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"It is Murder." Mobile's Most Notorious Forgotten Civil Rights Slaying

November 21, 2018

 You may have passed this part of town on numerous occasions and like me, never known it was the scene of one of the most senseless civil rights killing in our city’s history. But for the Dollar General and funeral homes near the intersection of Broad and Tennessee streets, one would have little reason to visit the area unless you lived or worked in the area. But in 1948 it was the location of a bus stop on the City bus line.  It was the setting where a “colored” had the temerity to shake a white man’s hand and invite him into his home to share a drink with him.

 

It was the dawn of a new era in America for race relations, or at least one black man in 1949 Mobile, Alabama believed. Black America had a friend in the White House. He was Harry Truman. Our country was now an America for “all Americans.” However, state and local authorities in Alabama were dogged in their resistance to the change. Such resistance emboldened one local 20 year old air force mechanic at Brookley Field.

 

American had reached a cross roads of sorts. Harry S. Truman felt it was time for a change. In a Lincoln’s day address to over 10,000 Americans at the Lincoln memorial, Truman asked for equality for all Americans.

 

Clip from Universal News Volume 20, Release 52, June 30, 1947

 

The "recent events" Truman speaks of in his speech above were acts of violence against African-American veterans. In December 1947, the President's Committee on Civil Rights presented its report outlining the current state of civil rights in the country and the role the federal government should take in implementing a more equal relations between the races. To this end in January of 1948, President Truman issued executive orders to end segregation in the federal work force and in the United States military. Such a move was revolutionary, or tyranny as many folks down here thought. Two months later, the repercussions boiled over in Mobile, Alabama.

 

Mobile, Alabama Sunday March 7, 1948

 

After a long day at his janitorial job at Brookley Field, 52 year old Rayfield Davis no doubt was looking forward to making it home. As he alighted from a City of Mobile bus line that fateful March 7 evening in 1948, Davis had no idea that his life was in danger. He did not know that his killer sat just feet away on the City bus. And he had no idea that a mere offer of a drink to a white man would ignite a firestorm.

 

It would be several hours later when Gustave Acrement came upon the scene. He was frog hunting that Sunday night in a ditch running alongside the railroad tracks along Tennessee street when he came upon the near lifeless body of a black man in the water. By the time help arrived, the man was dead. And so it was for all of Monday that a killer roamed the streets of Mobile. It was a homicide, so the authorities had to create the semblance of an investigation. And so, Mobile waited. 


At 1:00AM Tuesday morning, a young man entered Mobile Police headquarters accompanied by his attorney J. Terry Reynolds, Jr. The young man was 20 year old air force mechanic Horace Miller, a veteran of World War II. Miller provided a two page written statement to set the record straight. Miller was described “as a dark haired handsome youth.”[1] Reporters were allowed access to Miller, and the photograph below was taken in his cell showing him almost jovial, no doubt secure in his fate.

 

 

Miller told reporters that he did not know Davis, but only met him after the two got off the bus together at the Tennessee street bus stop. Miller told reporters that Davis “had been drinking very heavily.”[2] Miller related the following story-

 

“I got off the bus at Broad and Tennessee Streets and walked around the bus when somebody grabbed my arm and said, ‘Hey buddy!’ I answered and started to walk off, but he still held my arm and said ‘How about a drink?’ I looked closer and saw that it was a colored man. I said ‘No,’ and tried to jerk away but he still held me by the arm and said, ‘Aren’t you my buddy? I told him yes and to let me alone. He persisted in holding my arm and asked me to come over to his house and have a drink. I told him no. He then asked me to shake hands to show that I was his buddy. I shook his hands and tried to jerk loose from his grip. But he still persisted in holding my arm and started talking about Negroes being equal to white people and that their friend, President Truman, would soon make the Negro more important than the white man.This sort of talk kept making me madder and I struck him once with my bare left hand and he fell to the sidewalk. He crawled around on the pavement and got up and started the same talk over again. I struck him again with my bare right fist and he dropped to the pavement again. This time, he got back up and started calling me vile names. I hit him again and this time while he was on the ground he started fumbling inside his coat pocket for what I thought might have been a knife or a pistol. I kicked him several times to make sure that he didn’t get a chance to use a pistol or a knife if he had one and walked toward my home. I walked fast, not because of what had happened but because I thought he might get up and start after me with a knife or a pistol. After walking part ways home I saw a cab and hailed it. It took me to my home.”[3]Miller claimed that when he last saw Davis, he was “lying on the ground about five or six feet from the Tennessee St. drainage ditch.”[4]

 

  

 The county coroner, Dr. H.S.J. Walker examined Davis’ body and described it as “badly bruised.”[6] Davis’ subsequent death certificate would list his manner of death of “beating and immersion in water.” Walker was sure in his statement to the press, “It is murder.”[7]

 

In the same day’s newspaper, editors of The Mobile Press urged the Democratic Party to jettison the Truman campaign because his “indefensible racial rights attack on the South has created dissension in the Democratic Party…”[8]

The editors also excoriated the NAACP who was urging passage of a federal anti-lynching law. Citing an unconstitutional federal power grab at the expense of state sovereignty, editors of the Mobile paper said there was no need for such a law. The editors wrote the NAACP was being unrealistic.“The NAACP, whose objective is to advance the cause of the colored race, is not being realistic. Recent activities of this organization are such as to create a disturbance and fan racial prejudices rather than help the colored race better itself…During the past 30 years local communities and peace officer have reduced this heinous crime almost to the vanishing point. While crimes of murder, burglary, highway robbery, forgery and other major offenses have increased alarmingly during the past 30 years, the crime of lynching has been reduced by seven-eighths. Only one lynching was recorded by Tuskegee last year. Local peace officers prevented 31…”[9]

 

The Rayfield Davis family had but barely a moment to mourn.

Shamefully, the local paper published Davis' long history of petty low level offenses, mostly alcohol related, that had nothing to do with his cold blooded murder, other than to inflame and prejudice the public against him. There was nothing in his history that seemed in the remotest sense to indicate him capable of any act of violence. After all, by Miller's own admission, Davis' only offense was asking Miller to join him for a drink and discussing a thing so taboo as race relations. Davis even called Miller his "buddy."

 

 

THE PRELIMINARY HEARING

   

 

The prisoner Miller would have to face but a mere semblance of justice.  The courtroom setting was straight out of To Kill A Mockingbird casting with “colored spectators” on one side of the courtroom and white folks on the other.[10] The prisoner, Horace Miller, was brought before the Honorable Judge William Bekurs in Recorders Court. Miller was accompanied by a new attorney, Harry Seale. Seale was one of Mobile's best criminal defense attorneys at the time. Seale had been practicing law for some 21 years. Seale was a Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Alabama, and a World War I veteran. He would later serve as President of the Mobile Bar in 1958. He later mentored many a young lawyer in town, who affectionately referred to him as "Mister Harry." Many of you may recognize one of his most famous mentees and later law partner, legendary Mobile attorney Bubba Marsal who described him glowingly. "I would never have been a lawyer or enjoyed one good thing in my life without his inspiration and encouragement. There are so many good things about Harry Seale that the world will never know." Seale was "aggressive and competitive in his representation of clients but at the same time he was a gentleman in the law who had a keen sense of fair play." Seale was later inducted into the Alabama State Bar Hall of Fame in 2010.

 

The State first introduced Miller’s written confession. G.P. Arcement later testified that he found Davis when he was frog gigging in the ditch. Arcement testified that he noticed Davis was still alive and breathing as “he shined his light on Davis while hunting frogs.” Arcement offered the chilling testimony that he shined his light down the “water-filled” ditch after “I heard a bubbling sound.” The light beams shown down that dark ditch the body of Davis, who was “on his back with water running across his mouth and nose.”“I could see the bubbles when he breathed.”[11]  The State also called assistant state toxicologist Nelson Grubbs. Grubbs testified Davis' "death was a result of shock, caused by beating and two old head wounds.” Grubbs testified that Davis was located “in a ditch on Tennessee near Broad St., Sunday night, March 7,” and that a chemical analysis of his blood confirmed Davis was “intoxicated sufficiently to stagger and speak with slurred speech.[12] The circuit solicitor (present day district attorney) tasked with prosecuting Miller was Carl Booth.

  

 

coloredThe state called several witnesses at the hearing. An employee of an ice house in the vicinity of the scene, one Benny Ford (identified as “”) testified he witnessed two men, one white and one colored, exit a bus together. They appeared to be walking together and he saw the white man “gesturing several times at the colored man.” Later, a white man, Acrement, appeared at the ice-house instructing him to “call the law” because “there was a man in the ditch.”[13] 

Ford testified he found Davis in the ditch in the water “with his chest going up and down slowly and bubbles coming out of his mouth.” It was too late. Ford testified Davis stopped breathing. Later the police arrived. Solicitor Carl Booth read Miller’s confession to the Court, as Miller sat silent in the courtroom. The newspaper reported Miller as a “handsome, curly-haired”  man attired in  “shirt sleeves” and a “brightly colored tie.”[14] The confession according to City of Mobile Police Captain Tally Rawlings, was typed by Miller himself at the police station. In the statement, Miller wrote that Davis “caught him by the arm” after exiting the bus together. Davis then began his praise of President Truman’s civil rights agenda and his idea of “racial equality.”[15] One newspaper quoted Miller as stating Davis told him, “President Truman is our good friend and he will give us our equal rights.”[16] “He was at that time referring to the civil rights program being published by our President.”[17] After this, Miller said he struck Davis “as hard as I could.”[18] Davis cursed him, prompting Miller to pick him up and punch him again with his right hand five times.” Miller said he kicked Davis because, “I was afraid he would shoot me or cut me.”[19] Miller then left him-“I walked away as fast as I could.”[20] A later newspaper account, reported Miller admitted, “I struck him once with my bare hand and he fell to the sidewalk. He crawled around on the pavement and got up and started the same talk all over again. I struck him against with my bare right fist and he dropped to the pavement again. This time, he got up and started calling me vile names. I hit him again and this time while he was on the ground he started fumbling inside his coat pocket for what I thought might have been a knife or pistol. I kicked him several times to make sure that he didn’t get a chance to use a pistol or a knife if he had one and walked toward my home.”[21] Miller according to the statement did not know of Davis’ fate until he read the newspaper later the next day. He went to a lawyer and then turned himself in to the police.

 

The judge found probable cause. Miller was released on a $2,500 bond, as his case was bound over to the next session of the Mobile County Grand jury.

 

 

 

 

MOBILE COUNTY GRAND JURY

 

On Tuesday, April 6, 1948 a Mobile County grand jury was empaneled by Mobile County Circuit Court Judge David Edington. In charging the jurors before they began hearing cases, Judge Edington reminded them, “It is your duty to investigate all criminal law violations. You are a very serious body, and it’s your duty to protect this community.”[22] Sylvester Fosdick Cunningham, whose occupation was listed as an accountant at a Mobile bank, was named foreman. 100 cases were on the grand jury docket to be considered. The grand jurors were John P. Barnes (railroad clerk); Harry M. Childs (retired barber); J.Henry Courtney (engineer); Clifton Earl Teason (grocer); George P. Fearn (civil engineer); Oliver Wendell Johnston (employee of the Mobile Air Force Base); Everett B. Long (mill worker); Radford Manning (paper mill worker); James Paul McCrary (storekeeper); Milton E. McDowell (building superintendent); William Aubrey Sawyer (clerk); Clifford Anderson Shields (repairman); LaRue Steiner (seed company employee); Maynard J. Swinson, Jr. (examiner); Otto Tanner; John E. Twomey (railroad clerk); and Marion E. Ward (salesman).[23]

 

On Friday, April 16, 1948 the Mobile County grand jury issued its reports and indictments (true bills) to the presiding circuit court judge Claude Grayson. Noticeably absent was an indictment of Horace Miller. No criminal charge was returned at all against Miller. The press questioned Mobile County Solicitor Carl Booth. How could this be? Booth told them the investigation was “very thorough” and that the grand jury heard the testimony of all the witnesses, and even Miller’s confession. Since grand jury proceedings are secret and since Solicitor Booth was not present for the vote, he could offer very little else other than it takes a two-thirds vote of grand jury to issue and indictment. All the grand jury had to do was find probable cause a crime had been committed (not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt as is the standard at a jury trial) and then only a two-thirds vote (not a unanimous vote as is required in a jury trial).

 

 There would be no trial, because there was no crime said the grand jury. Lady Justice was indeed blind.

WHAT HAPPENED?

 

Was the grand jury convinced that Miller had a credible self-defense claim? Was the grand jury making a political statement that those who dared seek to meddle with revered institutions like segregation would not be afforded the protection of the law? I suppose each grand juror who voted against indictment had their reason or reasons. We may never know since all are dead now. What is incredible is that despite a confession from Miller, a Mobile County grand jury could not muster a non-unanimous 2/3 vote of its member to find probable cause that Miller committed any crime. So, Miller walked. Incredibly, the Washington Post reported Miller as of five years ago was still alive. So too are injustices in our criminal justice system.

 

Later, it came to light that Miller, with the assistance of at least one Mississippi newspaper, rallied the public to donate to his legal defense fund. Citizens from six Mississippi cities sent him money.[24] In all, Miller raised $216.55. Citizens from Durant, Centreville, Prentiss, Midnight, Crystal Springs, and Belsoni mailed in money to the Jackson Daily News on Miller’s behalf.[25]  After the grand jury no billed the murder charge against him, Miller penned a letter to the Jackson Daily News thanking his fellow citizens for their generosity, “I can never thank you too much the kind people who contributed for the purpose of my defense as well as those who had interest and helped. The kind people of my state, as well as other states, have made it possible for me to clear my lawyer’s fee which I sincerely appreciate more than I can express.”

 

 

Three months after the Mobile County grand jury issued its no bill, in the infamous summer of '48, all hell broke loose over the race issue. Southern Democrats howled with displeasure at Truman's meddling in state and local affairs. The result was the formation of a new national political party in 1948 of Southerners who broke away to form the new Dixiecrat party. Southern Democrats jettisoned the Democratic National convention in Philadelphia as the national party adopted a platform supportive of a more aggressive civil rights agenda. The Democrats led by the northern wing of the party adopted a platform calling for supporting a federal anti-lynching law, desegregating the military, equal opportunity for employment, and the elimination of poll taxes. Half of Alabama's delegation was led out of the convention by an Alabamian Handy Ellis-"We bid you goodbye!" The entire Mississippi delegation followed in protest. It seemed like 1860 all over again. "Goodbye Harry!" jeers could be hear as southerners walked out. "You Shall Not Crucify the South on this cross of Civil Rights." The southern block of Democrats weren't finished yet. Charles Bloch of Macon, Georgia nominated Senator Richard Russell from Georgia, and the remaining southerners in the convention howled with delight as they cranked Dixie in a demonstration that lasted half an hour. Take a look at the attached two videos below to take the political pulse of Alabama.