The politics of race and sex was a cantankerous issue in the Jim Crow South. The fear of black men raping White women was used to stir up mobs to attack Black neighborhoods. For many, the main impetus for segregation was preventing inter-racial sex and marriage. The fear of miscegenation took its most extreme form in the 1958 Kissing Case.
In early October of 1958, a group of children played in a culvert in the White section of Monroe, NC. While playing the game, one of the children suggested that they have a kissing game. A White girl named Sissy Sutton sat on the lap of a Black boy named James Thompson (10 yo) and kissed him. The other Black child at the gathering, David Simpson (8 yo), watched. The children dispersed and returned home.
A few days later Sissy Sutton is telling another child about the kiss and her mother overheard. Her mother flew into a rage. The father gathered a mob to kill the boys and their mothers. Police got wind that a mob is forming and preemptively arrest the boys before the mob arrived. The mothers of the boys went into hiding.
The mob arrived at the boys’ homes and realize they are empty except for the family dog. The mob killed the dog and displayed the body on the lawn. The mob also burned a cross to strike fear in the hearts of the Black residents. They proceed to shoot into the empty home and harass Black people in the neighborhood. Random violence perpetrated by Whites continues in the neighborhood for weeks.
Police beat the boys regularly while in custody. The jail in Monroe was known as one of the worst in the state. The boys are both physically and mentally abused. On Halloween, the police dressed up as KKK and tell the boys they will get lynched. They removed their hoods and laughed at the boys’ panic. After an extremely short trial, the boys are transferred to Morrison Training School in Hoffman, NC.
The town looked to the only man that could save the boys was the local head of the NAACP, Robert Williams. Williams had been in charge of the Monroe NAACP for three years at that point. His chapter was much more militant than the average NAACP branch. He also started a Black chapter of the National Rifle Association. He armed Black citizens in Monroe to take back their streets. Before becoming an NAACP President, he was heavily involved in the labor movement and had ties to various socialist networks. All these ties would become useful in the next few months.
After stopping the KKK terrorism by having armed Black guards patrol the Black neighborhood, he began the campaign to free the boys. The NAACP became Williams’s first avenue for resolution. When the state and national office was contacted to intervene, neither wanted to get involved. The NAACP had always had to fight charges of being communist. They also had to repel charges that they advocated race-mixing. They had a strict policy not to get involved in sex cases.
The apathy of the NAACP did not stop John Thompson’s mother. She contacted some family in New York City and got the first national coverage for the case. The November 3rd edition of the New York Post covered the case. Robert Williams also contacted newspapers and television outlets. But his connections with the socialist network of newspapers produced the most significant results.
The Committee to Combat Racial Injustice (CCRI) formed on December 19, 1958. The group’s mission was to fill the void in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) on racial injustice. Most in the socialist movement thought the imbalance of power between workers and capitalists caused racism. The inevitable socialist revolution would solve the problem. Those that formed the CCRI knew race needed special attention. Attacking racial issues will strengthen the black community and bring blacks into the socialist movement. Robert Williams was not a member of SWP or any other party, but his involvement in labor unions and other left-wing activism led to the Party holding him in high esteem.
Through the CCRI, Williams was able to relay the story to the London News Chronicle that circulated 1.5 million copies. From there, press all over Western Europe picked up the story. Demonstrators protest outside the embassies in London first. Later that month, demonstrations happened at US Embassies in Rome, Paris, and Rotterdam. The socialist used the case to show the American democracy was not inclusive of all citizens.
The world publicity shamed the NAACP and the North Carolina Governor to take action. The two enter into a secret agreement to arrange for the boys’ release. The NAACP would agree to relocated and fund the families’ move to Charlotte, NC. The Governor could arrange for their release when families settled in the new location. If the arrangement could stay secret, the boys could hide until the dust settled around the kissing incident.
To keep the NAACP and the Governor pressured, Williams moved to have a habeas corpus hearing on the Kissing Case. If the boys win the habeas corpus case, it will prove their imprisonment was unjust. The opposition would build a case around the fact that the eight and ten-year-old boys had a prior record of petty theft. They also said their single mothers were unfit because she worked all the time to provide for their family. In the end, the boys lost the case and were sent back to reform school.
In addition to the case, Williams embarked on a multi-city speaking tour. Union halls, churches, and NAACP offices held the events. This tour is where Williams made himself into a national figure. His prominence threatened the NAACP. The head of the organization, Roy Wilkins, offered Williams a job with the NAACP in Detroit to keep him off the kissing case. Williams refused.
The continued pressure eventually worked. On February 13, 1959, the boys were quietly released back into the custody of their mothers in Charlotte. No one is exactly sure what caused the release. Some say that Eleanor Roosevelt convinced Eisenhower to pressure the Governor. Others give credit to the NAACP. No matter what happened, the boys ended up safe at home. Williams considered this case a great victory.
For the full series click Robert Williams Series