Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A00849 - Clarence Beavers, Last of a Black Paratroop Unit

Clarence Beavers, Last of a Black Paratroop Unit, Dies at 96

Clarence Beavers, second from right, in a transport plane with other members of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion during a training exercise in 1944.CreditNational Archives
Clarence Beavers, the last surviving member of a groundbreaking group of black paratroopers deployed during World War II against what were described as the world’s first intercontinental-range airborne weapons — giant bomb-laden balloons launched from Japan and aimed at North America — died on Dec. 4 at his home in Huntington, N.Y. He was 96.
His daughter Charlotta Beavers said the cause was heart failure.
Mr. Beavers was one of 17 soldiers who formed what became the Army’s first all-black paratroop unit, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
The unit, which began training in 1944, was never as famous as the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black Army Air Forces group from Alabama, but it was pioneering nonetheless.
The paratroopers were nicknamed the Triple Nickels (the 555th conjured up the five-cent coin), but they also became known as the Smoke Jumpers after being dispatched to the American Northwest to be on hand to extinguish forest fires should the balloon bombs ignite fires.
The unit’s mission, under the name Operation Firefly, was hidden from the public during the war to prevent panic over the balloons’ ability to reach the United States.
The so-called Fu-Go balloons, 33 feet in diameter and buoyed by hydrogen, floated on the jet stream and could travel the 5,000 miles from the Japanese mainland to the Pacific Northwest in three or four days.
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Of the estimated 9,000 that were launched, about 1,000 reached the West Coast, where they potentially threatened crops and the country’s strategic lumber supply.
Mr. Beavers in 1941. In the racially segregated wartime military, members of his black unit were “heartbroken” at being denied combat duty.CreditBeavers Family
One airborne bomb damaged a generator at the Hanford Engineer Works reactor in Washington State, where plutonium was being processed for the first atomic bombs.
An antipersonnel fragmentation bomb exploded on the ground in southern Oregon, killing a pregnant woman and five children in what were believed to be the only fatalities resulting from the low-tech attacks.
But because 1945 was rainy in the Northwest, the threat of wildfires kindled by the balloons’ incendiary bombs was minimized.
Instead, the paratroopers were specially trained by the United States Forest Service to jump from C-47 transport planes and be deployed to fight fires ignited by lightning and other causes. The training helped modernize how fires in remote forests could be contained and extinguished.
Clarence Hylan Beavers was born in Harlem on June 12, 1921, the 15th of 16 children. (His middle name was given in honor of John F. Hylan, who was New York’s mayor at the time and also his godfather.) His maternal grandparents had been escaped slaves, and his maternal grandfather served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
His father, Tipp Garfield Beavers Sr., was a commercial artist who worked for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The elder Mr. Beavers had moved the family north from Alabama after being arrested there for opposing segregation and sentenced to a chain gang.
Clarence’s mother was the former Mary E. Martin.
After graduating from George Washington High School in Manhattan, Mr. Beavers enlisted in the National Guard. Drafted by the Army, he was assigned to a maintenance unit.
Blacks in the Army were typically relegated to menial roles, but in late 1943 an order barring them from serving as front-line paratroopers was rescinded.
Mr. Beavers was the first to volunteer for parachute training and was assigned to an all-black barracks at Fort Benning in Georgia, a segregated state.
“Riding to parachute school,” he recalled on the 555th Parachute Infantry Association website, “the driver of the Jeep sent to pick me up kept looking at me as we passed each streetlight. Under the fear of him having an accident, I told him I was a Negro and requested that he keep his eyes on the road and his mind on driving.”
But without an all-black unit to take him, his parachute training was delayed, until Mr. Beavers appealed to the Department of the Army.
Finally, in late 1943, an all-black unit was constituted as an experiment. Of 20 original volunteers, 17 completed training and formed a prototype platoon that became the core of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. Mr. Beavers was the only surviving member of those 17.
“Both officers and enlisted men were making bets that we wouldn’t jump — we’d be too afraid,” Walter J. Morris, another trainee, was quoted as saying in the book “Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers” (2013), by Tanya Lee Stone.
Mr. Beavers had a similar recollection.
“Those that wanted to see us make it put forth their full effort; equally, those who didn’t want to see us make it did everything they could to see that we didn’t,” he was quoted on the association’s website. “While other trainees came through the front door and went to the counter for their food, we had to come in by the side door.”
Mr. Beavers on his 90th birthday in 2011 with his wife, Lena, at their home in Huntington, N.Y.CreditBeavers Family
But, he said, “we were hopeful that if we did a damn good job, things for the African-Americans would improve after the war had ended.”
By late 1944, with the war ebbing and the unit’s ranks still limited in numbers, the paratroopers were assigned to Pendleton Field, Ore., and Chico, Calif., as part of Operation Firefly. They saw a racial motivation behind the orders.
“Major commanders in Europe were leery of having highly trained colored paratroopers coming into contact with racist white elements of the time,” according to the association’s history.
The decision to keep them stateside was a setback for the paratroopers.
“They were very heartsick after all their training, that they had done everything and passed everything they had to do, that they were not able to go overseas to join the rest of the fighting men,” Mr. Beavers’s wife, the former Edolene Davis, told the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “This was a way for them to serve.”
In addition to his wife and his daughter Charlotta, Mr. Beavers is survived by four other daughters, Dawn Hargrove, Patricia Merritt, Charis Beavers and Charlayne Beavers; a son, Clarence II; 18 grandchildren; 22 great-grandchildren; and 10 great-great-grandchildren.
During the summer and fall of 1945, the Army parachutists made 1,200 individual jumps to fight more than a dozen fires. They suffered only one fatality: a medic who fell from a tree.
After the war, Mr. Beavers was discharged as a staff sergeant, and the battalion was incorporated into the 82nd Airborne Division. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman banned racial discrimination in the military under an executive order that led to full desegregation of the armed forces.
Mr. Beavers later worked on computer systems for the Veterans Administration and for the Defense Department in Germany and Washington. After he retired in 1978, and before moving to Long Island, he lived in upstate New York, where he served as a volunteer firefighter. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A00848 - Ernest Finney, Lawyer in the "Jail, Not Bail" Case


Judge Ernest A. Finney Jr. in February 2012 at an induction ceremony at the South Carolina Hall of Fame in Myrtle Beach. CreditSteve Jessmore/The Sun News, via Associated Press

On Jan. 31, 1961, 10 black college students in Rock Hill, S.C., rejecting the warning of the state’s chief law enforcement officer, seated themselves at a whites-only lunch counter at the local McCrory’s five-and-dime store and asked to be served.
Dragged by police from their stools, the protesters, most of them from Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill, were charged with breach of the peace and trespassing. They were then hauled before Judge Billy D. Hays, who gave them a choice: Either pay a $100 fine or spend 30 days shoveling sand on a York County chain gang.
For nine out of the 10 protesters, the choice was clear. They had no intention of paying fines and thus help subsidize a segregationist local government. They took the jail time (knowing it would cost the county money for room and board), and in so doing helped galvanize the fledgling civil rights movement.
By then, sit-ins at lunch counters and elsewhere had begun to spread. But the Friendship Nine, as the Rock Hill protesters came to be called, were among the first defendants to embrace an emerging strategy of resistance to legal segregation: jail, not bail.
Their strategy of embarrassing segregated Southern communities by compounding their arrest with the spectacle of being imprisoned merely for ordering lunch or sitting in the wrong section of a bus or a theater, or worshiping at an all-white church, would be validated as the movement matured.
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And their lawyer, Ernest A. Finney Jr., who had begun practicing full time only in 1960 after doubling as a teacher and working part time in a restaurant to make ends meet, would eventually be vindicated, too.


Ernest A. Finney, right, with the civil rights activist James Farmer in an undated photo.CreditAfro American Newspapers/Gado, via Getty Images

As a newly minted lawyer in the mid-1950s, Mr. Finney had not been invited to the state bar association convention because he was black. He managed to eavesdrop on the proceedings all the same — but only because he was working as a waiter at the time for the Ocean Forest Hotel in Myrtle Beach, where the convention was being held.
He and his partner would later represent thousands of other civil rights defendants. Most lost their cases in South Carolina’s local trial courts. All but two, he would later recall, were absolved on appeal.
Mr. Finney went on to become South Carolina’s first black chief justice.
Fifty-four years after his clients were arrested in the McCrory’s sit-in, Justice Finney returned to Rock Hill, a former textile mill town, to reargue their case. One of the original defendants had died, but most of the others joined him. One arrived in a wheelchair. Another walked with a cane.
By now retired at 83, Justice Finney hobbled into the courtroom on the arm of one of his sons. He rose slowly to address Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III.
Wearing a tie emblazoned with the state’s palmetto and crescent moon logo, Justice Finney appealed to the court to exonerate the men, who had been sentenced in 1961 by Judge Hayes’s uncle.
“Justice and equity demand that this motion be granted,” Justice Finney declared.
It was. In a bittersweet rebuke to the past, the convictions were overturned. The sentences were vacated. The prosecutor apologized.
“We cannot rewrite history,” Judge Hayes said, “but we can right history.”
Justice Finney died on Sunday in Columbia, S.C. He was 86. His daughter, Lynn C. Finney, known as Nikky, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He lived in Sumter, S.C.
Reared by a widowed father who took correspondence courses in law but became an educator instead, Justice Finney graduated from law school in 1954, the same year the United States Supreme Court delivered its landmark school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education.
At the time, only a handful of black lawyers were practicing in South Carolina, and blacks were excluded from juries.
In 1976, he was elected the state’s first black Circuit Court judge. In 1985, he was named by the Legislature to the State Supreme Court — the first black to sit on that court since 1877, when federal troops were finally withdrawn from the former Confederacy.
When he was sworn in, Justice Finney expressed hope that his tenure on the state’s highest court would have “a ripple effect, so that not only black children, but all children from difficult circumstances, can grow up believing they can be what they want to be.”
In 1994, he hurdled another racial barrier when the General Assembly elected him chief justice.
“I would like to be thought of as the man who did the best he could with what he had for as long as I could,” Justice Finney told The Augusta Chronicle in Georgia when he retired in 2000. “All people have a responsibility to be the very best that we can be in whatever we do, and by and large, if you do that, the color of your skin becomes less and less important.”
Ernest Adolphus Finney Jr. was born on March 23, 1931, in Smithfield, a town famous for its ham, in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. His mother, the former Colleen Godwin, died when he was 10 days old.
“I feel a necessity to try to do a little more with my life than I might have otherwise,” he was once quoted as saying, “to justify my existence.”


Ernest A. Finney Jr., left, the lawyer in the 1961 “Friendship Nine” case, with three of them, Willie Edward McCleod, second from left, Mack C. Workman and David Williamson Jr. in Rock Hill, N.C., in 2015.CreditMegan Gielow for The New York Times

An only child, he moved around Virginia and Maryland as his father changed teaching jobs. They finally settled in Orangeburg, S.C., in 1946, when the elder Mr. Finney was named dean at Claflin College (now Claflin University). One constant in their moves was the boxes of law books his father took with them.
“For some reason,” Justice Finney told The Associated Press, “I have always felt that if America was to live up to its promises to all people, I thought the law would be the basis for change.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Claflin in 1952, he received his law degree from the South Carolina State University School of Law, the all-black counterpart of the University of South Carolina School of Law.
Besides his daughter, a poet and English professor, Justice Finney is survived by his wife, the former Frances Davenport; his sons, Ernest III, a former judge and now a prosecutor in South Carolina, and Jerry, a lawyer; and five grandchildren.
Persuaded by several civil rights workers to practice law full time, Justice Finney teamed up with one of them, Matthew Perry, who later became a federal judge. By his count, Justice Finney represented some 6,000 clients, including two black college students charged with disorderly conduct for attempting to worship in an all-white Presbyterian church.
Before becoming a judge, he served in the State Legislature, where he drafted a bill to improve voter representation. As chief justice, he ruled in 1999 that all the state’s children were entitled to a “minimally adequate education” in “adequate and safe facilities.”
“We knew the law at the time was against us, but we never lost faith that what we perceived to be justice would prevail,” he said in 2000. “When I look at how far we have come today, I have to say, If there’s a man who ought to be impressed with the fact that the law works, I’m that man.”