The Case of LeRoi Jones: A Call for Support
by Jim Steinman
On November 6, 1967 LeRoi Jones, black American poet, playwright, and prophet was convicted of illegal possession of two revolvers during the summer riots in Newark. Jones maintained throughout the trial and still maintains today that he never possessed any guns.
No attempt was made by the prosecution to trace and establish ownership of the guns. Jones was seriously injured when he was originally booked on the charges. He said he had been beaten by police; witnesses corroborated this fact; the police said no. Surprise.
They conceded that the defendant did not resist arrest, and that he was, indeed, quite injured but said they did not beat him. In giving final instructions to the jury. Essex County Judge Leon Kapp reviewed the prosecution's case without mentioning the case for the defense.
"Unfortunately," he concluded, "a mass of trivia has crept into the trial. In the final analysis, the police are the shield of the community against violence. Our government cannot exist without rule of law." Jones was convicted by an all white jury, after a deliberation of 75 minutes.
On January 4, Jones was sentenced to two and a half years in the New Jersey State Penitentiary and fined $1,000. The sentence was the maximum. The poet had no prior convictions. The New York Times reported: "The judge indicated that he based the severity of Jones' punishment to a large extent on a poem published last month in the "Evergreen Review."
The judge read the whole poem to the court, substituting "blank" for words he termed obscenities. Judge Kapp found the poem, entitled "Black People," to be a "diabolical description to commit murder and steal and loot." Judge Kapp denied the poet bail pending appeal. Jones' attorneys appealed to the Superior Court to grant bail, and on Tuesday, January 9, the poet was released on $25,000 bail. His case will now be appealed.
The freedom of every man in America, the right of every human being to express his feelings and thoughts is just one of the principles which is hanging in the balance of the decision on Jones.
The following statement of support of LeRoi Jones was drawn up by the Committee on Poetry. We support this position entirely and hope that every comfortable Amherst professor who still cares about our basic freedom will respond to it. It is ludicrous to even begin talking about the "Arts" if there is no freedom for the artist to live.
Statement Of Committee On Poetry
"We believe Leroi Jones, not the Newark police, that the poet carried no revolvers in his car at all; that the police beat Jones up and then had to find a reason, thus found phony guns; that after the double-whammy of his beating and rabbit-in-the-hat guns, his trial before an all white jury was a triple whammy. Lo and behold! Fourth execrable whammy! —the judge recited one of Jones' visionary poems to the court (a butchered, emasculated version), and gave him a long two and a half sentence because of it . . . Mr. Jones' whitekind is that self same demon we call tyranny, injustice, dictatorship. As poet, he champions the black imagination.
As revolutionary poet his revolution is fought with words. He scribes that the police carried the guns. Lyres tell the truth! We herald to literary or intellectual or academic persons: get on the ball for LeRoi Jones or get off the poetic pot. LeRoi Jones is not only a black man, a Newark man, a revolutionary, he is a conspicuous American artist imprisoned for his poetry during a crisis of authoritarianism in these States . . . Signed by John Ashberry, Gregory Corse, Robert Creeley, Diane di Prima, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Koch, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer, Peter Orlovsky, Gil Sorrentino, Philip Whalen, and John Wieners." For further information, contact the Committee on Poetry, P.O. Box 582, Stuyvesant Station, N.Y. 9, N.Y. 212-777-6786.
LeRoi Jones gives voice to what others wish not to hear. He gives sound to the cries for murder hurtled beneath rhythmic flashing cells of America's black world, cries for murder boiling behind the endless tenement nights, twisting around the panther eyes of our poor "deprived."
And he is trying to tell us about it. He is trying to warn us. Perhaps we should get down on our knees and offer thanks.
After all, the warning he offers is certainly as good as that which we offered all those poor little people down in Hiroshima before we exploded the star spangled banner in fetid chaos all over their eyes. After all . . .
Or perhaps they should take Jones and crucify him. Or at least burn him at the stake. Perhaps he deserves the greatest reward man can bestow upon man. Perhaps . . .
The poem printed on this page was published in the December "Evergreen Review" and is reprinted here with their permission and that of the Sterling Lord Agency, N.Y.C. Read it; afterwards, you will probably despise LeRoi Jones. It will then be your job to go out and help save him.
- Jim Steinman
Source: Amherst Student archives