"A Northern Lynching" - the "Trenton Six" case, 50 years later

A "Northern Lynching," 1949

Remembering the Trenton Six Case

By Peter Salwen

August 6, 1998 - Today is a notable anniversary in the annals of the American civil rights movement-and a virtually unknown one. On August 6, 1948, after a 55-day trial in Mercer County Court in Trenton, N.J., that was virtually scripted by the prosecution, six black men were found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to death for the murder of William Horner, an elderly shopkeeper. Their story would almost certainly have ended shortly thereafter in New Jersey's death house, but a remarkable "rainbow coalition" of activists from all parts of the country intervened to secure them a new trial and, after a tortuous, years-long struggle, at least some degree of justice.

Hardly anyone knows about the "Trenton Six" case today; I wouldn't either if I hadn't grown up in the middle of it. But in those days my late parents were both ardent champions of civil liberties and other such radical ideas-card-carrying Communists, in fact-and they were among the first whites in Trenton to take up their cause. For awhile, indeed, they were almost ones, and it was an unsigned article by my mother in the New Jersey edition of the Daily Worker that first brought the defendants' side of the story to public attention.

The case against the "Trenton Six" was so flimsy (the New York Post would later call a "gruesome travesty") that it almost certainly would have been thrown out of court-if the accused had been white. But for its black residents, at least in their dealings with the police and the criminal justice system, Trenton in 1948 felt much like the old South as Chief Justice Taney had described it in the Dred Scott case ninety years before: a place where "they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." The official view in this case seemed to be that of the unidentified police officer who was quoted as saying, "If any of these n_____s gets off, we might as well give up and turn in our badges."

The police, as it happened, had been enduring some fairly pointed complaints about unsolved crimes earlier that year (one editorial writer had deplored the state's "empty electric chair"). So when Mr. Horner was bludgeoned to death in his store during a $35 holdup, Public Safety Director Andrew J. Duch made a point of reassuring the public. "We're forming a special motorized bandit squad to patrol the city," he announced, "and they will shoot to kill."

According to witnesses, the killers were two or three white or light-skinned Negro teenagers. But the squad confined its special attentions to Trenton's black neighborhoods, and they soon brought in a young Navy veteran, Collis English, his brother-in-law McKinley Forest, and four others-Ralph Cooper, Horace Wilson, John McKenzie, and James Thorpe, Jr. Not one of the prisoners resembled the witnesses' descriptions-all were in their 20s or 30s, and only Thorpe could be called light-skinned (he also had only one arm, a detail the witnesses somehow failed to mention)-and four had well-supported alibis, but after four or five days' interrogation, all but one were ready to sign confessions.

The trial was riddled with errors, large and small, and as it turned out the trial judge had exceeded his authority in imposing the death sentence. But in 1948 there was no civil rights movement to speak of-Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycotts, and the Freedom Rides were all many years in the future-and with the nation gearing up for the Cold War, anyone who criticized the established order was automatically labeled "subversive," "disloyal," or worse. Only the most extreme radical or the most determined troublemaker, in other words, would have been tempted to question publicly either the proceedings or the sentence.

Which, mercifully, is just what happened. Months before the trial, my mother and several other members of the local Communist Party had been approached by the defendants' families and promised their help. After the sentencing, another "subversive" group, the Civil Rights Congress, entered the case and organized meetings and picket lines. Then the Progressive Party launched a petition for a state investigation. The activist-scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, singer Paul Robeson, novelist Howard Fast, folk singer Pete Seeger, and others added their voices to the protest, and as the months passed, the case gained national prominence and newspapers from New York to London, Paris, and even India and Australia picked up the story of what many called New Jersey's "northern-style lynching."

Meanwhile, a new team of constitutional and civil rights lawyers was pressing an appeal, and in June 1949 the state supreme court unanimously reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial, prompting the Post to rejoice, "The court ruling has cleared the air and proclaimed New Jersey's secession from the South."

That was a start, at least. The second trial, in 1951, freed only four of the six defendants. A second successful appeal followed, but English died of a heart attack at age 26 while awaiting a third trial, and all the men ended up spending three and a half years or more behind bars. But two vital points had been made: that "Jim Crow justice" was not confined to Mississippi or Alabama; and that ordinary citizens could confront institutionalized racism and ultimately prevail.

My parents' involvement in the case made for some lively moments-a burning cross in the front yard, a couple of bullets through our kitchen window. It also allowed me spend part of my early life in the company of heroes: ordinary people who, faced with disaster, rose to astounding heights of dedication and fortitude. Chief among them, for my money, was Bessie Mitchell, Collis English's sister, a quiet, almost shy woman whose love for her brother put her at the center of the storm. For sheer courage, Bessie was right up there with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and she ended up inspiring thousands as she crisscrossed the eastern states to speak-in kitchens, church basements, union halls, and once, memorably, to an audience of 17,000 in Madison Square Garden-to anyone who might help save her baby brother and his fellow prisoners.

Today, the Trenton Six case is all but forgotten, partly because the end of the story was so inconclusive and unsatisfactory, but mostly, I would guess, because the Communists were involved; we Americans hate to admit that the Reds could have been right about anything. Looking back now, though, it strikes me that the case really was, as my mother came to believe, a watershed event for the nascent civil rights movement.

As the 1950s wore on, the movement grew. New leaders emerged, who would go on to secure the decisive, irreversible advances of the 1960s, and they are quite properly the ones we remember today. But it was people like Bessie Mitchell and her radical friends (who were, let's face it, the only friends she could find when she needed them) who showed it could be done.

Fifty years later, the notion that seemed so radical and subversive in 1948-that everyone, white or black, deserves a fair deal in court and in life-has been so completely absorbed into mainstream thinking as to be invisible. True, there are still too many whites today who can't see beyond the "reverse discrimination" of affirmative action and busing, just as there are too many blacks ready to play the "race card" as cynically as any old-time southern sheriff (equal opportunity in action?).

But don't let them fool you. The overwhelming majority of Americans today know, as Mark Twain said, that "the hearts of men are about alike, all over the world, whatever their skin-complexions may be."

The Trenton Six case reminds us of a simple but easily forgotten truth: when people of good will look beyond the needs of their own group, and join hands across racial, ethnic, or religious lines-that's when real progress begins.

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