Seriously long ago -- in 1970 -- I reviewed Feelgood: A trip in time and out for the Boston Globe. I can't tell what knocked me out more, this astonishing novel about a young man who dropped out of Harvard to go South and work in the civil rights movement or the author, Peter de Lissovoy, who had the guts to drop out of Harvard, go South and risk his life working for civil rights. A blazing talent, a home run of a debut --- then de Lissovoy disappeared.
And now he's back. Stephen L. Saltonstall, my college roommate and literary co-conspirator, sent me his review of a new book that Peter edited and then self-published in an edition of 500 copies. It sounds like another stunner --- an important chapter in American history, lovingly told.
All books are special, shards of a writer's life and times. A Peter de Lissovoy book set in the South in the 1960s is all that, and something more --- he seems to be able to write only about big, bold characters playing for the highest stakes. But let me get out of the way, so Stephen can present Peter's first book in four decades.
Despite our own self-important rhetoric, the dream of criminal law as the engine of what we once naively referred to as "social change" is largely dead. Today the craft of criminal defense is at its best a finger-in-the-dike operation, helping individuals but rarely making a larger societal dent. At worst, defense lawyers have become mere systemic conveniences that help the government's trains run on time.
This was not always so. In "The Great Pool Jump", criminal defense stalwart Dennis Roberts, who now practices in Oakland, California, tells of his time in the civil rights movement and his internship with C.B. King, one of America's greatest lawyers-that-you-have-never-heard-of. In 1963, King was the only black attorney in southwest Georgia, and one of only three in the entire state. Roberts, a student at Boalt Hall and an activist in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was chosen from a pool of more than 100 applicants to work for King.
Roberts' arrival at King's office in Albany, Georgia was less than auspicious. The stairway leading to King's office reeked of urine. And when King's secretary first laid eyes on Roberts, who had a deep tan and "Jewfro," she remarked to her boss, "Damn, C.B., I told you he was a white boy!"
King was the only lawyer around with the inclination and the sheer guts to defend the civil rights workers who were trying to register voters and integrate public accommodations. This was dangerous work. One evening, when King had the temerity to visit a client in a local jail, the Sheriff hit him over the head with his cane, breaking the cane and covering King with his own blood. When asked why he had done this, the Sheriff replied, "Because he is a nigger and I am a white man."
The Georgia legal establishment was predictably hostile to this "uppity" black lawyer, who had been admitted to practice only because the bar exam grading was anonymous and the powers-that-be couldn't tell --- and wouldn't have been able to believe --- that the person with the highest score in the state was black. The "cracker" judges went ballistic at the very sight of King entering the courtroom, dressed to the nines in a silk suit and carrying a fancy leather legal folder, followed by Roberts, the subservient white law clerk, weighed down by a mountain of law books.
And yet King managed, through guile, humor, and a superior intelligence, to be extraordinarily effective. One of King's favorite ploys was to preface his legal arguments with a solemn but faux tip-of-the-hat to a make-believe Confederate hero. Roberts quotes a sample of this inspired double-talk as follows: "As Beauregard Bucknellington Wellington, III, a famous Confederate who liberated the City of Dogpatch, Georgia once said: 'No matter how we might personally feel about Nigras, our constitution requires that all be treated equally and this, most unfortunately, includes Nigras....'"
He would describe white residents of the deep South as "The Denizens of that Republic so Dear to the Hearts of Every True Southern Patriot, the Most Noble Jurisdiction of [plug in the name of a state]." Professor Irwin Corey couldn't have done better. But according to Roberts, the white knights of Georgia's apartheid justice system ate up this kind of stuff, even though it was so hard for him to refrain from laughing that "There was more than one time when I left the courtroom, the insides of my cheek or tongue bleeding."
King was also a master of the lost art of exploratory cross-examination. In a rape case, where the black defendant had allegedly used a knife to hold his white victim at bay, King asked the complaining witness what the accused had done with the knife while he was taking off his clothes. The witness replied, "I held it for him." Case dismissed. In another case, King was able to establish during a dramatic and embarrassing (for the prosecution) cross that a white racist witness was illiterate and had lied when he swore in the jurat of his affidavit that had read it and that its contents were true.
Roberts, the pupil, went on to defend movement figures like the Black Panther Party luminaries Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton, and he was on the defense team of the Chicago Eight, which included Bobby Seale and Abbie Hoffman, who were charged with conspiracy to violate the draft laws during the Vietnam war. But Roberts told me that working with C.B. King was the most rewarding period of his professional life, and his vivid accounts of his time with C.B. King make clear why.
"The Great Pool Jump"also contains reminiscences by the non-lawyer foot-soldiers of SNCC, primarily teenagers and college drop-outs, both black and white. These accounts, by Peter de Lissovoy, who left Harvard to join the Albany movement, and Randy Battle, who was a gang member in Albany before joining SNCC, evoke beautifully the panoply of emotions experienced by those activists of the time. Fear was the common denominator, because violence against civil rights workers was always a possibility and often a reality. But there was also friendship, stirring music, good humor, and the sheer joy of sharing a righteous cause, even during hunger strikes in filthy Georgia jail cells.
One of the sick tactics used by city fathers in the South was to turn municipal swimming pools, built with public funds, into private "clubs," to keep black people out. It seems crazy now, but many whites truly believed that if the races mixed in this fashion the whites would catch loathsome diseases or see their pure flowers of southern womanhood knocked up by black "bucks." So these pools became battlegrounds for SNCC in the early '60s. The authorities in Cairo, Illinois, where I was a SNCC volunteer in 1962, ultimately filled the municipal pool with cement rather than integrate it.
In Albany, Georgia, the city had sold the public pool to a racist newspaper publisher to keep it segregated. For one shining moment, though, the Albany facility was integrated. Randy Battle and two other black kids evaded the cops, climbed the fence, dove into the pool, swam across it, and ran out the unguarded exit --- the "great pool jump." According to Battle, the white customers were so anxious to avoid the "contaminated" water that they "hit the air like dolphins," jumping out of the pool to safety. The white folks in charge had the pool drained, and every inch of it scrubbed with brushes, which took three days. The pool jump was a victory that electrified the kids in Albany's black community, and they joined the movement in droves.
-- Guest Butler Stephen L. Saltonstall practices law in Manchester Center, Vermont.
Five hundred copies of "The Great Pool Jump" have been published to commemorate SNCC's 50th anniversary. It's available only by mail for $25.00, plus $4.00 postage, from Peter de Lissovoy at YouArePerfect Press, 5 Lost Nation Road, Lancaster, N.H. 03584-3434.You can write Peter at email@example.com.
To read more about C.B. King, Dennis Roberts and Peter de Lissovoy, click here.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]