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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

An imposing civil rights figure cows a potential lynching party

LeMaistre discusses some efforts to proceed with integration nonviolently. He remembers the Community Relations Service, created in 1964, and a community group that emerged in Birmingham after the violence of 1963 convinced influential whites that it was wiser to desegregate nonviolently rather than resist violently. The Community Relations Service was not above making threats of its own, however; LeMaistre describes an incident when a physically imposing member of the Service flashed a revolver at a group of men planning a lynching. They changed their plans.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George A. LeMaistre, April 29, 1985. Interview A-0358. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALLEN J. GOING:
So there was continuation. But taking up the involvement in the commission that you and Blount were on, it had no connection with the Community Service.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
No. That was a group which we formed after the Community Service—What's the name? Community Service is not the . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
Community Relations Service. That was created in the Civil Rights Act of '64.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Community Relations Service. After it was done, the group met, went to Washington for indoctrination, and came back and worked with Governor Collins in several cities. One of which was Selma. This was before the march on the Selma bridge and the beating of the . . .
ALLEN J. GOING:
Wouldn't have been much before, though.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Not long, but it was in that period. And the hope was that if they could get any of this integration accomplished without violence, that the people would wake up to the fact that nobody was going to be really hurt by going to school with somebody of a different race. And the group that Red Blount and I were co-chairmen of was a statewide group. I don't have my files on it, and I don't recall the makeup of the committee, but it was one which was quite active. We met in Birmingham—Birmingham was the most serious spot at that time. Bull Connor was still there. We probably had a more violent confrontation in Birmingham than anywhere else, even in Selma. Because they had the history of the Freedom Riders being beaten and all that sort of thing.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Would this have been before the spring, '63 riots in Birmingham, when they had the fire hoses and the dogs and got so much publicity?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
No. This group was not formed before that. It was formed shortly after that.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Bull Connor wasn't around much after that.
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
He was defeated for his race . . . They changed the form of government which shuffled him out, and he ran for one of the places, and I guess Albert Boutwell beat him. But the cleavage was still there between those who supported him and his tactics and those who wanted do so something better. Sid Smyer, who was head of the Birmingham Realty Corporation, was at that time 67 or 68 years old; he died just recently in his eighties. He was quite active in putting together a group of people in Birmingham who neither represented Bull Connor nor Charles Morgan; they didn't fit on either side. Remember Morgan wrote a letter to the paper saying the town was already dead, and he was leaving. Of coursel, he was more or less forced to leave. And one of the other sad things about Birmingham was [that] Hugo Black Jr. was in effect run out of town. Not because Hugo had been in the forefront on the integration deal, although he favored those who wanted to help out, but simply because his father had been on the Supreme Court and had spoken out for the constitutional rights of all citizens. The others who were pretty much victims of that same sort of thing were Bill Mitch's son (Bill was the head of the United Mine Workers) and their partner, Buddy Cooper. Cooper, Mitch, and Black were all caused to suffer a great deal because of that same situation. Then when Smyer got the group together, he got a lot of help from people like Charlie Zukowski, Jim Head, and a number of good, solid business men. Zukowski was with the First National Bank; Jim Head had his own business, the office supply business—and a number of others. Albert Boutwell was identified with that side of the problem. And this committee which was formed to try to protect Birmingham from itself, was pretty much dominated by the thinking of people like Sidney Smyer. And I remember quite well what his comment was when somebody interviewed him to ask him why he was taking such an active part. And he pointed out he owned a great deal of property. His family had been there since the town was known as Elyton; in fact he owned the Elyton Land Company—his ancestors did. And his conclusion was that "I'm a segregationist, but I'm not a God-damned fool." That explained his attitude, and it made sense to a lot of people who were worried about whether their businesses could survive the boycott that was being conducted. You remember that after Conner's attacks with the dogs, the blacks defied him in downtown Birmingham, and a number of small businesses didn't survive. But Mr. Smyer and some of the others—David Vann was one of those who was quite active—and a number of those were dedicated to not letting it get out of hand again.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Did that broaden out into a state-wide group?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
No. That group worked with a state-wide group, and some of those on that were on the state-wide group. I think Judge Coley, over in Alexander City, was on the state-wide group. I really can't remember the names of all the people who served on it, but the very fact that it existed gave people some kind of a forum to go to. If they got into a dispute about whether or not they were going to close down the bus station in some small town, they could at least come to that committee and say send somebody down there to talk to us and see what we can work out. Once you got them talking, you could usually work one of these things out. The main problem was to get the two together instead of standing on the opposite sides of the street shouting and throwing rocks at each other.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Did you ever go on any mission like that?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Oh, yea. I went to two or three places when we all seemed to get good results. And at that time we (and when I say we, I mean the state-wide committee) would get together and invite representatives from the black group in to try to work out a strategy for handling whatever dispute was arising. And I remember one of the people that came to visit with us one time, and was quite helpful, was Andy Young. Young was King's first deputy, you know. And one thing that everybody decided about Young was that if he gave his word about something you didn't have to worry about it. He would go ahead and get it done or call you and tell you why it couldn't be done. You would never be surprised about something going wrong. And there were two or three others who were equally good at that sort of thing. Of course this group had no enforcement power; they couldn't do anything . . . The Community Relations Service didn't have a lot, but it did have some. We had the help of some marshals; we had two or three people assigned to it who had been Federal marshals and were now assigned to the Community Relations Service. And they were very effective because they did have some teeth in their law—not a real strong law but it was at least something you could tie to.
ALLEN J. GOING:
Primarily it was a mediating group?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
It was a mediation group, although I remember . . . I think I told you about Fred Miller, that big six foot six, 240 pound marshal that was assigned to them?
ALLEN J. GOING:
I don't know that we put it on tape.)
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Well anyway he was in Albany, Georgia, and they had a big parade over there and a confrontation and then a little violence. And, of course, the police at that time with any kind of disturbance immediately grabbed the blacks and threw them in jail, although they didn't limit it to blacks. They would also get whites if they thought they were known Ku Klux and that sort of thing. And this time they got one of the white people who had come down to Albany to help lead the demonstration. He was a white man, and I remember in the cafe, about two blocks from the jail, a group of seven people were in there drinking beer or coffee or something. They began to fuss about what we ought to do; "We ought not have to waste the time of the county trying that so-and-so who was down there in the jail. Why don't we go get him out and teach him a lesson?" They saw Fred Miller over there; Fred was sitting at a table drinking coffee. They began telling him what they were going to do: "Nothing you can do to stop us; we are just gonna get that so-and-so. We are just going to take him out and either give him a good beating or something he'll remember." At any rate, they made it sound as if they were going to start a lynching again. And after they had talked a few minutes, they said something to him along this line: "You just wait around here a few minutes; we 'll be bringing him back." Fred pulled out a revolver about a foot and a half long, laid it on the table, and said, "Before you go I wanna tell you six of you ain't coming back." So they didn't go to the jail.
ALLEN J. GOING:
He was one of those marshals or ex-marshals?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yes, he had been appointed to a place in the Community Relations Service and assigned to Leroy Collins. Most of that work was persuasive; it was not confrontational.
ALLEN J. GOING:
And you went on some of those outside of the State, didn't you?
GEORGE A. LeMAISTRE:
Yea. They were working all over the South. Actually, as I recall, they were called into a couple of places up North. I didn't go up to those meetings. They had situations in Detroit, places like that, that had to be resolved some way.