Ferguson: the Prequel

The 1967 funeral of James Eller

The 1967 funeral of James Eller
An unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer while resisting arrest. Details of the incident were withheld by police for over a week. Later, a judge dismissed murder charges against the cop, and riots ensued, including burning and looting. This wasn’t in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, it was in Winston-Salem in 1967. I was 13 years old at the time, and I remember riding to church and seeing National Guardsmen positioned on tops of buildings throughout downtown Winston-Salem. The Guard was there to restore law and order, the practice of which, ironically, had caused the civil unrest to begin with. Here’s what happened.

Fifty years ago this week, on October 15, 1967, James Eller, an African-American father of four, was seen staggering across a street. Mr. Eller made it to the front porch of his house where several police officers caught up with him, and proceeded to arrest him for alleged public drunkenness. According to police, Eller resisted arrest and the officers tried to subdue him, first by spraying MACE into his eyes. That didn’t work, so patrolman W.E. Owens struck Eller on the head with a blackjack. It proved to be a fatal blow. Police didn’t release details of Eller’s death until eight days later, and it was another four days after that before Owens was suspended. Eller’s widow swore out a warrant against Owens, which according to the Winston-Salem Journal stated that Owens, “feloniously, with premeditation, deliberation, and malice and forethought, did kill and murder one James Eller.” Judge Leroy Sams dismissed the case, and that ruling triggered riots in downtown Winston-Salem.

Winston-Salem Journal and Twin City Sentinel reporters Roy Thompson, Steve Burns, Gene Whitman, Joe Goodman, and Eugene White, and editor Wallace Carroll provided extensive coverage of the riots, which included descriptions of damage to stores along Liberty, North Trade, North Cherry, Claremont, Main, and Fourth streets. Most of the businesses were looted then burned. Mobs particularly targeted jewelry and liquor stores, as well as furniture and appliance stores. Fires broke out everywhere, cars were overturned, bricks were tossed, and shots were fired.

Patrolman E.W. Thorpe described the November 2nd sniper fire to Eugene White in saying, “Guns were reporting everywhere, and you didn’t know who was shooting at who.” Thorpe’s own patrol car was struck by sniper fire at 13th Street and Patterson Avenues. His partner, C.E. Crosby, who fought in the Pacific during WW II, described the rioting as a “small scale war.” Said Crosby, “We didn’t know where to take cover when there was shooting. We were afraid we might try to take cover where the shooting was coming from.”

Mobs also set a fire just behind a Reynolds Tobacco factory on Chestnut Street. The fire was burning near a gas tank, and had Thorpe and Crosby not arrived in time to put it out, there probably would be no Innovation Quarter today.

Twin City Police Chief Tucker told his troops to “take things easy on the mob,” but, he added, “Pull out the heavy stuff. Don’t use it unless you have to, but display it. But STOP it.” Normally, local National Guardsmen are not called upon to defend their own city, but the 200-man Winston-Salem guard was put on alert. Meanwhile, Mayor M.C. Benton and Governor Dan Moore deployed National Guardsmen from Mt. Airy. Most of them patrolled the streets, while others were given roof-top duty. Two of them, Spec 4 Tommy Hennis and PFC Rodney Cooke were positioned atop the Robert E. Lee Hotel.

After a couple of days, all that remained of the “small scale war” were charred buildings and debris in the streets. Order had been restored without loss of life, but there were a number of injuries reported, including to a “negro woman” who had been hit in the head by a brick. Mobs, it seems, are indiscriminant about who they hurt.

The events of October 15, and November 2, 1967, taught us a lot about race relations, the criminal justice system, mobs, and the way Winston-Salem dealt with all of them. Officer Owens probably didn’t mean to kill Mr. Eller, but his unnecessary use of force triggered a firestorm nevertheless. Critics of the time said the officers on Eller’s front porch that fateful day should have used handcuffs instead of mace and nightsticks. The police chief should have gone public within hours of Eller’s death. Judge Sams should have meted out an appropriate punishment for officer Owens. And the rioters should have stayed home. Instead, most of them sought to inflict deliberate damage to local businesses, and some intended to kill cops. One member of a mob was overheard saying to a policeman, “I’m going to get one of you for this.” Burning, looting, and killing is not an appropriate or effective response to police brutality.

In an editorial, Wallace Carroll wrote, “We cannot permit ours to be a city where people are divided against each other by race, and where public safety cannot be taken for granted. No city in America is immune from the passions of these days. But we can overcome them here. We must.”

In December of 2014, a group of concerned citizens marched along Hanes Mall Boulevard in Winston-Salem to peacefully protest the August killing of Michael Brown at the hands of a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri. And, earlier this year there was a peaceful gathering in downtown Winston-Salem to protest the racially-charged incident in Charlottesville. Ferguson and Charlottesville remind us that while we still have a long way to go to improve race relations, we’ve also made some progress over the past fifty years. Instead of throwing bricks and setting fires, protesters in Winston-Salem hold up signs. Instead of threatening to kill cops, they seek substantive public policy reform.

There will always be rogue cops who break the law, white supremacists who incite violence, and mobs who use those incidents as an excuse to do the same. But, by and large, Winston-Salem has, to paraphrase philosopher George Santayana, learned from the past, and is not condemned to repeat it.

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