Mr. Hollowell Didn't Like That with Malcolm Gladwell | S2/E8: Revisionist History Podcast
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Episode 8| Season 2| Revisionist History
Length: 35 min | Released: 8/2/2017
Malcolm Gladwell: This episode contains material that may be upsetting to some listeners.
Vernon Jordan: I finished law school on the first Friday in June of 1960. On the following Monday, I went to work for Donald L. Hollowell, who was the ultimate civil rights lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia at the time.
MG: Vernon Jordan, one of the great figures in the American civil rights movement, talking about his mentor.
VJ: And I went to work for him right out of law school for $35 a week and there were no other jobs at the local government level, county, state or federal. We couldn't even take the bar review course at John Marshall University because Georgia law required education be separate and segregated. So I went to work for Don Hollowell. My first day at work, I was in the Atlanta Municipal Court helping him get demonstrators from the Atlanta University system out of jail.
MG: My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listening to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. This episode picks up where the previous one left off with the story of an extraordinary man named Donald L. Hollowell.
Hollowell died in 2004, but I wish he were still alive because he has so much to teach us like how do you keep going when all seems lost? How you behave? How do you conduct yourself? If you're one of the leaders of a losing cause, and for most of his life Hollowell fought uphill, how do you prepare those behind you for the day when you might succeed?
MG: What did he look like?
VJ: Hollowell? Big guy, heavy guy, played quarterback at Lane College.
MG: Vernon Jordan is a big guy as well, imposing, charismatic. I mention that only because it's not a trivial fact. The two of them, Jordan and Hollowell, would drive around Georgia from one end of the state to the next, to towns and courtrooms, where a Black lawyer was not just an anomaly but a provocation. If you were 5 foot 2 with a little squeaky voice, it didn't work.
Donald L. Hollowell: I would just like to think that the people at the university and around the university, uh, are sufficiently fair minded to want to see [ÔøΩ]
MG: I watched all these old, grainy video tapes of Hollowell in the Auburn Avenue Library in Atlanta and I became fixated on his hands, which would rise and fall as he talked. They were enormous. In Atlanta's segregated buses, there'd be a little sign on the back of the seat where the white section ended. It would say, "Colored," directing Black people to their place. Sometimes, when no one was looking, Hollowell would unclip it and stick it in his coat pocket, mess things up a bit until the bus driver noticed or some White lady got hysterical because she inadvertently sat in a seat still warm from the presence of a Black person. Hollowell was subversive in his own way but also formal, proper. They used to say he talked like the Black Shakespeare. Hollowell once paused in the middle of a trial to instruct the court on the correct pronunciation of Negro, "Not Negra, Your Honor, Negro."
Another time, he was up against two district attorneys in court and the moment he got up to speak, the White judge swiveled in his chair with his back to Hollowell so he would not have to suffer the indignity of gazing upon a Black man. What did Hollowell do? Just kept talking and talking in those slow formal tones until it was the judge should looked like a fool.
VJ: I did all the driving and we get to a town and so a principal or school teacher or the local doctor, somebody's got some independence, that's where you spent the night. I slept many a night with Hollowell, you know, we'd pile in the same bed.
MG: It better be a big bed. The two of you wereÔøΩ [Chuckles]
VJ: Yeah, but there were no big beds in thoseÔøΩ
VJ: There were no Kings out there. Uh, but no, no, it was, Hollowell was a real hero.
MG: In the early morning of November 5th 1953, a woman named Betty Jo Bishop calls the Atlanta Police Department in hysterics. In her car is the badly beaten corpse of her boyfriend, Marvin Lindsey. She tells the police the two of them had been attacked when they were parked on a secluded road on Atlanta's south side. It's a sensational case. In fact, it was written up in one of those pulp crime magazines that were so popular back then, Official Detective Stories, March 1954 issue: Wanted, The Man in the Pyramid Hat.
I can't do justice to the spirit of pulp journalism, so we're going to reenact some scenes from the article starting with this description of the moment Betty Jo Bishop meets Atlanta's chief of detectives, Glen Cowan, on a November morning.
Detective Cowan: Suppose that you begin by telling us your name.
Betty Jo Bishop: Bishop. Mrs. Betty Jo Bishop. I'm a widow.
GC: You were with Marvin Lindsey tonight?
GC: Tell me what happened.
MG: Bishop tells the detective about driving to Jonesboro Road.
BJB: We, we were only there a few minutes when this man came out of the woods. It was terrible. He struck me with his fist and Marvin had to fight him off. Then, he walked around the car and hit Marvin with something heavy. Marvin pleaded for him to stop but he wouldn't.
MG: She covered her face with her hands and broke into long, racking sobs. Cowan waited patiently until she recovered her composure. "What happened then?" he asked.
GC: What happened then?
BJB: Well, after he got tired of hitting Marvin, he ran into the woods. Marvin was lying half in and half out of the car, so I walked around to the driver side and, and made him lie across the seat. He was bleeding something awful, so I knew he was hurt bad. I drove to his home in Blair Village and told his brother, John, what had happened and John got in the car and we drove to Grady Hospital, but it was too late. Marvin was already dead.
MG: They're in the police station. She can barely hold it together; she's all beaten up, her lover is dead. She tells the officer that the assailant had come back after killing Marvin and raped her. Maybe Detective Cowan takes her hand in sympathy; maybe he waits a few moments to let her collect her thoughts. Then, as the article describes it, he asks her to describe the assailant.
BJB: I'm not sure. It was very dark and I was scared. He was tall and thin, I remember that much. Also, when I grabbed one of his hands, I remember it felt kind of bony.
MG: Slowly, gently, Cowan draws a description out of her. The man was in his late 30s or early 40s, about 5 foot 11, thin, wearing a leather jacket, dungarees, a funny kind of hat, pyramid shaped andÔøΩ
BJB: He was swarthy and had dark, oily hair.
MG: The article never comes out and says so explicitly, but if you're a reader the pulp magazine Official Detective Stories in March 1954, you know what swarthy means. The killer is Black. That's why this is such a sensational case. Betty Jo Bishop is an innocent, White widow and she and her boyfriend have been attacked by a mysterious Black man. Atlanta's finest immediately got to work.
They scour the crime scene. The killer had a rolled up newspaper which he'd apparently left at the scene and he'd circled to want ads, one for a dishwasher at a local restaurant. The police go to the restaurant, "Did a thin, swarthy man with oily hair answer an ad yesterday for a dishwasher?" The owner of the restaurant says, "Yes." Doesn't remember his name but remembers the man said he used to work at Elite Bowling Alleys on Hunter Street. The coat check girl at elite bowling alley says, "Oh, that's Willie." An eye witness comes forward, says he saw a man near the crime scene, swarthy, wearing a pyramid shaped hat. They scoured the area around the crime scene, stumble on a little cottage. Inside is 39 year old Willie Nash, unemployed handyman, swarthy, dark hair. They arrest him. He confesses.
So who do you call if you're Willie Nash? Things are pretty bleak. What you really want is a White lawyer because it's 1954. The jury is going to be all White, the police department is all White, the judge is going to be White. Willie Nash knows where the power lies in Atlanta, Georgia, but Willie Nash is poor so he's forced to settle for one of the very few Black lawyers in town, a man two years out of law school, still wet behind the ears, Donald L. Hollowell. When Nash realizes he has no other choice, he breaks down into tears. "I'd have cried too," Hollowell says years later, "If I'd have been Willie Nash under those circumstances." This was years before Vernon Jordan joined Hollowell's firm but he knew all about the Willie Nash case; everybody in Black Atlanta did.
VJ: That's the case where he held up the lady's panties before the jury and that was the case that set Hollowell up.
MG: A few years ago, the Smithsonian interviewed a man named Robert Carter, another legendary Black attorney. Carter talks about trying school segregation cases in the Deep South in the 1950's with Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall, two other pioneering Black lawyers of that era. They would be in court up against the local White schools superintendent and Black from the community would show up, cram into the balcony, hang on every word. It wasn't that they expected to win, because they often didn't, they just wanted to see a Black person in a position of formal authority over a White person. In Mississippi or Georgia or Alabama, at the height of Jim Crow, that was history being made. Every hearing, every trial with a Black lawyer was public theater. During cross examination, a White witness might forget his role in the trial and start asking questions of the attorney, of Motley say, and Connie Motley, a Black woman in 1950 something, would reprimand the White male witness, say, "My job is to ask the question, your job is to respond," and everybody would gasp.
In the evening, Carter says he would walk through the Black neighborhoods and hear people reenacting the trial in barber shops and beauty parlors. In other words, there were two conversations going on at any given time. There was the legal conversation, witness, judge lawyers, accused. If you were a White lawyer dealing with a White world, that was the conversation you worried about. But there was a second conversation which was between the Black lawyers and the people in the balcony and if you were an underdog with a limited chance to win at the first conversation, then that second conversation was really important. Donald Hollowell was very good at the first conversation, the legal one; he was a master of the second.
[ÔøΩ] But at home, the defense of liberty and democracy for African Americans.
MG: There is a great documentary about Hollowell made by the Georgia civil rights scholar Maurice Daniels.
This fight will require foot soldiers for equal justice.
MG: Daniels does a long interview with an attorney named Howard Moore who worked with Hollowell in the 1960's. And Moore talks about arriving early at a hearing into the police shooting of a Black teenager to handle things before Hollowell got there.
Howard Moore: When I got down to Bibb County and went to the courthouse, there were about 3000 Negros on the steps. And I went into the courthouse and there were about 3000 or as many as they could get in the balcony upstairs. And when I walked in the court room, the people upstairs, the Black people said, "That ain't Hollowell!" you know, "Where is Hollowell? That ain't Hollowell!"
I don't know what to do. I don't know, I have no idea what I'm supposed to do, you know. So I say, "Well, I'll act like Hollowell. I'll just object in the loudest voice I can." And then, people upstairs in the, in the, in the balcony said, "Well, it ain't Hollowell, but he sound like Hollowell."
MG: When Hollowell showed up at the court inquest, he put the police officer on the stand. He'd shot a 17 year old boy named AC Hall. Hollowell took the officer through his testimony, bit by meticulous bit, slowly exposing the officer's lies. The cop was in tears by the end.
HM: I, I've never seen that before or since, when a lawyer just take completely control of a witness and bind that witness to his will. Not with shouting and screaming, but was systematic, well-structured, well placed questions.
MG: Now, did Hollowell win a victory for the bereaved family of AC Hall? Was the officer prosecuted? Of course not. It's hard enough to win a conviction against a White cop who shoots a Black kid today let alone in 1962 in Bibb County, Georgia. This was about the second conversation between Hollowell and the thousands of people on the steps, "We are not entirely powerless; I can bind a witness to my will."
One more case because there are dozens of them; Hollowell never stopped moving in those years. This one was in 1961 and this time, Hollowell was with the young Vernon Jordan.
VJ: Our client, James Thayer, a Black kid from New Jersey, had been arrested, arraigned, indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to die in the electric chair in 24 hours.
MG: Hollowell and his team go down to the town of Reidsville, Georgia to argue for a new trial.
VJ: The judge in the case was judge WI "Don't Want Any Niggers in My Court" Gere. He had that reputation. On Monday, we went and we tried the case.
MG: At lunch time, the judge and the White lawyers and the White court officials went across the town square to the White only the restaurant and had their lunch.
VJ: Hollowell, CB King and I went to the only grocery store on the courthouse square, ordered a pound of bologna, loaf of bread, mustard, Coca Cola and a Baby Ruth and sat in Mr. Hollowell's car in the parking surrounded the courthouse and ate our lunch. We did it on Monday, we did it on Tuesday. Wednesday, we're trying the case and a Black lady who waved at me and I met her in the vestibule of the courthouse, I'll never forget it. And she said, "Lawyer, we've been watching y'all eat that bologna for two days now." She says, "Just have a Coca Cola and don't eat that bologna today and when the court ends, which is 3:30 or 4:00, you'll drive to my house for lunch."
MG: So they go to her house. That's the moment Jordan remembers 50 years later, that moment of grace and quiet rebellion outside the courtroom.
VJ: And we walked in and the table was set for royalty, her best linen, her best china, her best crystal. The aroma of the southern food was, was almost crippling it was as it circled our noses. And her neighbors had come and put on nice sundresses and their husbands had cleaned up and they welcomed us and then we joined hands and, and her husband gave the grace and he said this unforgettable sentence which was, "Lord, way down here in Tattnall County, we can't join the NAACP, but thanks to your bountiful blessings, we can feed the NAACP lawyers."
MG: So, Willie Nash, Betty Jo Bishop's swarthy assailant, the case we began with, Donald Hollowell's trial by fire. If you look back on Hollowell's career, it's all there, every theme in that first case. Nash has been indicted for murder, rape, and robbery. The prosecutor has a murder weapon, a bloody piece of pipe. He has Nash's confession and he has a witness, a Black man named Julius Harris who places Nash at the murder scene. "The moonlight was shining directly on his face when I glimpsed him," Harris testifies. For Hollowell and Nash, it looks pretty bleak. But then, one of the prosecutors is trying to remember Julius Harris's name and can't, and he says in an open courtroom, "The eye witness, you know, that fat nigger." Hollowell jumps out of his seat, and almost shouts, "A Negro is as entitled to respect as any other person." The judge agrees, declares a mistrial.
The second trial is two months later. This time, Hollowell has time to prepare. He puts the head of the Georgia state crime lab on the stand and asks, "Did you find any blood on the alleged murder weapon?" The man says, actually, he didn't. Hollowell moves on to the police. Turns out they have multiple, conflicting stories about what happened that night. Willie Nash testifies, says his confession was beaten out of him. As for the witness who said he saw Nash's face by the light of the moon, Hollowell points out there was no moon over Atlanta that night. Finally, Hollowell turns to the alleged victim, Betty Jo Bishop. Turns out she had a second boyfriend who left town right after the murder of her first boyfriend. And when she pulled up to Marvin Lindsey's brother's house with Marvin's dead body in her car, the first thing out of her mouth was, "I know you think I did it, but a nigger did it."
Finally, Hollowell calls the doctor who examined Bishop right after the alleged rape occurred and the doctor concedes that he could find no evidence, not bruises or sperm, to indicate that a rape actually occurred. That's when Hollowell holds up an item from police evidence, Betty Jo Bishop's underwear. Hollowell waves them in front of the jury.
1954, Atlanta, Georgia, a Black man waves a White woman's underwear in the air in front of an all-White jury. Now who's that for? Is it for the jury? Of course. He's saying Betty Jo Bishop is lying through her teeth. But it's really for the audience. He's saying, "Enough." You can imagine that up in the balcony, there was a collective intake of breath at that moment, something that could be heard clear across Atlanta. And that night, in a thousand homes, somebody stood up and played out that scene, just like Hollowell, to a chorus of disbelief. Willie Nash goes free.
But it's still not a real victory because what's the real lesson of the false indictment of Willie Nash? That every White person in that courtroom lied freely and blatantly; the police lied, the witness lied, the victim lied, the press lied, the murder weapon wasn't a murder weapon, the rape wasn't a rape, and the only reason all the liars got caught was they couldn't even be bothered to keep their stories straight. It didn't seem worth the effort. "I know you think I did it, but a nigger did it." It's not as if the whole group of them, the victim, the police officer, the witness, the doctor, the press got in a room and worked out an elaborate story to tell the court. That would be a conspiracy, but you only need a conspiracy where there is a system to conspire against. There was no system to conspire against. They were the system. The Nash case wasn't a victory, but it was a warning.
Things got worse for the civil rights movement before they got better. The Willie Nash case was in 1954, the same year that the Supreme Court ruled in the Brown V. Board of Education decision that racial segregation was unconstitutional. After Brown came what is known in civil rights history as massive resistance. The White political power structure of the south rose up and the backlash began. One by one, White governors and mayors and senators, who had been at least moderate on racial issues, were replaced by hardline racists. Alabama had a governor in the 1950's, Big Jim Folsom, who used to say, "All men are just alike." I don't think he really meant it, but at least he was willing to say it. By the early 1960s, Alabama had taken a big step backwards. Their new governor was George Wallace, who famously declared:
George Wallace: Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.
MG: The decade leading up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a dark time in American racial history. We forget this now. Martin Luther King led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, but after that, he had years in the wilderness when even members of his own community had turned against him. And in October of 1960, at the lowest ebb, King gets arrested. He was already on probation for a traffic violation. He'd moved from Alabama to Georgia and didn't get a Georgia driver's license within the requisite 90 days for which he had been sentenced to 12 months in public works camp, which was the Georgia euphemism for a chain gang. King got that sentence suspended but then he got picked up for taking part in a sit in and the prosecutor said that meant he'd violated his probation and now, he needed to do his 12 months on the chain gang. By the way, if you think that this has anything to do with driving in Georgia with an Alabama license, you're crazy. This is what things had come to in 1960.
DLH: You have asked me what other plans do we have in connection with Reverend Martin Luther King's release [ÔøΩ]
MG: So who does King call for help? Donald L. Hollowell of course. In the morning after King's arrest, Hollowell stands on the DeKalb County courthouse steps addressing a group of reporters.
DLH: Of course, this would depend upon whether or not the court granted our motion to vacate the order of yesterday. If the court fails to release them, of course we would take other steps to appeal or to affect [ÔøΩ]
MG: Hollowell is trying to get King's case thrown out but the problem is the King is no longer in Atlanta; he's vanished. In Maurice Daniels' documentary, Hollowell's wife, Louise, talks about what happened when her husband went to retrieve King from the county jail only to be confronted by the warden.
Louise: When he got there, he said, "I came to get King out this morning," or something like that, to that effect. And he said, "Well, he ain't here." And he said, "Well, what do you mean he ain't here?" He said, "Well, they took him away this morning sometime and they carried him down to the state prison." And he said, "That's where he is. He ain't here, so you can't get him." Well, Mr. Hollowell didn't like that.
MG: I love that line, "Mr. Hollowell didn't like that." Daniels picks up the story with Andrew Young, another of King's inner circle.
Andrew Young: That was the worst night of Martin Luther King's life. They took him from the DeKalb County, put him in leg irons and handcuffs, laid him on the floor on the back of a paddy wagon with nobody back there but a pood- German shepherd and they drove him from Atlanta to Reidsville. That's 300 miles; there were no express ways then. 300 miles on bad Georgia roads.
MG: Reidsville, the same place where Jordan and Hollowell ate their bologna sandwich in the car. They know the town well. The state prison in Reidsville was notorious. It was the kind of place where they use that phrase in quotation marks that "somebody got shot trying to escape" or where they got beat up by a guard out on the chain gang. When King's followers heard Reidsville, they honestly feared that he was going to end up dead. But there's not a hint of that in his attorney on the courthouse steps.
DLH: Learning that Reverend King had been taken to the Reidsville prison, I would say that I indicated to authorities on last evening that we were desirous of having Reverend King at this hearing. However, they informed me that they had already transmitted the papers yesterday afternoon to the board of correction and that it was in their purview to move in when they desired.
MG: Hollowell's composure does not break. Why? Because he's not just talking to those reporters; He's talking to the Black people of Georgia, telling them that it will take more than the abduction of their leader to break the spirit of their movement.
DLH: We know that, as a matter of normal practice, it is several days before our prisoner is moved. However, when we called at 8:00 for the purpose of ascertaining the whereabouts of the share for making service, uh, we were informed that Reverend King had been taken down to Reidsville at 4:05 this morning.
MG: Later that day, Hollowell flew to Reidsville, invited along the national media. The White House was watching. Hollowell walked into Reidsville and walked out with his client. It's a surreal moment. The state of Georgia basically tried to kidnap the nation's leading civil rights leader. There's press everywhere. Someone puts a camera in Martin Luther King's face; everyone's eyes are on him. There's a famous picture of that moment, it ran in all the newspapers and you can imagine that when people from the movement saw it, they first looked to see whether King was okay and then they asked, "Where's Hollowell?" Sure enough, there he was, in the background, off a little to the left, crisp white shirt, elegant black bow tie, impassive, implacable.
VJ: This is what gave me hope, okay?
MG: Vernon Jordan again. I went to see him to talk about Hollowell. But more than that, because I wanted to understand what it means to persevere. It's not just that the stories are shocking and extraordinary; it's the sheer weight of them. A White woman has her boyfriend murdered and then just randomly pins it on a Black man who just happens to be in the neighborhood. A police officer shoots a teenager in the back and gets off scot free. A kid gets arrested, arraigned, indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to die before he can even mount a defense. Your leader gets whisked away to a chain gang because he didn't get his license change within 90 days. You fight an uphill battle all morning in the courtroom, then you eat bologna sandwich in your car like a fugitive and it never ends. You get in the car and you drive to one end of the state and the judge swivels in his chair and will not offer you the basic courtesy of facing you as you speak. Then, you sleep two in a bed, in a stranger's house and do it all again the next day and the next day. I don't understand how Donald Hollowell did it and maybe more importantly, I don't understand how we kept everyone else, the people behind him who didn't have his strength, from giving up. Is there any question more fundamental than that? I'm not sure there is.
So I went back to Vernon Jordan a second time. After he's told me about Nathaniel Johnson and Willie Nash, I sat in his office in Rockefeller Center and he told me one last story. It's about when he was in high school, the same school Martin Luther King went to, David Howard High on Randalf Street, an all-Black school in the Black part of town. Jordan was in the band and one day the principal gets a call from the school superintendent, a White woman, the senator from Georgia, Richard Russell, was running for president.
VJ: She wanted the David Howard High School band to be at Peachtree Street and Baker Streets, to play with these hand-me-down instruments from White schools as Richard Russell went up Peachtree Street on his way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
MG: Richard Russell was a hardcore segregationist, one of the most powerful men in the Senate who used his position to block anything even looking like civil rights. A man who, as a matter of principal, did not think that Black people should be allowed to drink from the same water fountain as White people. This man wanted the Black students of Atlanta to play in his honor.
VJ: The principal told the band master and the band master told us at band practice at 2:30. A trombone player named Maynard Jackson and a trumpet player named Vernon Jordan said, "Hell, no. We won't go." Big discussion took place, right.
MG: You and Maynard Jackson were at school together?
MG: Maynard Jackson, in his day, was part of the same band of brothers as Donald Hollowell and Vernon Jordan and Martin Luther King.
VJ: The big argument took place and, at the end, the trombone player and the trumpet player said, "Wait a minute, we raised it, but we gotta go because if we don't go, our principal and our band master will lose their jobs." So we played in Peachtree and Baker Street for Richard Russell in 1951.
MG: You swallowed your pride.
VJ: It weren't a pride; it was a practical decision. 21 years later, Maynard Jackson was sworn in as mayor of Atlanta, right? So you got 1951, a bad situation, and you get through it. 21 years later, he is conducting the political symphony of Atlanta. And that's why you can't get angry; you have to get smart.
MG: Yeah. The, at least did, did you at least play badly?
VJ: No, we were too good. We, we, we were hell of a band!