Against Active Forgetting: On John Hersey’s “The Algiers Motel Incident”




The following is a foreword to the new edition of John Hersey’s The Algiers Motel Incident, published today by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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IN AUGUST OF 1967, as the remains of buildings and neighborhoods smoldered in Detroit, Michigan, John Hersey, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, got a call from David Ginsburg, the executive director of President Lyndon Johnson’s newly minted National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. He invited Hersey to write part of the commission’s report on the causes and potential cures for the wave of unrest that had roiled the nation from the Watts, California, uprising in 1965 to the deadly destruction in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit a month earlier. Hersey declined, fearing that he would have “no control at all” over the final report. But he felt compelled to write something about the unfettered violence, looting, and racial animosity set loose by these “riots,” which he considered to be the “most intransigent and fear-ridden issue in American life.” He quickly made plans to visit Detroit, where he was determined to write about one of the country’s most destructive and deadly uprisings.

Hersey’s experience as a war correspondent for Time and Life magazines during World War II had taught him to search for ordinary people affected by the war and to bear witness to their experiences, rather than focus on the damage done to material infrastructure. When he set out to write about the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima for The New Yorker, for example, he told assistant editor William Shawn that he believed all the coverage in the year since the United States dropped the atomic bomb had been about its destructive power and not its effects on ordinary people. He wanted to add faces and names to the narrative and trace the horror of the bomb across people’s everyday lives. Shawn agreed and sent Hersey to Japan, where he spent three weeks interviewing 50 people about the bomb: where they were when it exploded; what they saw, how they felt, what injuries and losses they sustained; how it resonated emotionally and physically after the initial impact; and how it affected — and continued to affect — their lives. He returned home to New York, selected six individuals to focus on, and wrote “Hiroshima” in one month. [1]

Shawn devoted the entire issue of The New Yorker — for the first and last time — to Hersey’s intimate portrayal of the effects of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Published on August 31, 1946, when Hersey was just 32 years old, “Hiroshima” was an immediate blockbuster that electrified and shocked Americans and propelled Hersey into the elite echelons of journalism. For the first time, Americans confronted the consequences — the human destruction and individual horrors — of our country’s decision to drop an atomic bomb on Japan on August 6, 1945. By focusing on secretaries, mothers, doctors, and priests, Hersey insisted that readers consider those who had been, up to that point, viewed as our mortal enemies to be, instead, our fellow human beings, individuals who were just like us. That issue of The New Yorker sold out immediately, and parts of the 32,000-word essay were reprinted in newspapers and read aloud on radio stations in the United States and Great Britain. Albert Einstein purchased one thousand copies to distribute to his network of scientists, policy makers, and intellectuals, and Alfred Knopf published the essay as a book two months later, selling millions of copies. It has been in print ever since.

“Hiroshima” was groundbreaking in many ways, not least of which was Hersey’s decision to use the tools of fiction to humanize and breathe life into journalism. John Hersey’s son, Baird, told a reporter in 2015 that his father believed that with journalism, “the reader is always conscious of who’s writing it and explaining what’s taken place.” Hersey wanted the reader to be “directly confronted by the characters” so that his “mediation would ideally disappear.” [2] By purposefully removing his authorial voice from the narrative and employing a novelist’s tools, Hersey developed a style that became a catalyst for the New Journalism of the 1950s and 1960s. But it was also successful because he made visible ordinary individuals caught by the powerful forces of history; he let readers see them as they were and, in seeing them, make a human connection that fostered change.

Hersey expected to undertake a style of reportage similar to “Hiroshima” when he made his way to Detroit in the fall of 1967. Like his first foray into Japan, he wasn’t sure what or whose story he would tell. He arrived on Sunday evenings throughout the fall and conducted interviews on Mondays and Tuesdays before returning to his duties as master of Pierson College at Yale. He let the narratives of native Detroiters unfurl, listening carefully as individuals talked about their experiences living through the unrest. As he explored Detroit in those first few visits, speaking with city officials and African-American community leaders, one story — the brutal murder of three black teenagers just after midnight at the Algiers Motel by Detroit police and National Guardsmen on July 26, 1967 — “kept insisting upon attention.” It had, he said,

all the mythic themes of racial strife in the United States: the arm of the law taking the law into its own hands; interracial sex; the subtle poison of racist thinking by “decent men” who deny that they are racists; the societal limbo into which, ever since slavery, so many young black men have been driven […]; ambiguous justice in the courts; and devastation in both black and white human lives that follows in the wake of violence.

It took weeks of pounding the pavement and working connections to get access to the victims’ families and survivors of the assault at the Algiers. Finally, Hersey met Dorothy Dewberry, a young activist of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who was related to the mother of 17-year-old Carl Cooper, shot dead at close range in the initial assault on the motel. Once Hersey made that initial connection with Cooper’s mother, Margaret Gill, and his stepfather, Omar Gill, he was able to slowly build trust with the family members of the other victims: Auburey Pollard, who was killed two days before his 21st birthday, and Fred Temple, an 18-year-old who had never before been to the Algiers Motel. Hersey also gained access to and interviewed the Detroit police officers who were implicated in their deaths, the young men and women who made it out of the Algiers Motel alive, the black activists who fought for justice, the local reporters who initially investigated the story, and city and state officials who worked the case.

Detroiters didn’t expect someone like Hersey, with his international reputation and reach, to focus on a single story that illuminated brutal police violence, a tale at odds with the glimmering, hopeful image of Detroit as a model city of interracial equality and upward possibility. Hersey seemed just as surprised about what he learned — both about systemic inequality and injustice and about his own ideas on race. When he arrived in Detroit, for example, he felt his experience of growing up an outsider in China and of researching and writing about racial themes had prepared him to analyze and understand the uprising. He quickly realized, though, that the sense of otherness he experienced as a child had not inoculated him against the implicit racist and classist beliefs that had taken up residence in his own heart and mind. He became aware, he said, “that stereotypic thoughts lurked in corners of [his] own mind” and that he was often afraid when walking through working-class and poor African-American neighborhoods. This fear, he realized, “had been tinged by the irrational in our history.”

John Hersey’s discomfort stood in stark contrast to the warm welcome he received from the victims’ families, who invited him into their parlors, kitchens, jail cells, and lives with little reservation. As he did in “Hiroshima,” Hersey let his subjects speak for themselves without much authorial or journalistic intrusion. Unlike much of his other nonfiction or journalistic work, he did not take notes, but positioned a tape recorder and microphone between himself and his subjects, allowing them to let their grief, anger, bitterness, broken dreams, and family histories spill out without interruption or translation.

Listening to these recordings, now stored in archival boxes at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, is a kind of aural time travel. Slip on some headphones, turn up the volume, and suddenly you are in Mrs. Pollard’s living room on the west side of Detroit on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon in 1967. There’s music in the background and sounds of her 16-year-old daughter, Thelma, cooking in the kitchen. A car horn honks in the distance. Mrs. Pollard, her voice velvety with a hint of Southern twang, tells Hersey about her son Auburey, how he was sick as a child, loved to draw and paint, and had a talent for boxing. She speaks of his potential and talent, his smile and his unfinished dreams. As she continues to speak, Thelma turns on an electric mixer. “You add the sugar?” Mrs. Pollard asks. [3]

Hersey asks her about the Detroit police charged in her son’s death, and she begins talking about the injustice and inhumanity of it all; how the police did not even bother to call and notify them of Auburey’s murder; how Detroit officers began harassing him when he was a young man; how biased the Recorder’s Court judges seemed to be; how her eldest son, a Marine serving in Vietnam, returned home to identify Auburey’s body and suffered a mental breakdown; and how she intends to fight for justice until she can no longer breathe. Her fury fills the room, the pace of her litany seems timed to the increasing speed of the electric mixer still buzzing in the background. Hersey is barely audible in the room; he seems stunned into silence. Listeners can hear his discomfort, as though he is unprepared for Mrs. Pollard’s fierce combination of grief and rage. He is so caught up in the act of listening, the witness to Mrs. Pollard’s testimony, that when the recorder makes a loud bleep, indicating the end of the tape, he sounds alarmed. “Excuse me,” Hersey says, his voice closing in on the recording device: “This old thing.” And then suddenly, the recording ends, and the listener is thrust back into the present, no longer in the Pollards’ kitchen nor in that particular moment of vulnerability and despair. [4]

Each interview Hersey conducted is aurally mesmerizing in its own way — from Mr. Pollard’s lonely and nostalgic paternal grief for his namesake son; to Eddie Temple’s exacting and legalistic narrative of identifying the body of his baby brother Fred at the morgue; to Mrs. Gill’s woeful moans and sighs in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a busy household. Hersey’s recordings make audible African-American love, suffering, devotion, mourning, anger, and survival.

Hersey also spoke with the Detroit police officers who were implicated in the boys’ deaths. Their responses reveal their own biases, influences, and interests as well. In one interview, Hersey asks officer David Senak, who was 23 years old at the time, about his service weapon and seems surprised when Senak enthusiastically retrieves his gun from another room and goes on to talk about the other weapons he owns. This aside reveals Senak’s youthful, almost giddy zeal for police work. He does not simply like being a cop; he loves it. He reveres his sergeant, revels in vice work, and has contempt for the news media and colleagues who consider policing a mere job instead of a spiritual calling. Hersey’s interviews with Ronald August and Robert Paille, the other officers involved, offer additional, sometimes conflicting, layers of humanity and indifference to the kinds of brutality meted out to the African-American citizens of Detroit. [5]

These conversations profoundly affected Hersey; not only did he recognize his own prejudices as a middle-aged, upper-class white man, but he also saw the impact of systemic racial discrimination on African Americans — in housing, education, employment, and in the courts. It became visible for Hersey, and he felt an urgency to share what he learned in the most direct way possible, especially because by the time he completed his interviews in the spring of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and the threat of more violence loomed. “Time does not stand still in the crisis of black and white in our country,” he said. Therefore, events at the Algiers Motel, he insisted, could not be “described as if witnessed from above by an all-seeing eye opening on an all-knowing novelistic mind” like he had done with “Hiroshima.” This story with “such a large cast of characters and such terrible cross currents of jeopardy and of desire for justice and safety and revenge” would have to “be told as much as possible in the words of the participants.” So he printed the interview transcripts, arranged them into a rough narrative alongside supporting documents, and rushed the manuscript to his editor. Knopf published the book, The Algiers Motel Incident, a few months later, in June 1968.

The Algiers Motel Incident was not nearly as groundbreaking as “Hiroshima,” but it did similar work, both at the moment it was published and over time. By bearing witness to the victims’ families and survivors’ grief and anger, Hersey implicitly stated what so many people refused to say at that time, and still refuse today: that the lives and deaths of three young black Detroit men — Auburey Pollard, Carl Cooper, and Fred Temple — mattered. Hersey believed their stories warranted attention, a just investigation, and human dignity.

Hersey’s arrival in Detroit and pinpoint interest in this case ensured the story’s survival, an act of intervention that kept it from being swallowed by the abyss of history and the public’s indifference (or worse) to the police killing of unarmed black youth. His decision to save his taped interviews, police reports, court transcripts, autopsy files, and correspondence and to donate it all to Yale was an act of resistance to disappearance and erasure. Perhaps he knew or sensed that few people would want to remember this sordid tale of injustice and brutality. In fact, attempts to disappear, distort, and erase the true horror of that night began with the very first media report, aired the morning after the raid on July 26, 1967, which blamed the deadly violence at the Algiers Motel on a shoot-out between snipers and Detroit police. Today many of those documents, particularly court and police records, have either been destroyed or are only available (redacted, of course) through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Erasure does its best work over time. The lot where the Algiers Motel once stood is now empty. It is maintained as a park and kept clean, a quiet escape from a busy intersection and a green space that adds value to a gentrifying neighborhood. The absence of a marker or memorial acknowledging the site as a place of violence and injustice is the kind of disappearance and active forgetting that John Hersey’s The Algiers Motel Incident continues to fight more than a half century after its publication.

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Danielle L. McGuire is an independent scholar and the author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.

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[1] Jonathan Dee, “John Hersey: The Art of Fiction No. 92,” Paris Review, no. 100 (Summer–Fall 1986): 211–49.

[2] Russell Shorto, “John Hersey: The Writer Who Let Hiroshima Speak for Itself,” New Yorker, August 31, 2016.

[3] Rebecca Pollard, interview with John Hersey, digital recording, John Hersey Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

[4] Rebecca Pollard, interview with John Hersey.

[5] David Senak, interview with John Hersey, digital recording, John Hersey Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


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