Content warning: Some of the historical texts in this story include racial slurs and racist language.
When the leaders of Danville’s civil rights movement are sentenced to jail, there are no spectators in the courtroom gallery. The public has been prohibited from attending trials.
Other than the defendants and their attorneys, there is only the jury, the prosecution, the host of armed policemen, and the 75-year-old judge behind the bench.
Every last one of them is white.
It is 1963, and hundreds of mostly Black demonstrators have been arrested for protesting segregation. They must now face a trial presided over by Judge Archibald Aiken, a segregationist state court judge known to operate outside the law.
The demonstrators were arrested on charges including contempt, trespassing, disorderly conduct, parading without a permit and resisting arrest.
Aiken’s methods were praised by many, including U.S. Senator Harry Byrd, the leader of Virginia’s massive resistance campaign that led to the closure of some public schools in the 1950s.
But everyone in Danville’s Black community knew that Aiken was a segregationist, said Karice Luck-Brimmer, a local historian and genealogist who leads Black history tours around the city.
“On my tours, I always say the ’63 crew were essentially tried by the KKK,” Luck-Brimmer said.
While some of Aiken’s discriminatory courtroom practices were common throughout the South, others were extreme even among other segregationist judges, said Thomas Frampton, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law who specializes in the intersections of criminal law and race inequalities.
“The proceedings in Danville courtrooms were extraordinary, even by the standards of what one might expect in a Southern, segregationist courtroom,” Frampton said. “It’s very, very clear that the white legal establishment, from the Danville Bar Association to the judiciary, profoundly failed to do right by the Black population of Danville.”
A bridge in Danville remains named after Aiken today.
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Even before the civil rights movement took root in Danville in the early 1960s, Aiken had a reputation as a segregationist because of his commitment to the state’s policy of massive resistance.
In 1959, he privately proposed a plan that would use the economic advantage of white folks to “‘keep the public schools of Virginia permanently open and segregated,’” wrote James Ely Jr., a law professor at Vanderbilt University, in an article published in the Vanderbilt Law Review in 1974, a year after the trials had concluded.
Part of his plan included imposing a school tax on every child who attended public school, regardless of race.
Ely’s article quotes a letter from Aiken to Byrd in which the judge writes, “I imagine most of the Negroes who have been getting a free education at the expense of the White people either could not and would not pay it.”
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Though Aiken’s plan was never adopted, Byrd “found it intriguing enough” to circulate it among his colleagues in Washington, according to Ely’s article, which discusses the court proceedings and their outcomes as well as Aiken and his methods. It was written to analyze the level of success of civil rights demonstrations, using Danville as a test case.
Aiken, a Danville native and the son of a judge, attended the University of Virginia for his undergraduate and law degrees. He became judge of the Danville Corporation Court in 1950 after serving as a circuit court judge and as the city attorney.
“More than any other person, Judge Aiken symbolized the determination of Danville whites and the city administration to crush the Negro protests,” wrote Ely. “As was the case with nearly all Virginia state judges, Aiken was an ally of Senator Byrd and held conservative social and political views.”
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When civil rights demonstrations broke out in Danville in 1963, Aiken issued a temporary injunction, which later became permanent, that limited protests and public assemblies.
As demonstrators were arrested and tried under this injunction, Aiken’s courtroom practices gained a reputation in the city.
“Everyone in the Black community knew he was a racist,” Luck-Brimmer said, adding that members of the public probably “still don’t know the half” of what he did.
[Read more about the trials in Monday’s story.]
Though protesters and defense attorneys called for federal intervention during the trials, they received very little help. Justice Department officials did monitor the court proceedings, according to Ely’s article, which quotes one official reporting to his superiors, who called the proceedings before Aiken “extraordinary.”
“The judge has entered a formal written order excluding the public from the courtroom,” the quote reads. “Witnesses, and even attorneys, are frisked for weapons. All of the city personnel, however, wear sidearms. The last two days there have been approximately 30 armed police in the courtroom. Judge Aiken has been wearing a pistol while presiding on the bench.”
Aiken denied wearing a gun while on the bench, though he admitted that he carried one to the courthouse on police advice, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. This is how he earned the moniker “the pistol-packing judge,” a nickname that many of his supporters used affectionately.
He also prohibited discussion about the legality of his injunction in the courtroom, Ely wrote, and refused to release convicted defendants on bail.
Most of the trials were bench trials, but the few defendants who had jury trials faced all-white panels. This wasn’t technically legal, but it was still common in the 1960s, said Frampton.
“The intentional exclusion of people from jury service has technically been illegal since Reconstruction,” he said. “But in practice, the rules governing that kind of exclusion were all but meaningless.”
Years later, in 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a jury must be a representative cross section of a community in Taylor v. Louisiana. And it wasn’t until 1986, in Batson v. Kentucky, that it became unconstitutional to exclude jurors solely on the basis of race.
According to trial transcripts, Aiken disregarded the defense’s opposition to the all-white juries.
In a 1963 case, defense attorney Len W. Holt motioned for a new trial several times, arguing that Black residents had been excluded from the list of potential jurors. He was defending five of the movement’s leaders, who had been charged with trespassing after a sit-in at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant.
Holt said that there had been “a clear, systematic exclusion of Negroes from the venire list,” which had 500 names, 475 of which were white.
Aiken overruled the motions, saying, “Your evidence is based on hearsay … the court will not consider it on that evidence,” according to the transcript.
The jury found the five defendants — Julius Adams, the Rev. Lawrence Campbell, the Rev. L.W. Chase, the Rev. A.I. Dunlap and Arthur Pinchback — guilty of trespassing and sentenced each to a $100 fine.
Frampton said that the local legal system was “at the vanguard” of the “effort of massive resistance against civil rights” in Danville.
And today, “courts can still be responsible for continuing to reinforce racial subordination,” he said. “It’s past time for us to have a really long, hard reckoning with the ways in which lawyers and the courts have a fairly shameful legacy in these historical moments.”
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Aiken’s actions drew criticism from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Justice Department, which issued a brief condemning his conduct shortly after trials began in 1963.
But he also received much praise from local businesses and organizations, including the Danville Bar Association, other state judges — and even a member of the U.S. Congress.
In a “personal and confidential” 1963 letter from Byrd to Aiken, the senator commends the “courageous and wonderful fashion in which you have met the very unwarranted actions taken by the NAACP in Danville. The whole State has been proud of you.”
Moscoe Huntley, a judge for the Hustings Court of the City of Richmond, also wrote Aiken a letter of support. “You have really gone through some trying times, and I know you have experienced many difficulties,” the 1967 letter reads. “The purpose of this note is to express my admiration for you in your present situation.”
And a 1963 letter to Aiken from Dr. William Watkins at the South Boston Clinic reads, “I am anxious for you to know that everyone in this section of the state is most proud of your record and the wonderful job that you are doing.”
These and many other letters of support are housed at the Danville Historical Society. Aiken kept much of his fan mail, the historical society’s archivists said, including an autographed picture of George Wallace, the Alabama governor and notorious segregationist.
Aiken only kept one note that was critical of his actions, a postcard that reads: “You are the one causing all this trouble in our fair Virginia with your stupid injunctions. Instead of using the law to protect human rights you use it against people. You would like to send the Negroes to crematoriums like the judges in Germany did. Mrs. George Allen, Fairfax, Virginia.”
The historical society’s collection of Aiken’s personal items, like these letters, was largely donated by members of Aiken’s family after his death.
Aiken died in 1971 of a heart attack, two years before the final cases from the summer of 1963 were heard. The judge who took over the cases suspended the jail sentences on the condition of good behavior, against the prosecutor’s objections.
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While many white people in Danville and beyond expressed support for Aiken during this time, there was one white man, with family roots in Virginia tracing back to Thomas Jefferson, who was outspoken against the judge.
“My grandfather fired off a note to Judge Aiken in the middle of these court proceedings,” said Tess Taylor, an author and granddaughter of W. Leigh Taylor, who was the director of education and training at Dan River Mills during the civil rights movement.
Leigh Taylor’s 1966 letter referred to Aiken’s “petulance” and called his decisions “inane.” Ely’s article calls this letter and its aftermath “the Taylor affair.”
“Aiken reacted swiftly, ordering the arrest of Taylor on a charge of contempt of the judge of the court,” Ely wrote.
Charles Taylor, Leigh Taylor’s son and Tess Taylor’s father, remembers being in high school when his father was arrested at his mill office. Aiken and Leigh Taylor had been acquaintances before this, Charles Taylor said, because they both belonged to the same Rotary group.
“I’m not saying they were close friends, but they weren’t total strangers,” he said.
Leigh Taylor was tried, found in contempt and sentenced to 10 days at the city prison farm (eight of which were suspended) and a $50 fine.
This sentence was very similar to the sentences handed out to demonstrators, which is telling, said Tess Taylor.
“The identity of the sentence was really important, because it’s saying, ‘You’re either with us or with them, and you broke ranks, therefore you’re with them,’” she said.
In a free society, judges are not immune from criticism, Ely’s article says.
“There can be no doubt that Aiken’s behavior toward Taylor was a serious error which curtailed constitutionally protected freedom of speech and reflected negatively on his judicial temperament,” it says.
Tess Taylor, in a New York Times op-ed from 2013, wrote that her grandfather’s trial actually garnered more local press coverage than the first demonstrations did.
“In contrast to names like Lawrence and Gloria Campbell’s that the paper had refused to dignify, his name made the paper, not only in Danville, but in Richmond, Roanoke, Greensboro, N.C., and Washington,” she wrote. “Some lawyers in Danville ran counter-editorials defending Judge Aiken and mocking my grandfather.”
The disproportionate amount of attention this case drew relative to the demonstrations themselves indicates the “unevenness of people’s attention to justice,” Tess Taylor said.
“It made it seem like that was the moment where [Aiken] crossed the line,” she said. “It wasn’t all of the other really terrible things that [Aiken] had already done vis-à-vis Black people. It was that he now dared to contradict and engage a white person of good standing with a good family.”
A few months later, in early 1967, Aiken suspended Leigh Taylor’s jail sentence, although not the fine.
Still, Charles and Tess Taylor said there was “a chilling effect” on their family in the community afterwards.
“People who were the closest to us, who really understood my father, they did not reject him,” Charles Taylor said. But others in the community who didn’t know the family as well kept their distance, he said.
Leigh Taylor, who was in his 40s when this happened, never got another promotion at Dan River Mills. He was “effectively sidelined,” his son said, and he worked in the same position for the next 20 years.
And the “pejorative” media coverage did not help, Charles Taylor said. “We were all hurt by that,” he said. “But I was proud of my father.”
Part of this pride comes from the fact that Leigh Taylor represented a shift in the history of the Taylor family, which dates to the 1700s in Virginia and has roots in slaveholding and the Confederacy.
Leigh Taylor’s grandfather was a Confederate colonel during the Civil War and was taken prisoner by the Union after leading a charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, Charles Taylor said.
“My father spoke out coming from a major family with a certain sense of prestige,” he said. “It took a little extra courage, and it was a crucible for him. But he felt that what the judge was doing was wrong.”
Still, Leigh Taylor was not a hero, his granddaughter said.
“Unlike Mr. Campbell, he did not plan to put his life on the line,” she wrote in her op-ed. “He set out as a privileged person expecting to be heard, and ended as a privileged person surprised by backlash. But he did speak up. He was then used as an example of what could happen even to a white man of standing if he stepped out of line. And, in his own way, he spent his life paying for it.”
Tess Taylor spoke with Campbell, who died in March, back in 2013 — about 50 years after the movement.
“I was surprised to find that Reverend Campbell remembered my grandfather and his gesture,” she said. “When he told me that it was still a meaningful gesture to him 50 years later, I just wept.”
Campbell told her he can count on one hand the number of white people in Danville who said anything at all to support the movement, she said.
“Sometimes I am proud of my grandfather,” she wrote in her op-ed. “Sometimes I feel, painfully, that his act was not enough. In some ways, his efforts are beside the point. But in other ways, they offer me a window into what presses down on a culture that is struggling to change.”
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Over the Dan River and the city’s riverwalk trail, the Aiken Bridge carries about 400 feet of U.S. 29 Business through Danville. The bridge was dedicated in 1969 and built in 1970.
WBTM News, which covered the designation, reported that the Danville City Council referred to Aiken as “a paragon of integrity, courage, brilliance, and justice — a man of great but modest stature, who, during his very useful life, has rendered monumental services to both his community and nation.”
This report, also housed at the Danville Historical Society, goes on to say that the city council “has chosen wisely” to name the bridge after Aiken and commends him for his “timely and courageous action” against “forces bent on turmoil and destruction.”
Fifty-six years later, the bridge across the Dan River remains named “The Archibald M. Aiken Bridge.”
Paul Gentry, a local historian and volunteer with the historical society, said he’d be willing to bet that most residents, especially young people, don’t know the history behind the name.
“The generation that knew him for who he was has pretty much aged out,” said Cody Foster, historical society archivist. “[Aiken’s] story has almost been left in the past, except for being associated with the civil rights movement and overseeing those proceedings.”
Elder members of the Black community remember Aiken and know about the history behind the bridge, said Luck-Brimmer, but none of them call it by name.
Brief talk about changing the name came up in the community a few years ago, Luck-Brimmer said, but she hasn’t heard anything about it recently.
Renaming is a “touchy” subject in Danville, said Larry Campbell, a city councilman and the son of the Rev. Campbell, one of the movement’s major leaders.
He referenced the debate almost 10 years ago about the Confederate flag that used to fly in front of the Danville Fine Arts and History Museum, which is housed in the Sutherlin Mansion. The building was the temporary residence of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, during the last days of the Civil War.
The debate was very contentious. Campbell said he remembers being threatened before a city council vote on the matter by an anonymous group.
“I will never forget, I was in Yanceyville, and I got a call from the [police] chief’s office,” Campbell said. “He said, ‘You need to come down to the station, quick.’ The police had received some information that if I voted [to remove the flag], they would do some things to me and my family.”
Campbell said there have also been conversations in Danville about the statue of Harry Wooding, a Confederate soldier who was the mayor for over 40 years, on the steps of the Municipal Building. But he doesn’t remember any specific calls to change the name of Aiken bridge.
City Manager Ken Larking also said that he doesn’t recall any resident bringing up the name of the bridge as a concern.
Gentry said a call for a name change “will probably fall into the category of, if nobody’s fussing, let’s not open that can of worms.” Plus, “if you want to be 100% politically correct, you would have to change so many things in this town, it’d be ridiculous,” he said.
Campbell said renaming the bridge might just “stir up trouble … especially with the mentality of our country right now.”
Too many people, he said, are too eager for any excuse to start a fight.
“They’re just waiting for a spark,” he said.
Two things that Campbell knows for sure: “These are some crazy times. And racism is not dead, period.”
This story is part of Cardinal News’ larger Bloody Monday reporting. Read the full collection of stories.