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Four Brothers and You

by Howard Fast

On the fifth of February, in 1946, four brothers met together for the first time in more than two years. One was a soldier, one a sailor, one a veteran, and the fourth a civilian. Meeting again, after all that long time, they were drawn together by those strange and wonderful bonds that unite brothers. If you have a brother, you will know what those bonds are, and you will know what the feeling between brothers is; you will also know, better than I could say it, what words were exchanged between these brothers.

These brothers, whose name was Ferguson, who were Negroes, boarded a bus at Hempstead, Long Island, to go to their home at Roosevelt. At Freeport, they left the bus and went into a lunchroom, where they asked for coffee. The man behind the counter refused to serve them, and when they insisted, he ordered them out of the lunchroom. Angry, but not disorderly--not by any stretch of the imagination disorderly--they left the lunchroom and walked over to the colored section of Freeport. They had a drink or two there, and they talked about the bitter pleasures of a land that considered them good enough to serve in war, but not good enough to enter a public restaurant.

Then they went back to catch the bus home. They were almost at the terminal when they were stopped by a policeman, Joseph Romeika by name. Romeika made an insulting remark, and Charles, the veteran who had reenlisted and now wore his country's uniform, lost his temper and answered back.

It might be asked at this point--and rightfully enough--why the policeman stopped them at all, but the naiveté betrayed by such a question might lead to further inquiry: why did the policeman follow this by kicking Charles in the groin, another brother in the thigh, and then pulling his gun and lining all four of them up against the wall?

The Ferguson brothers knew about guns: remember that three of them had been in a war; and they put their hands up and did as the policeman ordered them to do. And then, after swearing at them, insulting them, the policeman killed two of them and wounded a third--the policeman was a crack shot, but even if he wasn't it would not have been difficult to shoot to death two men standing a yard away with hands raised.

And then the wheels of justice began to turn. The two dead Negroes were left lying there; the wounded brother and the unwounded brother were dragged off to jail. The wounded boy, with a bullet hole in his shoulder, was given the expert medical attention of a scrap of adhesive tape over each hole. The unwounded boy was sentenced to one hundred days in jail by the local judge, who warned him about the company he kept. And the policeman was exonerated by the grand jury.

And we, you and I and every other good, decent citizen of this great and powerful democracy of ours are left with such unspeakable shame as we have not known in a long, long time. This did not happen in the deep South; there were no mysterious elements involved; no flags with the crooked cross flew over Freeport: it was in our own back yard that this rotten thing happened, in a suburb of our queen of cities, where, as they say, tolerance and culture have been raised to a level beyond all the rest of the land.

You would think, would you not, that following hard upon this shameful affair there would be such an outcry as all men would hear, a voice of anger to reach into the remotest corner of the nation, a wave of protest, a storm of indignation?

But that was not the case.

You would think, would you not, that in the Congress of this republic and in the legislature of this proud and sovereign state, many, many voices would call for a different kind of justice?

But those voices were not raised.

You would think, would you not, that the much-hailed free press of this free city would carry news stories and editorials which blazed with anger--which indicted a system which permitted such things to happen?

But that, too, was not the case.

Yet you would think, at least, would you not, that in our pulpits, which are set up under those lofty ceilings, under the domed roofs, to preach the brotherhood of man--there, at least, you would think a note of protest, of shame, of sorrow, would sound?

The silence was deep and profound. True, here and there voices were raised--but not in the high places, not in the streamlined periodicals, not in the halls of justice, not in the houses of God. In those places, the silence was deep and profound.

So, left as we are, in our complete and unspeakable shame, we have good reason for reflection. It is not enough to hate Jim Crow; it is not enough to hate anti-Semitism; it is not enough to hate a fixed and a perjured justice, such as operated in the framework of this infamous case. Those are not enough. There must be protests, mass meetings and more mass meetings, and still it is not enough; our voices must boil up like a cauldron of hot anger--but even that will not be enough.

It will only be enough when we learn the nature of the gun. Consider the gun; consider it muzzle on, as it looked to those four brothers, as they stood with their backs to the wall.

It has a familiar tilt, hasn't it? It is recognizable, isn't it--as recognizable as if it were giving tongue from the black hole of its muzzle? Different, somehow from other guns? And now, as you search back in your memory, it comes clearer.

The same gun that stalked through Berlin in a brown uniform, then in a black one; the gun that punched holes in the heads of anti-fascists who lay in the concentration camps, too weak to rise; the gun that slashed the faces of Russian and Polish and French children and battered in their skulls; the gun that murdered and killed until the whole world was a slaughterhouse.

And today, the gun is in your own back yard. What are you going to do about it? Have we learned nothing? Is any crime greater than silence or indifference?