From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman – Part 4: Mississippi Summer 1964; continued

The next speaker was Rev. Williams and he gave the pitch, a fire and brimstone speech. It was quite effective and the money seemed to be pouring in. I was the next speaker, introduced as a Jewish lawyer from New York. The fact that I was Jewish seemed to mean a lot to the congregation, perhaps because of our connection to the Old Testament. In any event, if nothing else, Jesus was Jewish. Though, as an aside, I must recall that I once told my office manager that Jesus was Jewish and she glared at me, said that he was not and I shouldn’t kid around about that. In any event, I delivered a more legalistic talk and, though I don’t remember what I actually said, it was well-received and I enjoyed every second of it.

Dr. King was a lovely human being, a brilliant orator and a really nice guy, what we in Brooklyn call a “mensch.” I had met him even before I went down to Florida because he had come out to Long Island to speak at one of the civil rights movement meetings I attended. When I was in St. Augustine I was very cognizant of the possibility of violence. I only felt safe within the black community and I slept in a black person’s house instead of renting a room in a hotel or motel. I also wouldn’t drive an automobile because I didn’t want to give the local police any opportunity to charge me falsely or arrest me. In contrast, Dr. King walked around without any security that I was aware of. I told him I thought that he was taking too many chances but he said he felt otherwise, that hopefully God was protecting him.

I always felt that danger was near at hand. I recall a college kid from southern California who was a civil rights volunteer in St. Augustine. He was a tall, blonde, good-looking kid who had an attachment to a black undergraduate and they would walk around holding hands. If some of the local whites had seen the couple, there’s no telling what they would have done so I went over to the two and told them they were courting danger and urged them not to display their affection in public. They realized I was right and, for whatever it was worth, they stopped holding hands.

Dr. Hayling left town just before Dr. King arrived. Although he was the head of the local chapter of the SCLC, Dr. Hayling did not believe in non-violence. He felt that if violence was perpetrated against someone, that person had the right to respond in kind. Dr. Hayling was a very unusual person. During his undergraduate days at the University of Michigan he had been a football player and he continued at Michigan for dental school before returning to St. Augustine. Unlike most black people, who belonged to traditional churches like Baptist, Methodist, A.M.E. Zion, and so on, he belonged to the Unitarian Congregation Church in Jacksonville, a liberal, non-dogmatic church.

I particularly recall one incident Dr. Hayling recounted. He was driving his car north on US-1 when he saw a burning cross which he assumed meant that a Klan meeting was taking place. He stopped his car to watch. Moments later a white couple came by and the man pulled Dr. Hayling’s car door open and put a knife to his throat. Amazingly, this man was one of Dr. Hayling’s patients, as was his wife. She was demanding that her husband cut Dr. Hayling’s throat but her husband seemed scared to do it. She kept yelling, “Cut his throat” and eventually he did exactly that. It sounds almost unbelievable: here are two white patients of a black dentist who had had every opportunity to choose a white dentist, but had chosen this black dentist—and they almost killed him.

Dr. Hayling went to a local hospital for his lacerated throat. He was admitted and survived without any aftereffects except for a disfiguring scar. In the hospital Dr. Hayling was confined to a “black only” ward and, so that the whole incident wouldn’t be a total failure, he retained the LCDC lawyers to bring a lawsuit requiring that hospital to accommodate its black patients on a non-discriminatory basis. The lawsuit was successful and the hospital was forced to change its racist policies.

In order to practice in the Northern District of Florida, which included St. Augustine, I had to be sworn in by the Chief Judge of the Federal Court, which was located in Jacksonville. After he swore me in, the judge looked at the local lawyers in the court and admonished them with words to the effect that it was a shame that they needed lawyers from out of state to do the work that they, the local lawyers, should be doing, that is, enforcing the applicable laws and the Constitution of the United States. Those cowardly local lawyers looked embarrassed.

The Chief Judge, Brian Simpson, had been, I was told, just another local lawyer but as he aged he came to realize that racism was mean-spirited and downright wrong and, despite his background and the fact that he was a neighbor to all these local people who lived and swore by racism, he turned his back on his past and became a strong proponent of civil rights. He not only rendered decisions in favor of the applications made by the civil rights lawyers, he even helped those lawyers do their jobs. For instance, I was in the hall one day and he stopped and told me that the lawyers who had just completed their two-week assignments there and had won their civil rights case, had failed to submit the order necessary to enforce the decision of the court. I told the judge that the problem was that I (presumably like the lawyers who preceded me) was having trouble getting a competent secretary who could prepare the appropriate order. The judge then provided us with the use of his own secretary and the order was prepared forthwith.

As I said, there were one thousand criminal cases pending in the local state court in St. Augustine. We had most of them “removed” to the Federal District Court in Jacksonville so that they could be assigned to Judge Simpson. We found this removal proceeding in a statute that had been written following the Civil War but had almost never been used before. This worked out as a great tool because really there was no chance to get a fair shake in the St. Augustine court where the presiding judge made no attempt to hide his prejudice and his antipathy towards us. So one of our main jobs was to bring more removal proceedings so that no criminal civil rights case would be left in that court.

Over the years I wondered whatever happened to those one thousand or so criminal cases that were removed to Federal Court and were supposed to be resolved in that court either through trial or through some agreed-upon settlement or plea bargain. The last time I saw those cases they were sitting in several big boxes on the floor of Judge Simpson’s chambers. I suspect he never took a look at them and over the years they simply died of old age. It is not supposed to work that way but it was a very sensible outcome. A few years ago I read of the death of Judge Simpson. Because of his commitment to human rights he was socially ostracized in his community; other members of his country club would have nothing to do with him. I hope he felt confident that he was doing the right thing; he was extraordinarily courageous.

The brother-in-law of the St. Augustine judge was a bail bondsman. Since the judge didn’t release any of the defendants without bail, that bondsman was making a fortune and I’m sure that’s what the judge had in mind. I couldn’t do anything that approached the practice of law in his court because, unlike Judge Simpson, this local judge was not going to give civil rights lawyers permission to practice before him. But I could go to the local court to file papers. One day when I was doing that he accused me of practicing law without a license. I told him that I was only acting in the capacity of a clerk and he backed down. I am sure if he could have pinned it on me and the other civil rights attorneys, he would have declared that we were practicing law in Florida without a license and have tried to jail us. It would have looked terrible if we were held in contempt or put in jail because of the negative media coverage this would have generated.

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