The four-part docuseries When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay, has brought attention to the notorious case of the Central Park Five, a legal case that for many of us unfolded in living memory. The attention the docuseries brought to the case has inspired historians to make comparisons to other cases involving the legal frame-up of young Black men. Carl Suddler and Heather Ann Thompson have cited cases like the Scottsboro boys and the Harlem Six as examples. Thompson argues that these cases reveal that the American “criminal justice system is a proxy for white anxieties about blackness and brownness in America.” One of the cases Suddler specifically mentions is the Trenton Six, one that featured many of the same elements of the Central Park Five, including the targeting of a group of Black men with only precarious links to one another and the use of false confessions. It also features another element: the efforts and resistance of people and organizations to point out the regular use of police brutality and manipulation to control Black bodies and lives as well as to seek the exoneration of the men.
On January 27, 1948 in Trenton, New Jersey, William Horner and his wife were brutally attacked in their furniture store. William Horner would later die at the hospital; his wife Elizabeth claimed that three men were responsible for the attack. Another witness told the police he saw only two “light-skinned” Black men leave the building. Squads of police began monitoring Black neighborhoods, pulling men over and generally terrorizing people under the direction of Trenton’s director of public safety, Andrew J. Duch, who ordered that all Black men after dark be detained. By January 31, twenty men had been arrested. In the midst of this Collis English, a Navy veteran, was arrested on a complaint by his stepfather for using the family car without permission. His mother was told he would likely only be detained for an hour, but instead he never returned. Much like Korey Wise of the Central Park Five who only went to the station to support his friend, English’s brother-in-law, McKinley Forest, went to the police station to ask after him but did not return. During his detention, the police asked English what he did on January 27, and while being questioned, he mentioned his friends Ralph Cooper and “Buddy” Wilson. Later that day the police arrested Cooper at his friend Horace Wilson’s apartment, arresting Wilson as well. The police announced they had four men in custody for the murder, even after Elizabeth Horner could not identify them as the assailants. The police later arrested another man whose name English mentioned, James H. Thorpe Jr.
English’s mother Emma called her daughter Bessie Mitchell concerned about the lengthy absences of both Collis and “Mac” McKinley Forest. Bessie, along with some friends, went to the police station demanding to see both Collis and Mac. She was allowed to speak to Mac, who had no idea why the police booked him and was never told under what charge. On February 10, the Trenton Evening Times ran the headline “Five Confess Brutal Killing of Merchant,” accompanied by a picture of the five men. This was the first Emma or Bessie heard about the charges. The headline put the police on the spot, and that evening they forced confessions out of four of the men. Horace Wilson was the only holdout. The police returned to the English’s the next morning asking for Jack Martin or Jack Kelly. Finding neither, they arrested Forest’s nephew John MacKenzie. Historian Cathy Knepper emphasized in her book on the case that MacKenzie was the only man in good health and that he and English were the only ones who could read and write competently. The men were indicted for murder on February 17.
On August 6, 1948, the men were all convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. The American Communist Party (CPUSA) and the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) began working on their appeals that same month, and also launched a campaign to raise awareness about the injustice behind the charges. With the entrance of the CPUSA and the CRC, mainstream organizations like the NAACP began to distance themselves in fear of being red-baited. William Patterson, head of the CRC and leading communist, secured O. John Rogge to serve as the attorney in the appeals case. Only three of the defendants—Collis English, James Thorpe, and Ralph Cooper—chose the CRC to represent them. The other three went with NAACP attorneys, including Thurgood Marshall.
The CPUSA’s tactics included writing letters to the New Jersey governor and prosecutors demanding an immediate release of the men. This irritated NAACP attorneys who saw those methods as inflaming people against the defendants. Patterson wrote an open letter to the NAACP asking for its support “without red-baiting” and noting that the case was part of the larger struggle for Black freedom and unity in the civil rights struggles.1 He also noted that their interests were similar: exonerating all the men on the basis that their confessions were coerced. Though only three men specifically asked for CRC help, the Party emphasized the struggles of all six of them. In one article in the Daily Worker, Bessie Mitchell’s efforts to locate attorneys and bring attention to the case were framed as a people’s victory. The author, Elwood Dean, argued that while the first “act” in the case may have been written by New Jersey police and prosecutors, the second “act,” thanks to Mitchell’s Herculean efforts, would be written by the people. It was the “great ear of the oppressed,” the unified working-classes, who knew injustice well, that heard Mitchell’s pleas and began to demand justice knowing that the courts belonged to the “ruling classes.”2
In a CRC pamphlet titled “They Shall Not Die,” the organization listed six actions each person could take to help the campaign. These included letters to the Governor and state Supreme Court to demand the men’s release; bringing the case to unions, churches, and fraternal organizations so that “the people” could mobilize; visits to local newspapers to demand fair and accurate coverage of the case; joining the Committee to Free the Trenton Six; and donations to the CRC’s legal campaign. The CRC also kept Party members and others abreast of developments with the regular release of press statements that monitored the appeals process, while the Party ran near daily news stories about the case.
The CPUSA National Committee also released a statement on the appeals emphasizing that the case was further evidence of the attack on Black Americans and the limitations placed on their rights to sovereignty. The Party also insisted that the Trenton Six highlighted the need for interracial unity since the federal government was not above using terror to attack organized labor and “progressive forces.” The statement focused on the federal government’s involvement in perpetuating Jim Crow segregation and racist violence via its own indifference. It attacked the notion that “states’ rights” was something to be honored arguing that instead it was merely an excuse the government invoked to avoid responsibility for the safety and security of Black America. The Party’s statement also claimed that racist violence and segregation came directly out of Washington D.C. where the armed forces remained segregated and white supremacists were given a stage in Congress. This was a bipartisan issue since the Party claimed that the sixteen Republican and eight Democratic administrations since the end of the Civil War had all betrayed Black Americans.
By June 1951, four of the defendants were acquitted by a jury, while Collis English and Ralph Cooper remained in prison after accepting plea deals. Ralph Cooper accepted a life sentence for a guilty plea. He would be released on parole in 1954. Collis English, who contracted malaria and rheumatoid fever while serving in the military, was unwell and ordered to rest before his arrest. He died in prison after suffering a heart attack in 1952.
Why do cases like the Trenton Six and the Central Park Five happen and how can we stop them? Heather Ann Thompson argues that it would require not just a “fundamental restructuring of policing” in the United States, but a restructuring of housing, education, employment opportunities, etc.—in short, a substantial upheaval of racist American institutions and the white fragility that maintains them. The CPUSA and the CRC were deeply unpopular in their time and were legally harassed nearly out of existence; however, one lesson we can take from the groups’ regular commitments to racial unity in the face of racist oppression is that to change an oppressive system, it is the people that have to force the change. The “ruling classes” will not do it.