Racial Killing Revisited: Lillie Belle Allen
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RAY SUAREZ: Next, the mayor of York, Pennsylvania, was arraigned today for the murder of a young African American woman during a race riot 32 years ago. Tom Bearden has the story.
DEMONSTRATORS: We support diversity! And we want equality!
TOM BEARDEN: Last week hundreds of young people marched through York, Pennsylvania. They were commemorating an event that many say has long been a festering wound in the collective psyche of this town of 40,000, which is 25% black. The children held a vigil on a- railroad track that crosses Newberry Street, the place where a 27-year-old African American mother of two named Lillie Belle Allen was gunned down by a neighborhood gang.
REV. JULIE KLINGER: Pray to God the remembrance of acts of bigotry, hatred, and prejudice have revived long- dormant emotions and fears. Many who have been harmed by violence, insult, injury, and extreme loss are reliving these hard days. (Church bell chimes)
TOM BEARDEN: The marchers continued to a bridge a few blocks away, and again bowed their heads, this time marking the spot where a 22-year-old white rookie cop and father named Henry Shaad was shot and killed by a sniper.
REV. JAMES SMITH: And what we want to do now is to ask god’s blessing that York will continue to progress into a community of tranquility; that we will get past the next several months with peace.
TOM BEARDEN: Both killings took place in 1969 during a week-long race riot that blacks and whites blamed each other for starting. No one was ever charged with the murders. As the years passed, the event faded from public consciousness, but in 1999, both local newspapers did 30-year anniversary retrospective articles on the events of those times. One story began with Mayor Charlie Robertson’s recollections. Robertson had been a police officer. He said he was one of the first officers on the scene at the Allen murder. An assistant district attorney named Tom Kelley was fascinated by the coverage.
TOM KELLEY: I was surprised at learning what was going on in this town 30-some years ago, and, and just kind of the circumstances. We had already, always heard about perhaps the, the riots in Watts or, or, you know, other places during that period of time, but I had never heard anything about York. I had asked my boss if we could look at the case, and while we were reviewing the case files at that time, additional information came to light, and that resulted in additional information, in additional information, and ultimately we felt that we had potentially broken the case.
TOM BEARDEN: While Kelley was investigating, Mayor Robertson was celebrating. In May, he won the mayoral Democratic primary and was looking forward to another term in office. Two days later, he was informed he was being charged for the murder of Lillie Belle Allen.
MAYOR CHARLES ROBERTSON, York, PA: And I’m being advised by the district attorney’s office that as your mayor, I will be handcuffed… Necessary to be handcuffed. Murder is the charge. Murder is the charge.
TOM BEARDEN: The mayor resisted calls to resign, but he pulled out of the upcoming election. The charges say witnesses told the grand jury that Robertson screamed “white power!” at a rally during the riots, urged members of a street gang to defend their neighborhood with guns, and that he gave them ammunition. The grand jury also indicted eight codefendants.
DENNIS HERTZEL, Editor, York Daily Record: At some point it would be interesting to see what they had to say about then and now.
TOM BEARDEN: Dennis Hertzel is the editor and publisher of the York Daily Record. He says the charges resulted from new evidence that surfaced in the last two years.
DENNIS HERTZEL: One of the real breakthrough events in the case, as I understand it, was a member of the Newberry Street boys, which is the white gang that allegedly was involved in the Lillie Bell Allen shooting, Donny Altland, committed suicide after he had been questioned by police. He left two cassette tapes behind, one for his family, one for the authorities. I have not heard those tapes, but from what I understand, there was information on those tapes that helped the prosecutors quite a bit.
MAYOR CHARLES ROBERTSON: I am still the mayor of the city of York.
TOM BEARDEN: The mayor admits, and says he regrets, screaming “white power!”, but denies the rest.
MAYOR CHARLES ROBERTSON: In those days it was black power, white power. The Olympic team won that year, and went “black power,” all those runners. We had the black panthers going around. We had Detroit being almost burnt to the ground by the riots that they had between black and whites. York at the same time had tanks running up and down our streets. This wasn’t an easy thing. Our city, about a third of our city got burnt down.
TOM BEARDEN: Richard Oare is one of Robertson’s attorneys.
RICHAR OARE: Well, I think it’s a very shallow case. I think primarily it’s a case of abuse of prosecutorial discretion, insofar as the only reason I believe the mayor is a defendant is the fact that he is the mayor. Were he just another employee, or rather former police officer, I think that this charge would have never been brought against him, especially in light of the fact, he’s not being charged as a person who actually fired a round at Lillie Bell Allen; he’s charged with having the day before had a conversation with someone who shot Lillie Bell Allen, and allegedly having provided ammunition to this person he spoke with.
TOM BEARDEN: Many York residents were stunned at the indictments, some, particularly African Americans, welcomed the indictments as a chance for closure, none more so than the relatives of Lillie Belle Allen.
HATTIE DIRKSON, Lillie Allen’s Sister: I’m thankful that we are going to have a trial, that everything will come out finally. For 32 years we waited for this moment.
TOM BEARDEN: William Smallwood is a York city councilman who grew up in the city.
WILLIAM SMALLWOOD: There’s an old saying, you know, what happens in the dark will come to light, and that is what’s happened. We’ve had so many things that happened in the past and is now coming to light, and many people are trying to, trying to cover it up, and you can’t cover things up. That’s what happened in 1969. They tried to cover up the issue of our police department, our city administration.
TOM BEARDEN: Jeffrey Kirkland is President of the York school board.
JEFFREY KIRKLAND: I think the mayor’s doing a disservice to the community right now by, one, not taking responsibility for his actions 30 years ago. It was a long time, but I still think you need to be responsible for your actions. I think he’s drawing undue attention to the community at this time, and that he would do much better for himself and for our community if he would step down and take care of his business on a private basis.
SPOKESPERSON: Pepperoni, plain or vegetarian, sir?
TOM BEARDEN: But some York residents, like Richard Beyer, think it would have been better to leave the whole thing buried and forgotten.
RICHARD BEYER: I feel that the man should have been left alone, because somebody’s bringing up some dirt that shouldn’t be, and I feel that we the people should not have to pay that court cost to try these people.
TOM BEARDEN: You haven’t seen much to convince you that there is something wrong here?
RICHARD BEYER: No, I have not.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you think this is something that should have been left alone?
RICHARD BEYER: I feel that it should’ve been left alone completely.
TOM BEARDEN: Oare and Robertson both say the case is politically motivated, that a republican prosecutor is out to ruin the Democrat mayor.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you have any political motivation in pursing this case?
TOM KELLEY: Well, none, none whatsoever. Our only motivation in pursuing this case is two individuals were killed, two individuals that no one ever, you know, found the killers, and certainly with regards to the Lillie Bell Allen case, we found a number of people who under the law should be subjected to the criminal system and should be subjected to the homicide charges.
TOM BEARDEN: This is not a Republican conspiracy?
TOM KELLEY: That’s, that’s an absolutely frivolous claim.
TOM BEARDEN: Many civic and business leaders fear that racial tensions might be inflamed by the case. They formed a coalition to promote diversity, hoping to keep the lid on anger.
SPOKESPERSON: Here they come.
TOM BEARDEN: Cathy ash is the executive director of the city’s Humans Relations Commission, and one of the organizers of last week’s march.
CATHY ASH: They get a t-shirt when they come today. When they go home, it starts a conversation, and it’s those kinds of things that we’re working on, many different levels. We had a poster campaign. Between the posters, the billboards… There are eight billboards in the community that have the motif and the same motto on them. This is not a racist, violent community. We’re not on the verge of, of another riot, which apparently many people thought or were misled to believe.
TOM BEARDEN: Today’s arraignment continues a legal process that will take months and perhaps as long as a year to reach a conclusion. In the meantime, community leaders plan to organize more unity marches in hopes of easing racial tensions that continue to linger. (Church bell chimes )