless to say, the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to fines of $50 apiece— “very reasonable,” the Magistrate said—or thirty days in jail. The fines were paid by the NAACP. An appeal was made; and in October the convictions were reversed.
At the reunion defendant Bruce Miroff, now a Professor of Political Science, said: “I saw so much courage that summer, so much nobility. It showed me what democracy really is.”
Dave Lawlor, now an administrative judge for the Workers Compensation Board in New York State, said, “I owe a thank you to the African American bar of South Carolina who gave us such capable and aggressive representation in our trial and appeal. We thought the country could be better then. Now it is. We still think so.”
Dennis Barrett, a legal intern in 1965 said to the attorneys, “I'd like to thank you for what you did for me and for the country. I did become a lawyer. I'm now representing school districts, helping teachers teach. I feel the State of South Carolina owes us a picnic, and we're going to have it!”
And have it they did!
A Picnic in Edisto Beach State Park
July 4, 2005 was a lovely day. The gorgeous park on Edisto Island was in full bloom, with graceful palmetto trees and other luxurious foliage alive with raccoons and a variety of colorful birds. On the beach one could look out and see porpoises and dolphins jumping and spouting in the blue, warm water. And everywhere there were people of all ages and races—swimming, barbecuing, snoozing, playing, laughing, talking, and doing all the things one loves to do on a bright sunny day on land, on sand, in water. When a group of black and white people held hands and ran into the water, one may not have known that this very ordinary act had so much meaning. But it did. “These people are heroes,” said Morgan, a librarian from Ohio, enjoying the beach with her dog. She'd seen a television report of the reunion.
The Edisto 13, then, represent a chapter in the history of the desegregation of public parks in South Carolina, which is part of the bigger history of the fight for justice which Eli Siegel described as the “force of ethics,” both of which go on.