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tv   Book TV  CSPAN  May 19, 2012 10:40am-11:00am EDT

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gaithersburg book festival. a couple of quick announcements before the presentation begins. for the consideration of everyone here, please, silence any devices that make any kind of noise. in order to keep improving this event, we'd love your feedback. surveys are available here at the info booths and online at our web site. ms. knepper will be signing books immediately after this presentation. her books are for sale in the politics & prose book sales tent. jersey justice: the story of the trenton six, is ms. knepper's third book following up "dear mrs. road svelte: letters to eleanor roosevelt" and "green belt maryland." please welcome cathy knepper. [applause]
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[inaudible conversations] >> i'm glad you are here to hear about the story of the trenton six. my book is about six african-american men who were rounded up, tried, convicted and sentenced to be electrocuted for the murder of a white man. this was all done more or less within the law by police and prosecutors who followed proper procedure and who knew that the men were innocent. i'm going to very briefly tell you some facts of the case
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because i want to spend most of my time reading little bits from the book. on january 27th, 1948, a white man, william horner, who was a secondhand store dealer in downtown trenton, new jersey, was murdered. seen leaving this crime were two light-skinned african-americans. six men were ultimately arrested. they had no way to fight back, no knowledge of their rights. the sister of one was determined to to find justice for the men. she found the civil rights congress when no one else would help. the civil rights congress was an arm of the communist party usa.
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the men were -- cases were appealed to the new jersey supreme court. after the appeal the convictions were all overturned. they were tried again. this time four men were acquitted, two men were found guilty, and this time not sentenced to be electrocuted. they were sentenced to death at hard labor. these two appealed, their convictions were overturned again. this time one died in if -- in prison before he could be tried again, and he was the brother of the lady who got them help. the last one made a deal for time served. people think that this could not
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happen now, but i would refer you to the cases of the norfolk four that happened this century in virginia. so, unfortunately, not much has changed. the time period and the place are very important to this story. 1948 do 19353 -- 1948 to 1953. trenton, new jersey, was very southern. they had jim crow laws firmly in place. world war ii had ended only a few years previously. this is important because the main employer, robeling, who was famous for building the cables used in the brooklyn bridge, they were not only not hiring, they were actually laying off people. at the same time, blacks throughout the south were coming to the north, and a fair number
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of them landed in trenton. this meant that previously the black areas were filled up x so they had -- and so they had to move and spread out into previously all-white areas. also this is a time when the beginning of the cold war, communism and the mccarthy era. senator joseph mccarthy used the beginning of the cold war to his political advantage. this is at the time when the countries of eastern europe were being devoured by the soviet union. this created a really hyper atmosphere of fear. the police after this murder were under tremendous pressure to do something, and this is not good because they do.
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they created a thompson submachine gun-toting squad of 15 policemen. the head of public safety said, well, well-meaning people may accuse us of acting like a gestapo, but if we can bring in the horner killers, i'm willing to take all their criticism. and this was just after world war ii, so being accused of being like a gestapo was a significant criticism. this squad created a reign of terror in the black neighborhoods. the police just went out and brought in people for questioning and saw how they did. how they responded under questioning. when they brought in the people, they would put them in a fairly small room surrounded by at least four large, beefy
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policemen with a gun and a billy club. the men who wound up being sentenced to death here were all rather small. thomas english was the first one the police got to break. the men ultimately, um, gave confessions which were then used in the trials. english's own father had him brought in for using his car without permission. the father, george, was in prison, in jail for attempting to rape his own stepdaughter. english had had rheumatic fever while he was in service in the navy in world war ii. this caused significant heart
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damage. he had leaky valves, and he was so afraid of anything when he got under stress, he then confessed to this killing. mckinley forest was next. he was english's brother-in-law, and he came to the police station to find out why english did not return. they just put him in a cell, mckinley walked in, they didn't say anything to him. when they found out who he was, they just put him in a cell. the next is ralph cooper who had no family or friends, had just moved to trenton. horse wilson was illiterate, james thorpe was next, he had a serious speech impediment, so did mckinley forest. so when the police were haranguing them, you did this killing, you did this killing, two of the men actually had speech defects, could not easily
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talk back. james thorpe had also had his right arm amputated above his elbow two weeks before the killing. 40 one mentioned -- no one mentioned a one-armed murderer. so this very quick summary of the facts doesn't give you any idea of what the people actually experienced going through this. so i'm going to read several little bits from the book. the first one is from james mccens si who was brought in -- mckenzie who was brought in last. he was the only one who could read, write and had no physical problems. the reason he was brought in is because he lived in the same house as english and mckinley, and so he was easy to find. before the first trial, there's the jury sitting in the jury box, there's the six black defendants.
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the jury was all white, all middle class. so before the trial john mckenzie said, i knew we were cooked when i seen that jury. i hope he didn't mean that literally. they were sentenced to be electrocuted, after all. the next is september 19th, 1948. on this day the trenton six waited to die. no lawyer, judge, prosecutor, warden or jail guard ever told the men that their sentences had been stayed when their appeal was filed. they had their heads shaved and their pants slit in preparation for their electrocushion. electrocution. this was incredibly cruel because the jail guards who did
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this knew there would be no execution that day. when they finally got out of the death house and were interviewed by journalists, they -- about their time in the death house -- cooper spoke up first. he said, oh, it wasn't so bad except for that september 19, it wasn't so bad. thorpe added, yeah, that september 19 was rough. questioned about this reply, cooper explained that's the day we thought we was going to be taken to the electrocution chair. we waited all day and all night expecting to be electrocuted. cooper felt the pressure so acutely, he did not utter a word for the next two months. english asked the reporters why couldn't they tell us?
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my cell was right next to the execution room. i saw them take three men in there. i saw them carry three men right past me. it was rough. the next thing i want to read was written, the letter written by betsy mitchell, the for of english, who was -- the sister of english who was termed to find them help -- determined to find them help. this was when they were in the death house. she wrote a letter to eleanor roosevelt. my name is betsy mitchell. my brother, my brother-in-law and four other men are sentenced to the electric chair and are in the death house. maybe you heard or read of the horner murder case or better known as the case of the trenton
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six in trenton, new jersey. these men are innocent, and their records show that. since the time my brother was arrested, i have been fighting for him and the other men. i beg thed the police to -- i begged the police to let me see my brother, and they would not let me. then i went to several organizations, newspapers, veterans' administration and even to the fbi. i also wrote to governor driscoll, supreme court and many rich people. they refused me in a nice way. then i lost faith in the united states of america. i had always believed before that the people found justice here when they couldn't anywhere else in the world. then i learned about the civil rights congress. i begged them to help me. first, they start to restore my faith in the american people,
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then they gave me courage to keep fighting to win. i remember you when i was a girl, how interested you were in negro people. please help us now. my people can't stand these police brutalities much longer. i remain humble, betsy mitchell. p.s., please answer. eleanor roosevelt wrote to several people she knew in new jersey including the attorney general. they all assured her that the new jersey supreme court would, in the appeal, would treat this case in a very fair manner and see that justice was done. so eleanor roosevelt wrote that back to betsy mitchell. the next little bit is after the
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convictions were overturned, all six, by the new jersey supreme court. it is at a mass meeting in trenton. the speaker is paul robison. i think some of you may know who he was, a fantastic human being, a huge black guy. he could sing, he could act, he was, um, an athlete, he was very active in civil rights in his time. paul robison said, the wealth of the usa was built on the backs of my people, yet we are made to crawl. we are loyal to the america of lincoln and the abolitionists. but not to those who degrade my people. 1% of the american population
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gets 59% of the national income. i am a radical, and i am going to stay one until my people get free to walk the earth. the last person i'm going to introduce you to briefly is raymond alexander. he was a black lawyer who was recruited for the second trial. he was recruited by the naacp by think good marshall -- thurgood marshall who, of course, later was on the u.s. supreme court. raymond alexander, for the first time after a very long trial, three months -- i forgot to mention both trials took three months, 15,000 pages of trial testimony that i had to go through, and my eyes still
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haven't quite recovered from this experience. but raymond alexander in 1950 was hired by the u.s. state department to travel western europe to go to army bases and see that the african-american soldiers were being treated fairly. he was doing this in paris when he saw front-page newspaper headline about the trenton six on trial again, pictures, everything. every country he traveled in had further stories about the trenton six. um, he was amazed that this story from trenton would be all over europe. the civil rights congress besides getting lawyers for the men's appeal also had an amazing
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political machine. they, um, literally made the trenton six case known worldwide, and in 1950 this was a very hard thing to do. raymond alexander did not like the publicity they created because they said that blacks were treated unfairly in the united states. so raymond alexander said to the jury in his summation, folks, this is one great opportunity that you have to set at rest the malicious propaganda which has spread not through new jersey, not through america, but the whole world that america does not treat its minorities right, fair and equal. after the trial results were made known, four men were
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acquitted. these included the two that raymond alexander represented. he got one final opportunity to address the court, and he did so. he said, i want to express to your honor and to the members of this jury on behalf of the 15 million people of colored america whom i represent -- he did not say the two men he represented or even the six, he said of 15 million he was representing in this trial -- he thanked them for their deliberations in which they gave very minute study in the case. here he broke down sobbing. he was able to recover himself to finish his


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