Bricks and Mortars

Tossed from Billy Graham's birthday

By Lawrence Reichard | May 11, 2017

I've been pounding the political for a while, and I thought it might be a good time to take a breather. I guess this is my idea of a break from the political.

It was Oct. 15, 1971. I was 13 years old and living in Charlotte, N.C. Billy Graham was a local hero, born and raised in Charlotte, the pride of the Queen City. Few multi-millionaire preachers had done as much as Graham to promote the cause of American religion, the world's finest.

It was Graham's 50th birthday, and none other than the president of the United States, Richard Nixon, was coming to town to help celebrate. The president and the presidency's official preacher — it doesn't get any better.

This was pre-Watergate, before Nixon's true colors were revealed to the world. A year later Nixon would cruise to the biggest landslide in U.S. presidential elections, and less than three years later he resigned in disgrace.

But this was his day. And Billy's. They had a big shindig at the Charlotte Coliseum. Local banks had been giving away tickets for free and I had snagged four of them.

The Vietnam War was raging — it was chewing up America's youth, and Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the local Red Hornet May Day Tribe were protesting outside the entrance to the coliseum. I stopped by and said hi before I attempted to enter the coliseum.

I never made it in. I was ejected four times. There's nothing like persistence. They claimed my tickets were counterfeit. Right. On one attempted entry, they went for my ticket and I shoved it down my pants. They went after it. To review, I was 13.

Four attempts to enter, four ejections.

We sued. Twelve plaintiffs, $60,000 each. We sued everyone: Charlotte Police Department, the Secret Service, and the Lions and Kiwanis clubs, which provided volunteer “ushers” for the event.

All the other plaintiffs were adults, and I, as a young kid, was the star plaintiff. We hoped that the world, or at least Charlotte, would be horrified that a bunch of cops and Lions Club and Kiwanis Club goons had manhandled such a sweet, innocent child. Our lawyer was one George Daly, as classy a man as I have ever known, a real stand-up guy. George was a product of the Deep South by way of Harvard Law. He would go on to make his mark on Charlotte civil rights law, and he remains to this day a good, dear friend.

The Sunday after the Nixon-Graham show, George came around to Quaker meeting looking for plaintiffs — a good place to look — and that's where George found me.

Eventually the trial rolled around, presided over by Judge James McMillan, a titan of Charlotte jurisprudence who had gained national attention by presiding over Charlotte's famous school desegregation case.

The Red Hornet May Day tribesmen played the trial like Abbie Hoffman, showing up with kazoos and outlandish garb, ready for a real show. But I played it straight — suit, tie, the whole nine yards. I wanted my $60,000.

The defense said its clients were merely trying to protect the life of the president. But George Daly uncovered a memo from Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman instructing volunteer ushers to keep out “undesirables.”

I testified that I had indeed been manhandled, roughed up and tossed out four times — all in doe-eyed innocent testimony. I told of the hand down my pants. “Is that man here today in this courtroom,” George Daly asked. “Yes,” I said, “he is,” and I pointed to a Kiwanis Club volunteer usher by the name of Ernie Helms, a man The New York Times called “beefy.” Helms turned beet red, and not for the last time.

After George Daly finished questioning me, the defense — no less than 15 lawyers — got its turn. To my surprise they threw me a few softballs, thus allowing me even more opportunity to establish my immaculate innocence. And then they showed a brief little film.

It was made by a local television news program, and it showed people getting thrown out of the Coliseum. The reporter rushed up to an unkempt, long-hair kid who had just been ejected. “What happened?” the reporter asked. The child who had just gone to great pains to establish his purity on the witness stand spoke into the microphone and a considerable torrent of obscenities flowed from his foul mouth. The defense must have dug for that footage, because it sure as hell hadn't made the nightly news.

And when the profane deluge finally ebbed, the defense stopped the film on a dime and threw on the courtroom lights. “Mr. Reichard, was that you?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I was a little upset.”

“Yes, so it would seem.”

We won the case but got no damages, no $60,000. But I did walk away with a few fun little nuggets. The whole incident was mentioned in the Senate Watergate hearings, and it lives on to this day in The New York Times archives. And Judge McMillan was quoted on the front page of the Charlotte Observer saying that “Lawrence Reichard was not a threat to the life of the president.”

In fact, with Nixon waging his war in Vietnam, he was a far greater threat to my life than I ever was to his.

Not long after the trial I entered an Italian restaurant with a date, and right there before us, at a table, was none other than Ernie Helms, whose hand had previously visited the inside of my pants. He was dining with a few other people. “Ernie!” I exclaimed, “how are you, man?” He turned a deep red, just as he had in court, and as my date and I walked toward our table I could hear someone at Helms' table say, “Ernie, who was that?”

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.


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