Authors: Ellery Queen
The Black Hearts Murder
During the flight downstate from the capital, McCall gave the pamphlet shoved in his hand by Governor Holland a thorough going-over. It had been put out by the Banbury Chamber of Commerce, and as far as McCall could see it was the usual C. of C. pap, studded with statistics like raisins in gruel. According to the Chamber, Banbury was the third most important industrial city in the state, boasting a variety of industries ranging from auto parts and brass mills to roadside electronics firms. Its population according to the 1960 census was 240,972, the Chamber noted, but the projection for 1970 was over 297,000 because of the influx of three more major heavy-industry plants. There was a considerable diversity of ethnic groups among the citizenry, about which the boost-Banbury pamphleteer seemed a little defensive, as if he were not quite sure whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Relations “between the races,” he pointed out in something like haste, were “excellent.” The last “trouble,” as he put it (McCall had always heard it referred to as a race riot) had occurred in the '20s.
The Assistant to the Governor for Special Affairs was more interested in the black-white breakdown. He found the ratio given in 8-point type in a footnote: “It is estimated that the present proportion of Negro to white citizens in the city of Banbury is in the neighborhood of 24%.” That meant over 70,000 blacks.
The numbers made McCall thoughtful. He was flying to Banbury at Governor Holland's behest with the specified mission (“which some of my reports, Mike,” the governor had said, “say ought to be called
of trying to avert a racial explosion. It was predicted that if it came (two of the governor's advisers used the word “when”), its violence would rock the whole state and throw out rivers of political lava.
McCall tossed the Chamber of Commerce brochure aside and leaned back to think the situation through. Few problems, he felt, were impervious to solution. But before courses of action could be plotted, the facts had to be grasped. Where human beings were concerned, he had found, this was rarely a simple task.
There were always wheels within wheels. The coming mayoralty election in Banbury was not the customary local party hassle. Governor Holland's choice for the top job in the city, Jerome Duncan, was sure to lose, and lose heavily, if McCall's mission to bring peace to the troubled city failed. This could result in the defeat of the governor and his party in the next statewide election. (Which in turn, McCall thought with a wry smile, would put me out of a job, too.)
He had never seen Sam Holland so grave as during his briefing before take-off.
“It's not merely my political future and the success of the party I'm concerned about, Mike,” the governor had said. “Win or lose two years from now, I wouldn't be able to sleep nights thinking I could somehow have stopped a blood bath and didn't. I don't want such a thing either on my conscience or in my record. I'm vain enough to want to go down as one of the better governors of this state.”
“You've already insured that,” McCall had said.
“You think so?” Governor Holland had answered grimly. “Let the whites and blacks leave bloody white and black bodies strewn all over the streets of Banbury and see how fast the historians would call me a bum. But what am I talking about? The hell with me. I don't want people killed there, Mike. It's that simple. Though how are you going to stop a head-on collision if Harlan James is convicted â¦ You'd have to pull a miracle.”
McCall had said, “Haven't you heard, Governor? Miracle is my middle name,” speaking with a cheeriness he was very far from feeling.
Harlan James was the fiery leader of the black militant organization in Banbury who called themselves the Black Hearts. He was under indictment, charged with violating the state sedition law. The charge alleged that at the Black Hearts “school for revolutionaries” James had taught his novices how to make bombs and explosive cocktails out of everyday materials; that, furthermore, he had preached to his students the necessity of blowing up those “honky” business establishments, both in and out of the Banbury ghetto, which were guilty of discriminatory hiring practices.
Until his briefing McCall had assumed that the Banbury authorities had substantial grounds for bringing the black leader to trial. But his information, Governor Holland told McCall, was that the indictment of James was largely a political ploy by the opposition party.
“Mayor Potter can't make any public statements about the James case prior to the trial, of course,” the governor had said. “But privately he's informed me that he believes James is being framed. He says the district attorney, that weasel Volper, is deliberately trying to promote race trouble in Banbury so that his fair-haired boy, Horton, will be swept into office by the white backlash under his ringing law-and-order slogan. This is a bad time for old Potter to be retiring from politics. Even at his age he could beat Horton. But Jerome Duncan, for all his ability and charm, is a black man, and if there's racial violence before the election, the blue-collar whites are absolutely certain to vote against him.”
Until the last election, for an entire generation Heywood Potter's machine had consistently delivered the Banbury vote to the governor's party. But Mayor Potter had grown old, and four years earlier his iron political grip on the city had weakened. Gerald Horton, who owned local radio station BOKO, had been elected city councilman-at-large, and an obscure lawyer named Volper had sneaked out of the political woodwork and smear-talked his way to a surprising victory over the incumbent district attorney. His opponent was a quiet and conscientious prosecutor who had done his job quietly and conscientiously for sixteen years and he promptly, after his defeat, suffered a coronary occlusion and went to his quiet reward. Since Horton's and Volper's victories the opposition had steadily gathered momentum, until now it was ready to make a serious run against the party in power in the race for all city and county offices.
Mayor Potter was eighty-four; his announcement that he would not run again had created a vacuum in his party's primary contest for the mayoral candidacy. Into the vacuum stepped Governor Holland and, with some prodding from the governor's mansion, Heywood Potter. They endorsed Jerome Duncan. (The backroom talk in the capital was that old Heywood had growled, “Hell, Sam, it's not his colorâyou know me better than thatâit's that he can't win,” and the governor had said, “I think he can, given the right support, and you and I, Heywood, are the right support.”) The party strategists grumbled, but Mayor Potter talked of how much Jerome Duncan resembled Carl B. Stokes in looks and charisma (an argument which impressed everyone but himself), and Duncan easily won the nomination in the primary.
On cold analysis his chance of winning the city election was another matter entirely. Duncan was a widely respected lawyer and he was state president of the NAACP, but he had little political experience. He could be expected to get a virtually solid black vote, but it was calculated that he needed more than 25% of the city's white vote to be elected, and he was not well known in the lower-class white community. To compound the candidate's difficulties, Harlan James of the Black Hearts had endorsed Duncan's candidacy before his indictment on the sedition charge, gaining Duncan no new support and, as the party pundits saw it, almost certainly losing him substantial blue-collar support among the white voters.
Duncan's opponent was Councilman-at-Large Gerald Horton, who was promising “law'norder” if he were elected, “your wives and sweethearts safe in our streets again,” and making capital of his four years in city government as contrasted with Duncan's “cluttering up our court calendars with frivolous suits in support of black power!”
Horton's campaign of fear and Volper's prosecution threat against Harlan James, darling of the black militants, had leaped the gap like a spark, inflaming whites and blacks alike and setting the races at each other's throats. Racial clashes were no longer confined to occasional outbreaks of violence between groups of high school teenagers. Adults were now involved. The wildest rumors ran through Banbury's streets. Mayor Potter had to resort to frequent visits to the municipal radio station to make personal pleas for public calm. There were demonstrations by black workers, demonstrations by white workers, seething picket lines, eruptions of brick-throwing at police and firemen, in short a continuous ferment in the city. It was generally agreed that if it were not for Jerome Duncan, the National Guard would already be occupying the city. The black candidate was everywhere at once, soothing whites, quietly telling blacks to “cool it,” that violence was what the racists wanted â¦ managing somehow to keep the lid on the rattling pot.
“But it's only a question of time, Mike,” Governor Holland's parting words had been to McCall, “when the lid's going to blow off, and then all hell breaks loose. For God's sake find some way to stop it, or at least control it, until after Election Day. I think then it will simmer down.”
McCall's plane landed at the municipal airport at 8:10
At 8:30 he was headed for the county courthouse in a rented Ford. There was no time to pay a courtesy call on the mayor; the trial of Harlan James was scheduled to begin at nine o'clock, and it was a twenty-minute drive from the airport to downtown Banbury.
He had the car radio adjusted to 1410, the frequency of Gerald Horton's station; he wanted to hear what Horton's official line was on the trial of the black leader. It turned out that BOKO broadcast local news on the hour, which he had missed, and devoted the half-past-the-hour news summaries to national and international news, which told him nothing about the Harlan James affair. By the time he had realized this and tried other stations, McCall missed their local newscasts, too.
He swore and turned off the radio.
The county courthouse faced a plaza, and the plaza was jammed with people, almost all black men. One out of every four or five of these black men wore a glittering black vinyl jacket with a circular white insignia on the back. Centered in the white circle was a black heart, and piercing the black heart was a daggerâwhite.
It was the first time McCall had seen the Black Hearts' emblem, although he had read what meager literature existed on its history. According to an FBI report he had readâlabeled “possibly apocryphal”âboth the name of the black militant organization and its symbol had been inspired by a U.S. Senate speech delivered by a southern segregationist after the original Supreme Court decision desegregating public schools. The senator was supposed to have said (the quotation had never been found in the
“The gleaming white dagger of southern chivalry should be plunged into the black hearts of those responsible for this dastardly murder of human rights.”