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Louisiana to Wyatt Tee Walker: Are You Crazy?

How do you tell if a Civil Rights activist is crazy?

Would it help to ask him, “Why do you believe in integration?” Or, “Do you feel like people are against you?”

Or maybe this question would do the trick. “Do you think I hate colored people any more than I hate northern Yankee bastards?”

Wyatt Tee Walker About a year after his arrest in Jackson as a Freedom Rider (right), the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker was arrested in Shreveport, LA, at the Little Union Baptist Church.

It was the evening of June 8, 1962. Inside the church, Martin Luther King was speaking about voting rights. Outside, Walker was imploring the police to guard the rear of the church as well as the front. King and Walker had flown to Shreveport earlier in the day from Atlanta, despite a death threat against King if he came to town.

According to Walker, J. E. Downes, the Commissioner of Public Safety, refused to discuss any security details. “G’wan inside!” was all he would say. But Walker kept asking and soon enough Downes arrested him and Harry Blake, an SCLC associate. The charge? Loitering.

So far, so typical. Louisiana officials, however, were not always content with the standard misdemeanor charges for activists. Earlier in the year Baton Rouge had charged three SNCC organizers with “criminal anarchy” — trying to overthrow the state of Louisiana. Shreveport went a different way: they asked the Caddo Parish coroner to conduct a lunacy test.

The coroner, Dr. Stuart DeLee, explained to New York Times reporter Claude Sitton that Walker and Blake had to be examined for “mental competency” because they “had acted so peculiar about their arrest.”

Dr. DeLee said he did not know when he would have a decision. He explained that “sometimes you can tell at a glance that a person is psychotic, and then sometimes it takes considerable time to study a case.”

As it turned out, DeLee would need two rounds of questions. The first lasted about 40 minutes. According to an affidavit Walker wrote afterward (PDF), DeLee’s line of questioning went something like this:

Do you believe in integration?

Why do you believe in integration?

Have you always believed in integration?

How long have you believed in integration?

Did you serve in the military?

Why weren’t you called up?

If your country called you in the service, would you fight?

If you had the choice to defend the state of Georgia or the United States, which would you choose?

Are you nervous?

Have you ever been in a mental institution as a patient?

Do you feel people are against you?

Do you think I hate colored people any more than I hate northern Yankee bastards?

Are you a drinking man?

Have you had anything to drink tonight?

What do you think of the Freedom Riders?

Have you ever been a member of a party that was connected with the Communist Party?

Would you join the Communist Party?

What do you think of the reverse Freedom Riders?

Why do you say that the White Citizens Council is un-American?

Do you think I would take advantage of you?

Why do you say I’m a moderate segregationist?

You really do believe what you say, don’t you?

The first round ended inconclusively, at least for Delee. He said he “just couldn’t tell,” according to Walker’s affidavit. “Although,” Walker added, “I seemed to have all the answers.”

Of course he did. What’s harder to imagine is Walker having the patience to sit through the questions even once. On a second pass, he didn’t.

At approximately 3 P.M., my name was called and once again I confronted the coroner, Dr. DeLee. This time he seemed halting and confused as to what to ask. When I ignored a question that he had asked me the night before, he wanted to know what was wrong with me. I replied that I was tired of him playing games with me. He asked me what I meant. I answered by reminding him of our last change of words the night previous. He said he couldn’t remember. I had said to him that his attitude toward my mental competence would be exactly the same as it was on our initial meeting, no matter when he saw me again, tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. He flushed under my direct approach.

I then said to him that he was a part of the tragedy of the south. He knew what was right and couldn’t or wouldn’t do it; either because someone controlled him or because he lacked the courage. The fumble defense of his position prompted me to say I sympathized with him because he was caught up in the evil system (of segregation). He was sick, I asserted, and perhaps I should be questioning him. At this juncture, the examination abruptly ended.

Walker and Blake were out of jail by the end of the day.

Despite the new psychiatric angle, for King it was an all-too-familiar encounter. “The lesson of this account,” he wrote in article a few weeks later in the New York Amsterdam News, “is but to demonstrated once again the absurdity of the lengths to which the racist opposition will go to thwart the Freedom Movement in the South. Will they ever learn that is as vain as trying to hold back the tides of the sea?”