January 15, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


The Fighting Editor 

part III

During the next two weeks, Mitchell persisted in his efforts on Walker's behalf. He spoke at churches to raise money for lawyers' fees and circulated petitions that he wrote out in his own hand. He arranged for nine black ministers to ride in carriages to Chesterfield Courthouse. They pleaded with Judge Clopton on the boy's behalf. Pastors from black churches in Lynchburg, Petersburg, Danville, and Hampton also wrote the governor and asked him to commute the sentence. And throughout the state blacks rallied to the cause of Simon Walker.8

While Mitchell and Hayes coordinated black support, attorney E. S. Robinson worked among whites. Although he failed to win a new trial for his client, he persuaded 10 of the 12 original jurors to sign a petition asking Lee to commute the sentence to a prison term. He even secured the signatures of Mary Ann Quill's mother, her grandparents, and her aunt and uncle, a sure sign that public opinion was shifting.

On Oct. 9 Mitchell met again with Lee, who was obviously troubled by this case. The governor confessed to Mitchell that he had made an impromptu trip that morning to Chesterfield Courthouse to question Walker in person so he could judge his guilt for himself. He thought the prisoner gave a "reasonable" account of what happened. Much encouraged, Mitchell responded that Lee's visit to the jail was "a grand act on the part of a grander man."9

Insisting that he needed still more time to study the matter, Lee signed a third reprieve. Probably he was trying to postpone a final decision until after the November election. William Mahone was running for governor in 1889 in a desperate attempt at a political comeback, and Lee had no wish to appear soft on the race issue during the final weeks of a campaign that was described as "hot?red?hot." Although some whites in Chesterfield sympathized with Simon Walker, others were angry at what they regarded as outside meddling in their affairs. They resented Lee's reluctance to abide by the court's decision and promised a lynching if Walker was not executed.

Finally, on Nov. 7, 1889, with the election over and Democrat Philip W. McKinney of Farmville the winner by a landslide, Lee commuted Walker's sentence to 20 years in the penitentiary. Although the sentence seems harsh by modern standards, it was considered by Walker's defenders to be a victory.10

In a Planet article headlined "Truth Stranger than Fiction," Mitchell described the final episode in the Simon Walker case, a denouement which suggests that much in southern race relations remained unpredictable.

Lee once more waited until the last possible moment to sign the papers, and Mitchell once more made a midnight ride to Chesterfield Courthouse in a borrowed buggy. Fearing that whites might carry out their threats to lynch Walker, he roused the sheriff at his home in "the dead of the night" and proposed that they take the prisoner to Richmond under cover of darkness.

The sheriff agreed, and he and Mitchell set out for the capital with Walker, without bothering to handcuff him or restrain him in any way. The November night was cold, and for a time the sheriff jogged alongside the buggy to keep warm. Mitchell carried with him a small arsenal of guns, a fact that surprised the white official but did not seem to alarm him. Mitchell and the sheriff had obviously established a rapport of sorts. Arriving in Richmond at dawn, they toured the city briefly, giving Walker his first glimpse of the capital, and then went to the Planet office, where Mitchell introduced Walker to an awestruck staff. "I am a thousand times obliged for what you all done for me," said the prisoner. They next stopped at J. C. Farley's gallery where photographs were taken for broadsides and a pamphlet that Mitchell published about the case. Only then did the sheriff deliver Walker to the state penitentiary.11

Walker disappeared behind prison walls, but in the years to come Mitchell's admirers often recounted his story. Planet readers responded to this saga because of their sympathy for the boy but also because they respected Mitchell's courage. In the Simon Walker case, he exhibited the sort of bravery they could appreciate. He was fearless but never foolhardy or reckless in his dealings with white officials; he was unfailingly polite to those in authority but never servile; he moved with confidence among governors, lawyers, judges, and sheriffs; and he shrugged off threats of a lynching. Mitchell saved Walker's life, but he also salvaged the self?respect of countless blacks who read the story and learned how the race had rallied to support one of its own. "It's a grand thing to be on the side of the oppressed," he told his readers. "It gives you something for which to fight." He presented an image of courage that was forthright and masculine. "Stand up like men!" he said. "Don't cringe and cower. Demand your rights with manly dignity, and all will be well."12


8. Mitchell et al. to Lee, n.d., S. J. Sutton et al. to Lee, n.d., C. B. W. Gordon (pastor, First Baptist Church, Petersburg) to Lee, Sept. 23, 1889, Richard Spiller (pastor, First Baptist Church, Hampton), to Clopton, Oct. 15, 1889, Yorke Jones (pastor, Central Presbyterian Church, Petersburg) to Lee, Oct. 2, 1889, P. F. Morris (pastor, Court St. Baptist Church, Lynchburg) to Clopton, Oct. 15, 1889, W. F. Graham (pastor, Loyal St. Baptist Church, Danville) to Clopton, Oct. 16, 1889, E. F. Eggleston (pastor, Holbrook St. Presbyterian Church, Danville) to Clopton, Oct. 13, 1889, Henry Williams Jr. (pastor, Gilfield Baptist Church, Petersburg) to Lee, n.d., J. H. Johnston (president, Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute) et al. to Lee, Oct. 2, 1889, Walker Papers; RP, Nov. 16, 1889.

9. RP, Nov. 16, 1889.

10. RD, Nov. 8, 1889; Allen W. Moger, Virginia: Bourbonism to Byrd, 1870?1925 (Charlottesville, Va., 1968), 65; Lee to Clopton, Sept. 19, 1889, "Citizens" to Lee, Oct. 7, 1889, "Citizen" to Lee, Oct. 3, 1889, John W. Morris to Lee, Oct. 6, 1889, Frank G. Ruffin to Clopton, Oct. 18, 1889, Walker Papers.

11. RP, Nov. 16, 1889. The only mention of Mitchell's carrying weapons to Chesterfield Courthouse appears in Adams, "John Mitchell Jr.," 297.

12. RP, June 13, 1891, Jan. 30, 1892.


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