The Americus Story
Reprinted with permission from The John Birch Society Bulletin, February 1970
During the summer of 1963 a group of militant agitators, directed by the "non-violent" Martin Luther King and his allies, the Student "Non-violent" Coordinating Committee, set out to bring serious and organized violence to the town of Americus, Georgia. But at first the effort was remarkably unsuccessful. Law and order were promptly restored. Desegregation in the schools and in local employment proceeded peacefully for the next two years. While the agitators desperately sought an "incident" that would give them something to shout about.
On July 20, 1965 one such incident was finally contrived. At an election of a Justice of the Peace, which was well known to be the last segregated election that would be held in Sumter County, tour Negro women managed to get themselves arrested for defiantly blocking the voting of white women. The Rev. Dr. King immediately sent the notorious Hosea L. Williams and seventeen other members of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference into Americus, to help the other agitators from the outside to make hay while the "incident" shone.
But there was an unexpected factor of great importance already on the scene. A Mr. A, Mr. B, Dr. C � and Mr. M, all highly respected citizens of the county, and all of them members of various chapters of The John Birch Society, had started early in 1965 an intensive county-wide educational program, concentrating primarily on the "civil rights" issues. Time was purchased on the local radio stations for the repeated playing of such tapes or records as John Rousselot's The Third Color, Ezra Taft Benson's Not Hate, But Love, and similar recordings available through American Opinion bookstores. Our Civil Rights Packet, the pamphlet entitled Two Revolutions At Once, and our other printed materials were widely distributed. And unceasing efforts were made to maintain the unity of the entire town.
All of this time, of course, there were at work these dozens of outside agitators, whose whole purpose was to make trouble. From the very beginning the tactics, developments, and events of the agitation were prophesied by the Birch leaders with an accuracy that amazed their fellow townsmen. (This required, of course, only a knowledge of the way the Communists work.) But prophecy is not prevention. And more serious trouble was steadily brewing. So the Birchers redoubled their efforts. They formed a Committee of Responsible Citizens of Sumter County. With this help they devised various specific steps for heading off violence before it got started. And they went to work with almost unbelievable patience, good will, and industry to prevent the destruction of their city which some of the agitators had openly boasted would be carried out.
The hotheads among resentful Whites were as hard to control as the Blacks who had been made militant by excitement. On the night of July 27, 1965 state troopers were required to protect the civil rights marchers, and to turn back the more bitter Whites who were bent on violence. The next day agitators among these more excitable white citizens called for a mass meeting at the fairgrounds that evening. When the time came the crowd was hard to calm down. Violence was contemplated, and was in the air. One courageous Bircher talked and pleaded twenty-five minutes for a non-violent approach to the problem that was creating such dangerous passions.
Actually he had good control of the situation until somebody started passing corn liquor up and down the rows of late teenagers and the early-twenties group. Then things began to get out of hand. Many left the meeting and started congregating on street corners in the town. Some missile throwing took place, and eventually the agitators, on both sides and of both races, had their really serious "incident" which Mr. King's minions had so desired.
Around 11:30 P.M. a white boy, standing on the premises of a service station at a street intersection, began throwing rocks at passing cars. Another young white man, Andy Whatley, twenty-one years old, who had just realized his ambition to join the Marine Corps' and who had worked that evening as projectionist at the local drive-in theater, stopped by where a group had congregated at this service station. He arrived just before a car with two young Negroes inside passed the intersection. One of the Negroes leaned from the window of the car, with a pistol in his hand, and fired three shots� one of which hit Andy Whatley in the head. Our Bircher, Dr. C, was on first call for emergency that night, and did everything possible, as promptly as possible, to save the boy's life. But Andy Whatley died in the hospital in Albany, Georgia' at approximately three o'clock in the morning. And the King forces had the explosive charge which could be counted on to tear the town to pieces.
Few people felt that open and widespread violence could be prevented. Throughout the day word spread all over Americus of a mass meeting of white citizens to be held that night. To add fuel to the already blazing flame Lester Maddox, the Atlanta restaurant owner who had closed his place after a futile but much publicized resistance to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, had agreed to speak at the meeting. There were responsible reports of violent action being planned by organized groups. One radio newsman told of scores of Molotov cocktails being prepared, not by the "rednecks" who usually caused concern, but by college students. The meeting was set for 8:00 P.M., and feelings continued to rise. At 7:30 P.M. a truck driver wheeled his tractor to a halt in front of the post office building on the main street of Americus, and asked for the location of the meeting. "Are we going to just talk," he then demanded, "or are we going to act?" As he spoke he pulled a holstered pistol from the seat beside him. This was symbolic of the mood and the expectations in the town.
This meeting also was held at the fairgrounds. It appeared at first to be made up of the rougher element, and to a large extent of individuals not known to the local citizenry. What few people realized, however, was that the Birch group had been working feverishly all day, on plans to control this meeting rather than let it take its natural and horrible course. Through frenzied telephone calls, and spreading of the necessary information and instructions, the strategy had been worked out for carrying the theme of "Not hate, but love" right into this volatile and dangerous group.
Within a few minutes before the meeting was to start, a subtle change in the nature of the crowd could be detected. Mingling here and there with the rougher segments were many of the city's most respected leaders. Strangely, the keys to the auditorium, with its lights and seats, could not be found. Car lights were switched on, and an "impromptu" spokesman began addressing the crowd from the bed of an open pick-up truck. It was Jim McDuffie, a highly respected former member of the Georgia Department of Safety. He was not a Bircher, but had of course been in on all the planning by the Birch group.
McDuffie began speaking to the crowd by deploring the murder of young Whatley, and then deploring the activities of the "civil rights" agitators who had brought chaos to the city. Then McDuffie slapped the cab of the pick-up truck, and his voice took on the earnestness of a revival evangelist. He told the crowd that violence would only aid the "civil rights" demonstrators, and the purposes for which they had invaded the city. Violence was exactly what these agitators wanted. He pleaded for peace and reason. The crowd, caught up in the momentum of enthusiasm for his opening remarks, listened intently.
As McDuffie continued his pleas for peace there was applause, generated by the carefully seeded Birch-inspired element within the mob, which applause soon grew in force. Then he paused, and offered the "floor" to any other speaker who had a viewpoint to express. Quickly, Charles Crisp, a highly respected banker, took the stand, followed closely by the Rev. Harry Moore (a much loved blind Methodist minister), by former Solicitor General Steve Pace, Jr., and by a number of other key civic leaders. They all espoused the same theme as had Jim McDuffie.
One of these "other civic leaders," most of whom were Birchers, was our Doctor C. He had been up all night the night before, you will remember, trying to save the life of young Andy Whatley. He had been in the very midst of the whole crisis, and planning, for thirty-six hours. His appearance, like that of the other brave men who faced this crowd composed of scores of groups on the very edge of committing wholesale murder and destruction, required courage of a high order. His remarks epitomized the appeal that was being made. He said: "My soul is heavy. My mind is tired. No one here doubts how I feel. We must not retaliate against Communist dupes, and give them the bodies that they desire. Oh Lord, our help in ages past, be our hope for years to come. Penetrate every heart in this group tonight and leave 'not hate, but love.' "
By the time Lester Maddox appeared on the scene, the meeting was under firm control. His cooperation in talking down violence had been solicited prior to his entrance to the auditorium�to which the keys now, strangely, had been found - and while the crowd was surging into the building. A taped appeal for peace and reason by Congressman Bo Callaway, which had been broadcast earlier, was now played as a prelude to the Maddox speech. Finally, Maddox took the stand, joined in the plea for peace, and by the time the meeting ended at 10:30 P.M. the crowd was quietly filtering out. They had seen a miracle performed by a few men who were themselves sufficiently inspired to inspire others to heroic efforts.
* * *
The struggle was not entirely over, of course, nor the danger entirely past. The marching, the demands, and the agitation continued. Some elements of the outside press, which had descended on Americus, helped the agitators all they could to create the turmoil that was sought. Cruel threats were used on many Negroes to try to terrorize them into supporting the agitation.
The sequence of further labors and measures of the Birch groups, during the next several weeks, is a saga in itself. But we cannot spare the room to give the details here. And the real opportunity of the King's invaders "to tear down Americus" had been lost when Birch leadership kept a murder by one Negro criminal (who was duly tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder) from being blamed on all the Negroes of the community. The steam of the whole campaign had been caused to subside by putting out the one big fire for which that murder was the fuel. And eventually Americus became a wiser but normal and peaceful city again.
Nor have we exaggerated the part played by members of The John Birch Society in bringing about this happy ending. One outside recorder of the events, telling how many of the leaders on the side of sanity in this struggle were members of chapters of The John Birch Society in Sumter County, also wrote: "It was ironic, then, that a group, labeled as extremists by the national press, had provided a corps of leadership that brought restraint and reason at a time of seemingly certain violence." Two federal conciliators for the Department of Commerce's Community Relations Service, who certainly could not be assumed to have any bias in our favor, said openly in later interviews with official representatives of their Department that The John Birch Society was responsible for preventing violence in Americus. So did the man who was acting as Mayor (because of the Mayor being out of town) on the night that Andy Whatley was murdered. And so did many others.
We were and are very proud of the part played by our members in the story of Americus. For this defeat of Communist designs by the creation of understanding, by the promotion of good will, and by the courage of responsible leadership, is exactly what the Society asks of its members in the many other crises that are now a part of our daily lives. There are several other cities and towns where our members helped mightily to prevent mob action from getting out of hand. But we shall let Americus stand for them all. And if you would like a separate folder that gives the planning and the labors of our members in somewhat more detail, just order The Americus Story.