It all began on November 1, 1958 in Monroe, North Carolina when two boys, aged eight and nine, were walking seven-year-old Sissy Marcus home from school. Though what happened next seemed innocent enough, it was only after Sissy got home and told her mother that she had kissed the two boys on their cheeks that all hell broke loose. Sissy's father, along with some of his friends, picked up shotguns and went in search of the two boys and their parents.
The fact that the two boys in question, nine-year-old James "Hannover" Thompson and seven-year-old David "Fuzzy" Simpson were African American and that the kiss took place in racially segregated North Carolina was enough to embroil both children in one of the most bizarre miscarriages of justice in U.S. history. During the late 1950s, the growing controversy over desegregation and fears surrounding "racial miscegenation" had already fueled racist tensions to an all-time high. Only three years earlier, 14-year-old Emmett Till had been lynched by a Mississippi mob for the "crime" of allegedly whistling at a white woman.
As for James Thompson and David Simpson, both boys were arrested immediately after the kissing incident took place. They were held in the local jail and not allowed see their parents or legal counsel for over a week. They were also subjected to beatings to try forcing a confession out of them. Though they were finally granted access to legal counsel, they were still held in jail for months during which time they were subjected to repeated harassments. On Halloween night, for example, a contingent of Klansmen visited their jail cell to intimidate them. This so terrified the two boys that they tried climbing the cell walls to get away. Finally, after three months in jail, they were finally charged and convicted of molestation following a brief trial during which their defense counsel was not allowed to be present. Juvenile Judge Hampton Price sentenced both boys to indeterminate terms at the Morrison training school for Negro Boys. In defending his decision, Price reported commented that, "since they just stood silent and didn't say nothin', I knew that was a confession of guilt." Monroe's mayor, Fred Wilson, also defended the decision stating that "such acts are not tolerated here whether involving white or colored at any age."
The case became a rallying point both for white supremacist groups and the NAACP. Almost immediately after their conviction, Robert F. Williams, local head of the NAACP, sent an impassioned telegram to President Eisenhower pleading from him to intervene. As Williams pointed out in the telegram, both boys had been denied proper legal counsel or the chance to face their accuser in court. "Please tell me, Mr. President," he telegram read, "when Negroes may expect your Justice Department to introduce the 14th Amendment to the U.S. constitution to this social jungle called Dixie." Though then-Press Secretary acknowledged that the telegram had been received, nothing further came of it. Once the boys began serving their sentence, public interest in the case quickly died down.
When newspapers covered the story at all, it was often to defend the sentence (one memorable editorial suggested that the boys were better off in reform school where they could count on better treatment than they received at home.) The newspapers also accused both boys of being incorrigible troublemakers who fully deserved their sentence. All of which heightened the local animosity against the families of both accused. Not only were their parents and siblings subjected to verbal taunting but both of their mothers were fired from their jobs as domestics. Even more alarmingly, members of the KKK riddled their houses with bullets on numerous occasions as well as burning crosses on their lawns, something the local police did little to prevent.
It was only when famed civil rights lawyer Conrad Lynn was asked by the NAACP to take on the case that things began to change. Lynn had already made a name for himself by defending numerous unpopular cases as well as his unswerving support for African-American civil rights. This included participating in the first Journey of Reconciliation in 1948, a historic attempt to overturn Jim Crow laws that would see him arrested for being caught sitting in a "whites only" section of an interstate bus. Once released on bail, he quickly resumed his bus journey.
But acting as an attorney for James Thompson and David Simpson proved to be a frustrating experience for Lynn. As he would later relate in a 1994 newspaper interview, many black churches flatly refused to help finance the appeal he was trying to launch and he was even branded an outsider by some of his opponents. "They had no guts," Lynn said in the interview. "They accepted the children as racists. The blacks were more than willing to accept the stereotype of black men as rapists. And they also considered me a communist. That, and the fact that the kids were charged with rape, that was enough for them."
He had more success visiting synagogues and liberal churches and finally managed to secure a new hearing in Wadesboro, North Carolina. Meanwhile, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took a personal interest in the case and petitioned North Carolina's governor, Lester Hodges, to intervene. Instead, Hodges and his hand-picked attorney general Malcolm Seawall came to Wadesboro to ensure that the conviction not be overturned. Despite Lynn's defense, Seawall managed to sway the judge in the case with an impassioned tirade about the need to uphold "traditional values."
Not only did the two boys stay in jail but their mothers were kept from seeing them for weeks. It took the efforts of a U.K. reporter, Joyce Egginton, to turn the case into an international scandal for North Carolina. Covering the trial for the London Observer, she secured permission to visit the boys in jail and managed to bring their mothers in as well. By smuggling in a camera, she was able to take a picture of the mothers embracing their children as well as visual proof that James and David had been beaten while in custody.
The story Egginton wrote, along with the incriminating photograph, was reprinted across Europe and Asia. The London Observer ran the photograph under the one-word headline, "WHY?" and the resulting international outrage put even more pressure on North Carolina's governor to overturn the conviction. This included demonstrations in numerous European cities, including a riot in Rotterdam that led to rocks being thrown at the U.S. embassy there.
While North Carolina officials offered a deal to the mothers of the two boys which would have required them to admit to being guilty, the mothers refused and their incarceration dragged on into 1959. Finally, after receiving a petition with over 15,000 names, Eleanor Roosevelt personally phoned President Dwight Eisenhower and asked him to intervene. The president in turn phoned Governor Hodges and pressured him into releasing the two boys immediately.
After three months of detention, James Thompson and David Simpson were finally released and their criminal records were expunged. Unfortunately, that was all the consideration they would ever receive. Not only were they never compensated for their ordeal but no official apology was ever given either. As for Governor Hodges, he was openly embarrassed about the negative publicity over the case but he also refused to make any apologies for what had happened.
As for James Thompson and David Simpson, they never really recovered from their ordeal. While David Simpson largely disappeared from the public record, James Thompson went on to have numerous scrapes with the law (which local newspapers declared to be "proof" that the original sentence had been deserved). In a 2011 interview, he speculated on how his life might have been if that long-ago ordeal had never happened. "Could I have been a doctor? Could I have went off to some college, or some great school? It just destroyed our life." In that same interview, other family members also shared their own bitterness about James' experience. According to his sister, Brenda, having him home again after his time in jail "was like seeing somebody different, that you didn't even know. He never talked about what he went through there. But ever since then, his mind just hadn't been the same."
She also shared her bitterness over his treatment by police and the courts. "My brother and his friend had to suffer on account of that," she said. "And I mean, they suffered. From one kiss. I've thought about that. It all started with a kiss."