Harlan Ellison

Daniel White for the Greater Good

BEGIN WITH ABSOLUTE BLACKNESS. The sort of absolute blackness that does not exist in reality. A black as deep and profound as the space directly under a heel pressed to the ground; a black as all-surrounding as blindness from birth; a black that black. The black of a hallway devoid of light, and a black — advancing down that hallway — going away from you. At the end of a hallway so black as this, a square of light painfully white. A doorway through which can be seen a window, pouring dawn sunlight in a torrent into the room, through the doorway, and causing a sunspot of light at the end of the pitch-black hallway.

If this were a motion picture, it would be starkly impressive, the black so deep, and the body moving away from the camera, down the hall toward the square of superhuman white. The body clinging to the right-hand wall, moving down the tunnel of ebony, slowly, painstakingly, almost spastically. The body is a form, merely a form, not quite as black as the hallway mouth that contains it, but still without sufficient contrast to break what would be superlative camera work, were this a motion picture. But it is not a motion picture. It is a story of some truth.

It is a story, and for that reason, the effect of superlative cinematography must be broken as the body pulls itself to the door, lurches through, and stumbles to grasp at the edge of a chest-high wooden counter. The camera angles (were this a motion picture) would suddenly shift and alter, bringing into immediate focus the soft yet hard face of a police desk sergeant, his collar open and sweat beading his neck and upper lip. We might study the raised bushy eyebrows and the quickly horrified expression just before the lips go rigid. Then the camera would track around the squad room, we would see the Georgia sunrise outside that streaming window, and finally our gaze would settle on the face of a girl.

A white girl.

With a smear of blood at the edge of her mouth, with one eye swollen shut and blue-black, with her hair disarrayed and matted with blood, leaves and dirt … and an expression of pain that says one thing:

“Help … me …”

The camera would follow that face as it sinks slowly to the floor.

Then, if this were a movie and not reality, in a town without a name in central Georgia, the camera would cut to black. Sharp cut, and wait for the next scene.

It might have been simpler, had he been a good man. At least underneath; but he wasn’t. He was, very simply, a dirty nigger. When he could not cadge a free meal by intimidation, he stole. He smelled bad, he had the morals of a swamp pig, and as if that were not enough to exclude him from practically every strata of society, he had bad teeth, worse breath, and a foul mouth. Fittingly, his name was Daniel White.

They had no difficulty arresting him, and even less difficulty proving he was the man who had raped and beaten Marion Gore. He was found sleeping exhausted in a corner of the hobo jungle at the side of the railroad tracks on the verge of the town. There was blood on his hands and hair under his fingernails. Police lab analysis confirmed that the blood type and follicles of hair matched those of Marion Gore.

Far from circumstantial, these facts merely verified the confession Daniel White made when arrested. He was not even granted the saving grace of having been drunk. He was surly, obscene, and thoroughly pleased with what he had done. The fact that Marion Gore had been sixteen, a virgin, and had gone into a coma after making her way from the field where she had been attacked to the police station, seemed to make no impression on Daniel White.

The local papers tagged him — and they were conservative at best — a conscienceless beast. He was that. At least.

It was not unexpected, then, to find a growing wave of mass hatred in the town. A hatred that continually emerged in the words “Lynch the bastard.”

At first, the word black was not even inserted between the and bastard It wasn’t needed. It came later, when the concept of lynching gave way to a peculiar itch in the palms of many white hands. An itch that might well be scratched by a length of hemp rope.

It had to happen quickly, or it would not happen at all. The chief of police would call the mayor, the mayor would get in touch with the governor, and in a matter of hours the National Guard would be in. So it had to happen quickly, or not at all.

And it was bound to happen. There was no doubt of that. There had been seeds planted — the school trouble, darkie rabble-rousers from New Jersey and Illinois down talking to the nigras in Littletown, that business at the Woolworth’s counter — and now the crop was coming in.

Daniel White was safe behind bars, but outside, it was getting bad:

… the big-mouth crowd that hung out in Peerson’s Bowling and Billard Center caught Phil the clean-up boy, and badgered him into a fight. They took him out back and worked him over with eight-inch lengths of bicycle chain; the diagnosis was double concussion and internal hemorrhaging.

… a caravan of heavies from the new development near the furniture factory motored down into Littletown and set fire to The Place, where thirty-five or forty of the town’s more responsible Negro leaders had gathered for a few drinks and a discussion of what their position might be in this matter. Result: fifteen burned, and the bar scorched to the ground.

… Willa Ambrose, who washed and kept house for the Porters, was fired after a slight misunderstanding with Diane Porter; Willa had admitted to once taking in a movie with Daniel White.

… the Jesus Baptist Church was bombed the same night Daniel White made his confession. The remains of the building gave up evidence that the job had been done with homemade Molotov cocktails and sticks of dynamite stolen from the road construction shed on the highway. Pastor Neville lost the use of his right eye: a piece of flying glass from the imported stained windows.

So the chief of police called the mayor, and the mayor called the governor, and the governor alerted his staff, and they discussed it, and decided to wait till morning to mobilize the National Guard (which was made up of Georgia boys who didn’t much care for the idea of Daniel White, in any case). At best, ten hours.

A long, hot, dangerous ten hours.

Daniel White slept peacefully. He knew he wasn’t going to be lynched. He also knew he was going to become a cause célèbre and might easily get off with a light sentence, this being an election year, and the eyes of the world on his little central Georgia town.

After all, the NAACP hadn’t even made an appearance yet. Daniel White slept peacefully.

He knew he didn’t deserve to die for Marion Gore.

She hadn’t really been a virgin.

The NAACP man’s name was U. J. Peregrin and he was out of the Savannah office. He was tall, and exceedingly slim in his tailored Ivy suit. He was nut-brown and had deep-set eyes that seemed veiled like a cobra’s. He spoke in a soft, cultivated voice totally free of drawl and slur. He had been born in Tenafly, New Jersey, had attended college at the University of Chicago, and had gone into social work out of a mixture of emotions. This assignment had come to him chiefly because of his native familiarity with the sort of culture that spawned Daniel White — and a lynch mob.

He sat across from Henry Roblee (who had been picked by the terror-stricken Negro residents of that little central Georgia town as their spokesman) and conversed in three A.M. tones. Seven hours until the National Guard might come, seven hours in which anything might happen, seven hours that had forced the inhabitants of Littletown to douse their lights and crouch behind windows with 12-gauges ready.

“We’ve never had anything like this here,” Henry Roblee admitted, his square face cut with worry. He rubbed his blocky hands over the moist glass. A thin film of whiskey colored the bottom of the glass. A bottle stood between them on the table.

Peregrin drew deeply on his cigarette and stared into Roblee’s frightened eyes. “Mr. Roblee,” he said softly, “you may never have had anything like this before, but you’ve certainly got it now, and the question is, ‘What do we intend to do about it?’” He waited. Not so much for an answer as for a realization on the other man’s part of just what the situation meant.

“It’s not White we’re worried about,” Roblee added hastily. “That jail is strong enough, and I don’t suppose the Chief is going to let them come by without doing something to stop them. It’s what’s happening all over town that’s got us frightened. We never seen the people round here act this way. Why, they in a killing frame of mind!”

Peregrin nodded slowly.

“How is your Pastor?” he asked.

Roblee shrugged. “He’s gone be blind in the one eye, maybe both, but that’s what I mean That man was respected by everybody ’round here. They thought most highly of him. We got to protect ourselves.”

“What do you propose?” Peregrin asked.

Roblee looked up from the empty glass suddenly. “What do we propose? Why, man, that’s why we asked for help from the N-double A-CP. Don’t you understand?Something terrible’s gone happen in this town unless we decide what to do to stop it. Even the sensible folks ’round here are crazy mad with wanting to lynch that Daniel White.”

“I can only make suggestions; that’s my job. I