MACLEAN'S REPORTS

THE TRIAL OF MADELEINE SHERWOOD: why Canada's best Broadway actress took a Freedom Walk to jail

HARRY BRUCE September 21 1963
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

THE TRIAL OF MADELEINE SHERWOOD: why Canada's best Broadway actress took a Freedom Walk to jail

HARRY BRUCE September 21 1963

THE TRIAL OF MADELEINE SHERWOOD: why Canada's best Broadway actress took a Freedom Walk to jail

MACLEAN'S REPORTS

MADELEINE SHERWOOD, the Broadway actress from Montreal, recently spent a few long, cool days in the Laurentiaans with her mother, who is seventy and paints. Miss Sherwood was trying to forget, for a little while anyway, the heat and smell of a county in Alabama where she’d spent the most depressing days and frightening moments of her life.

She was the single white woman among a dozen antisegregation demonstrators who were arrested last May 19 on a dusty shoulder of Highway 11 in Alabama; their crime was taking the first few steps of a 275-mile Freedom Walk to Jackson, Miss. Miss Sherwood went to jail for a couple of days, got out on $300 bail, had two postponements of her trial and finally, on August 12, was found guilty of breaking a two-year-old Alabama law that forbids “outrageous assembly” which might result in a breach of peace. Judge Cyril L. Smith, sitting in Etowah County Court, sentenced her to six months’ hard labor but, though Miss Sherwood says she’s ready, she may not have to serve it (she’s out now on $1,000 bail). Her part in the troubles of Etowah County is an intentional challenge to the validity of the law she broke. Her lawyer, Fred Gray of Montgomery, is appealing the case to the higher courts of Alabama and, if necessary, to.the Supreme Court of the United States. Gray is a Negro.

BETWEEN MONTREAL AND GADSDEN, ALA.

In Canada, Miss Sherwood is curiously unremembered but she may be the best Canadian actress in the States. She is five-foot-two-anda-half, a honey blonde. Her eyes are wide apart, her mouth is broad and both her nose and her acting have a pugnacious style. Her first Broadway success was in The Crucible by Arthur Miller; she played Abigail, the hellish young witch-hunter of Salem, and showed the force of a young Tallulah Bankhead. That was ten years ago. She had already been in' —and out of—a teenage marriage. She’d had a daughter, Chloe, now eighteen. She’d hitchhiked from Montreal to New York, slept two nights on a stone bench outside the New York Public Library and worked as a coat model, hatcheck girl, salesgirl and cigarette-girl. The Crucible changed all that. She played later in

both the Broadway and Hollywood productions of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (she was nasty, grasping Mae) and Sweet Bird of Youth (she was promiscuous Miss Lucy). Miss Sherwood, who takes her work with awful seriousness, is worried about being typecast as The Unsavory Southern Belle, so she’s been trying new things at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. What she learned there about relaxing under tension was comforting this summer in the street dramas of Etowah County.

THE MARTYRDOM OF WILLIAM L. MOORE

Early in May Miss Sherwood reported to the New York office of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and signed up as an integration demonstrator. Only her daughter and a close friend in New York knew what she was doing. Miss Sherwood was inspired partly by the Negro children who faced Birmingham’s dogs and hoses, and partly by the murder on April 23 of Baltimore postman William L. Moore. Moore, a white man, had covered ninety miles of a personal Freedom Walk from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., when he was hit by two .22-calibre bullets—one in the neck, the other in the left temple—near a hamlet called Attalia in Alabama. A motorist found him, still enfolded in his placards: EAT AT JOE’S, BOTH BLACK AND WHITE . . . EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL, MISSISSIPPI OR BUST. CORE told Miss Sherwood it would hold a memorial service at the spot where Moore died and then start a new march to Jackson. They’d probably be arrested.

“I told them it scared me,” she says. “They gave me half a day to think it over.”

She thought it over and in the second week of May arrived in an old CORE station wagon at the Chattanooga home of the Rev. Cordell Sloan, a blind Negro minister. At Sloan’s home CORE workers put her and twenty other new volunteers through a three-day course in how to be a nonviolent demonstrator. She learned the importance of holding her tongue under provocation. (“I’d always wanted to get back at anyone who tried to hurt me. I’ve always been rebellious by nature.”) She learned to curl up, with her arms behind her neck, if the police drew their night-sticks. She learned to tuck inside her brassiere a toothbrush, and a dime for a phone call, because when the police dragged her in she might lose her handbag. (When the time came, she did lose it.)

Some CORE demonstrators who’d already

tried a march from Moore’s deathplace were in jail in Gadsden, the seat of Etowah County, so Miss Sherwood and the others drove there to stand vigil. The temperature in Gadsden that day was 105. Police told them not to walk with their signs and some Gadsden men gave the CORE people a bitter razzing. “I was terrified,” Miss Sherwood recalls. “I didn’t move. 1 just stood there looking at the jail.” Her companions were black and white. They hung around Gadsden for a week, stunning the local Negroes by chatting together in the streets. Every night, they promoted civil rights meetings and, by the time they left, Gadsden was on its way to becoming a little Birmingham. Now, it’s one of those small, violent places that, are scattered so freely through the South that Canadian newspapers have quit trying to report their separate outbreaks. Hundreds of Negroes gather for demonstrations in downtown Gadsden and hundreds go to jail. Police have used electric cattle-prodders to control the crowds and three civil-rights workers have been badly beaten.

On Sunday, May 19, Miss Sherwood, the other demonstrators and some Gadsden people drove the ten miles to Attalia to remember William Moore. (According to Miss Sherwood, police had told reporters and television crews the memorial service was all over.) At first, they couldn’t find the spot they wanted. “Somebody had cleared the picnic area that used to be there,” Miss Sherwood says. “They’d even cut down a tree that stood near the spot and covered the stump with brush. But there was still a bloodstain on the pavement.” Police arrested the drivers of three carloads of people for making illegal turns on the highway.

THE ARMS OF THE LAW WERE SURPRISINGLY GENTLE

The police ignored the service but when it was over and twelve CORE people started to walk toward Jackson, they moved in. “There were twelve or fourteen carloads of them and nobody knew whether there’d be brutality,” Miss Sherwood says. “I was scared stiff. 1 walked four steps and was arrested.” The police had to lift the demonstrators, who instantly went limp in the pacifist way. (One trooper, carrying Miss Sherwood, asked sadly, “Li’l lady, you sure you cain’t walk?”) They w'ere not rough. “I think they’d been warned to be careful,” Miss Sherwood says. “Anyway, they were very gentle in their approach to me.”

Gadsden is proud of its new county jail; it’s featured on postcards sold in the town. Miss Sherwood, being white and female, got her own cell. Its furniture was a cot and toilet paper. She stayed there two days and joined two others on a hunger strike. (“It wasn't too difficult once you’d seen the food.”) Then she got out on bail, visited Birmingham, where she heard Martin Luther King calm a group of Negro schoolchildren, and went home to her flat in Greenwich Village.

Miss Sherwood is getting to know the Etowah County courthouse; she went back for one postponement and again for the trial itself. She’s learned that there arc three lavatories in the building: one for men, one for women, and one for male and female Negroes. August 12—the day Judge Smith found her guilty— was so hot she drank three bottles of pop. Miss Sherwood detests pop but one courthouse drinking fountain is. marked WHITE and the other COLORED so she boycotted them both.

She’ll be in Alabama again when her case goes to the appeal court this fall. In the meantime, between acting and looking for a starring part in a musical comedy, she’s been out with CORE pickets to protest discrimination in the building trades unions in New York. One of her reasons for going south in the first place was lo find out what she could do about civil rights in New York City, where some of her best friends arc Negroes. But there are other and older reasons why Madeleine Sherwood has impelling convictions about civil rights. She traces them to her mother — whose advice about turning the other check she rejected till she heard it again in Chattanooga — and to her mother’s father, who was a doctor, professor and Protestant minister. She got a lot of Bible talk when she was growing up in Montreal. She was scared in Alabama but says now that, next to the birth of Chloe, Etowah County was “the fullest experience of my life.”

HARRY BRUCE