| By Nicole VanderMeer |
Deep into the second day of Hattie Bell Brazier’s lawsuit against the law enforcement officers she believed had beaten her husband to death, her attorney, Donald Hollowell, called his best witness to the stand in a federal courtroom in Americus.
Mary Carolyn Clyde had been one of three inmates in the Terrell County jail who had told the FBI or Hollowell or the NAACP that they had witnessed Dawson Police Officers W.B. Cherry and Randolph McDonald force James Brazier from his cell, then return him several hours later, beaten badly and all but dead. Now, five years after that night, Donald Hollowell hoped that truth from the witness stand would avenge the death of James Brazier, validate Hattie Bell Brazier’s long and lonely pursuit of justice, and convict Cherry, McDonald and Terrell County Sheriff Z.T. Mathews.
Hollowell was no rookie in court. Two years prior, representing Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, he had fought Georgia’s governor and the University of Georgia in the first lawsuit in the state to successfully break down barriers of segregation at a university. Hollowell had shown promise even at the beginning of his career: The NAACP placed him on a capital case less than two years after he had passed the Georgia bar in 1954 and he saved a black man from execution in his first criminal case. He never got flustered—his great presence and “meticulous mastery of the English language,” biographer Maurice Daniels would note, made him a commanding figure in the courtroom. What set him apart from some early black lawyers was his disinterest in mingling with the white power structure, historian Tomiko Brown-Nagin wrote in Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement. “His physical bearing bespoke self-confidence and pride: He did not fear whites. He was a towering figure at six feet tall, and his skin color was a deep brown. When he spoke, his deep voice filled the room. He carried himself with dignity and brandished his powerful intellect like a sword.”
In the Brazier case, it would take all of that and more for Hollowell to win the case for Hattie Bell Brazier. Mary Carolyn Clyde was not only Hollowell’s best eyewitness. By this time, she was his only eyewitness. Marvin Goshay, whom Cherry had locked up four months after Brazier died so he could not testify to a federal grand jury investigating Brazier’s death, had died mysteriously of asphyxiation in 1961, not long after talking to Hollowell and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Irene Gladden, who had shared a cell and viewpoint with Clyde the night Brazier was brought in and taken out of the jail, had died in 1962, only six months before this trial opened.
Hollowell’s intense preparation for the trial is evident in hundreds of pages of scribbled notes from interviews, hand-scrawled maps, reminders to himself about helpful court cases, anonymous letters from fearful tipsters, typescripts of proposed interview questions and answers, marked up witness lists, NAACP documents, affidavits and signed statements, motions, and court rulings that constitute the bulging James Brazier file in the Donald Hollowell Papers at the Auburn Avenue Research Library branch of the Atlanta-Fulton County Library. From careful attention to the layout of the jail in his hand-drawn maps to his thorough records of conversations with potential witnesses, it becomes clear in these pages that Hollowell was an attorney both generous with his time and tirelessly dedicated to his clients like Mrs. Brazier. The faded ink of his tidy cursive writing leaves behind a testament to the effort and care with which Hollowell built his case and investigated the many details and questions surrounding Brazier’s death. The thorough questions Hollowell developed for witness interviews and his concise, determined language reveal a professional combatant in training for the big fight, a lawyer intent on overcoming any racial disadvantages in a Jim Crow courtroom by sheer preparation.
On the day Hollowell called Clyde to the stand, he was prepared to walk her through the same series of events he had asked her about before. She had not always been consistent when she spoke with the FBI, but she had previously provided Hollowell, as well as the NAACP field secretary, Amos Holmes, a gruesome, bloody and detailed description of what she had seen that night. In her earlier account to them, she saw Cherry and McDonald take Brazier from his cell, then, with others, return the beaten body of Brazier to the jail cell adjoining her in the wee hours of the morning. Now, at trial, when her eyewitness version most counted, Clyde changed her testimony entirely:
Donald Hollowell: Now, let me ask you this: Can you hold your eyes up a little where you can see me: Was anybody brought to the cell next to you during the night?
Mary Carolyn Clyde: Well, no sir, if there was, I ain’t heard nobody.
Hollowell: You didn’t hear anybody in there?
Clyde: No sir.
Hollowell: Did you see anybody that came to that cell during the night?
Clyde: No sir.
A minute later, Hollowell asked if she had seen Officer Cherry that night.
Clyde: No sir, I don’t think so. I didn’t see him nowhere.
Hollowell: I beg your pardon?
Clyde: No sir, I didn’t see him nowhere during the night.
Hollowell, disbelieving, repeated the question: You didn’t see him during the night?
Clyde: No sir. 
She had not seen McDonald, Mathews or the trusty, Gene Magwood, that night, she said. For Hollowell, five years of work to get to this point had suddenly hit a wall. Hollowell had no choice but to turn to a legal strategy that would pit him against his own witness, and allow him to lead and challenge her. He noticed Clyde’s discomfort.
Donald Hollowell: Why are you frowning and wringing your hands? M’am?
Mary Carolyn Clyde: I don’t know sir.
Hollowell: You don’t know?
Clyde: (no answer)…
Hollowell: If it please the Court, we submit to the Court that this is a hostile witness.
The Court: Hostile?
Hollowell: Yes sir; and that this witness has talked with counsel on prior occasions, and that she has given a different story; and that she has talked with him as recent as the last 30 minutes; and that counsel is entrapped.”
Suddenly, the crux of Hattie Bell Brazier’s case fell apart. Without Clyde’s testimony, winning the case seemed significantly less possible. Hollowell had little choice but to hope for a jury sympathetic to the fact that Clyde knew the truth—and was only now changing her testimony out of fear.
Hollowell had earned this position in the legal vanguard of the civil rights movement after encountering racism in his youth. When travelling with his integrated high school basketball team across Kansas, he found himself prohibited from dining with white teammates at a restaurant, and was isolated in the kitchen to eat alone. “That was my first experience with segregation,” he later reflected. “It affected me deeply.”
In 1935, Hollowell enlisted in an all-black cavalry regiment that had been known as the “buffalo soldiers” since the Civil War. After three years of service, he earned an honorable discharge and enrolled at the largely black Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, on a football scholarship. However, the Selective Service Act in 1940 interrupted his education and he was drafted to return to service in 1941 at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
In the Army in the Deep South, Hollowell experienced racism like never before, noting he “was treated with less dignity, less acceptance, and less common courtesy than even prisoners.” As a black soldier, he was not permitted to eat in the mess hall but was relegated to the kitchen. But Hollowell one evening defied the Army, ate in the mess hall, and ultimately earned the right to eat in the back of the hall. Hollowell remembered the experience as impacting him greatly, and being a pivotal moment in propelling him toward a law career. Hollowell felt ready to commit “his career—and his life—to the fight against racial oppression,” even though the legal realm was an unwelcome place for blacks.
Hollowell earned his law degree at Loyola University in Chicago in 1951. Of the few blacks in the United States in possession of a law degree in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many headed to the South following the Civil War to advocate for freed slaves; but, by the mid 20th century, there were only seven black lawyers in Georgia; many black graduates of top law schools failed the racially suspect Georgia bar. Of these seven, even in the 1950s, there were only three or four black lawyers around Atlanta who included civil rights law in their practice. Such advocacy in the South would not be tolerated under norms of segregationist etiquette and would only place any lawyer engaging in such practice in great personal danger.
Hollowell personally experienced immense prejudice in court, facing “judges who turned their backs as he presented arguments, opposition counsel who used racial epithets in open court, and even a bailiff who insisted that he try his case from a courtroom balcony.” And, often working for clients who could not afford to pay for legal services, Donald Hollowell provided counsel and guidance for little to no pay. Vernon E. Jordan Jr., who rose from NAACP field secretary in Georgia to President of the National Urban League and an advisor to presidents, began his legal career with Hollowell’s firm. He was in awe of his indefatigable spirit, and described Hollowell’s early years as a lawyer this way: “You crisscross the state, going to backwoods towns and villages untouched by time and progress, where a black man in a suit is a provocation, where judges refuse to honor you with the title of ‘Mister.’ This is the way Hollowell lived his life in the law, at considerable risk to himself.”
Like many high-profile black activists of his time, Hollowell no doubt received much hate mail. Those are not found in his James Brazier file. The Brazier file instead contains a startling letter that surely gave Hollowell reason to hope that he was witnessing a state in transition.
Dear Mr. Hollowell,
I have been reading about your helping Mrs. Hattie Belle Brazier collect for the death of her husband. You are a brave man and more power to you.
I am white. When I was a child, I lived in terror part of the time, afraid for the colored people who had any unpleasant contact with law officers. My father was a policeman (for 25 yrs.) I loved him and idolized him but he was cruel to negroes. I have seen it and it has affected my whole life.
He was not the only one. Some of the others were cruel also. The negroes here never had a chance. There seemed to be an unspoken of law among police officers that negroes were to be kept in complete subjection. There were, too, or they were found to be “missing” or beaten and nothing was ever done. This happened in a small Ga. town and I can’t believe others were different. I was a child but I knew that all this was terribly wrong. Thank God for a few people like you who will help these people.
This is the first letter I’ve ever written that I cannot sign. I’m not brave like you. I’m a coward.”
With Hattie Bell Brazier’s civil suit, justice was not served, as none of the Dawson City Police officers were indicted for the death of James Brazier or found responsible for it in her civil lawsuit. Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish sociologist, notes in his book An American Dilemma that such an outcome in a civil case was neither unexpected nor unusual. “When the offender is a white man and the victim a [black], a grand jury will often refuse to indict,” he observed. In the South, the reality was that white law enforcement officers such as Officers Cherry and McDonald were essentially the only protection under the law that blacks had; but in the case of James Brazier, these supposed agents of the law seemingly brought about his death.
The civil rights community appreciated the tireless efforts of black lawyers such as Hollowell. In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “the road to freedom is now a highway, because lawyers throughout the land, yesterday and today, have helped clear the obstructions…eliminate road blocks, by their selfless, courageous espousal of difficult and unpopular causes.”
Edited and supplemented by Hank Klibanoff
also, the 1960 U.S. Census shows there were 12 nonwhite lawyers and judges in Georgia then, compared to 3,033 white lawyers and judges.