Archibald Murphey Aiken

Archibald Murphey Aiken (1888–1971)

Archibald Aiken was a lawyer and judge of the Danville Corporation Court who opposed desegregation. During the Danville civil rights protests of 1963 Aiken gained national notoriety after confronting the demonstrators and issuing an injunction to ban most forms of public protest in the city. He convened a special grand jury, which indicted three protest leaders for conspiring to incite "the colored population of the State to acts of violence and war against the white population." Controversial, stubborn, and outspoken, Aiken continued to fight against integration throughout the 1960s. He died of a heart attack in 1971. MORE...

 

Aiken was born on February 28, 1888, in Danville, the only child of Judge Archibald Murphey Aiken and Mary Ella Yates Aiken. He attended Danville Military Institute and the Virginia Military Institute before matriculating in the 1905–1906 academic year at the University of Virginia, where he earned B.A. and LL.B. degrees in 1910 and 1913 respectively. In 1922 Aiken married Corinne Conway, of Danville, and they had one son. They were divorced in 1942, and Aiken later married Mary Mickley.

Aiken served in France as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War I (1914–1918). He subsequently returned to Danville, where he was city attorney from 1919 to 1939, interrupted by interim service in 1921 and 1922 as circuit court judge, the office his father had once held. Aiken practiced law from 1939 to 1950. From the latter year until his death he was judge of the Danville Corporation Court.

Aiken was an outspoken supporter of the state's policy of Massive Resistance to court-ordered desegregation of the public schools. In 1963 he gained national notoriety for his handling of civil rights demonstrations in Danville, which were inspired by the protests then occurring in Birmingham, Alabama, under the leadership of local African American ministers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Beginning early in June, Danville ministers led daily marches protesting segregation in public facilities and racial discrimination in hiring practices. Judge Aiken personally confronted the demonstrators on June 5 with an order to disperse. When they refused, he ordered them arrested. The following day he issued a sweeping injunction banning most forms of public protest. Danville police used clubs and fire hoses to assault demonstrators who violated the injunction, resulting in forty-eight injuries and numerous arrests. Aiken convened a special grand jury and had the demonstrators' leaders indicted under what was popularly and incorrectly referred to at the time as "John Brown's Law," a statute reenacted as recently as 1960 that had its origins during slavery and made it a felony to conspire or to incite "the colored population of the State to acts of violence and war against the white population." On June 16, acting in concert with Aiken's response to the protests, the city council adopted an ordinance essentially codifying the judge's antidemonstration injunction.

Young civil-rights activists sponsored by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee converged on Danville from other places in the South, and by mid-July more than 250 people had been arrested on various charges stemming from the marches. Judge Aiken established remarkable rules for the trials of those arrested. He excluded virtually the entire public, kept a large force of armed police present, required all defendants to attend roll calls every day, subjected the defendants and their attorneys to daily searches for weapons, and banned discussion of the constitutionality of the injunction or the city ordinance. Defense lawyers sought to remove the cases from state jurisdiction into federal court, an effort the U.S. Department of Justice supported with a brief criticizing Aiken's conduct and noting that he carried a gun into the courtroom. Aiken acknowledged that on police advice he carried a firearm to the courthouse, but he denied carrying arms into the courtroom. The U.S. district courts refused to take over the trials, and after a long series of state and federal appeals Aiken's injunction and most of his actions were deemed constitutional, though only by close votes and over strong dissents in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Controversy followed Aiken into the later years of his life. In December 1966, as he continued to try the cases from the 1963 arrests and to hand down fairly harsh sentences, W. Leigh Taylor, an executive of a large textile manufacturer based in Danville, wrote a letter to Aiken criticizing his judgment. Aiken cited him for contempt and sentenced him to ten days in jail, with eight suspended. This action drew strong protest in Virginia, including a fruitless call for Aiken's impeachment from James Jackson Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader. On July 30, 1969, Aiken gained more national attention when he sentenced twenty-year-old Frank Provost Lavarre to twenty-five years in prison (five years conditionally suspended) and a $500 fine for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Governor Mills E. Godwin later reduced the sentence.

Although events singled Aiken out for national attention, many political leaders of his generation in Virginia's Southside shared his views on social change. Throughout the civil rights controversy and after his death, the all-white Danville Bar Association passed resolutions supporting Aiken and praising his integrity and devotion to duty. The Danville City Council named a bridge for him in 1970. Aiken died of a heart attack in Danville on November 27, 1971, and was buried in Green Hill Cemetery in that city.

Time Line

  • February 12, 1888 - Archibald Murphey Aiken is born in Danville, the only child of Judge Archibald Murphey Aiken and Mary Ella Yates Aiken.
  • 1906 - Archibald Murphey Aiken matriculates at the University of Virginia.
  • 1910 - Archibald Murphey Aiken earns a B.A. from the University of Virginia.
  • 1913 - Archibald Murphey Aiken earns an LL.B. from the University of Virginia.
  • 1917–1918 - Archibald Murphey Aiken serves as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War I.
  • 1919–1921 - Archibald Murphey Aiken is city attorney in Danville.
  • 1921–1922 - Archibald Murphey Aiken serves as circuit court judge in Danville.
  • 1922–1939 - Archibald Murphey Aiken is again city attorney in Danville.
  • 1939–1950 - Archibald Murphey Aiken practices law in Danville.
  • 1942 - Archibald Murphey Aiken and Corinne Conway divorce. Archibald Murphey Aiken will later marry Mary Mickley.
  • 1950–1971 - Archibald Murphey Aiken is judge of the Danville Corporation Court.
  • June 17, 1963 - Trials begin for those arrested in the Danville civil rights demonstrations. The U.S. Justice Department issues a brief that strongly criticizes Judge Archibald M. Aiken Jr.'s courtroom procedures.
  • December 1966 - As Archibald Murphey Aiken continues to try the cases from the 1963 civil rights arrests and to hand down fairly harsh sentences, W. Leigh Taylor, an executive of a large textile manufacturer based in Danville, writes a letter to Aiken criticizing his judgment. Aiken cites him for contempt and sentences him to ten days in jail.
  • July 30, 1969 - Archibald Murphey Aiken gains more national attention when he sentences twenty-year-old Frank Provost Lavarre to twenty-five years in prison (five years conditionally suspended) and a $500 fine for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Governor Mills E. Godwin later reduces the sentence.
  • 1970 - The Danville City Council names a bridge for Archibald Murphey Aiken.
  • November 27, 1971 - Archibald Murphey Aiken dies of a heart attack in Danville.
Further Reading
Hershman, James H., Jr. "Archibald Murphey Aiken." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone et al, 45–46. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
Ely, James W., Jr. "Negro Demonstrations and the Law: Danville as a Test Case." Vanderbilt Law Review 27 (1974):927–968.
Muse, Benjamin. Virginia's Massive Resistance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Hershman, J. H., Jr., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Archibald Murphey Aiken (1888–1971). (2014, August 7). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Aiken_Archibald_Murphey_1888-1971.

  • MLA Citation:

    Hershman, James H., Jr. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Archibald Murphey Aiken (1888–1971)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 7 Aug. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 10, 2013 | Last modified: August 7, 2014


Contributed by James H. Hershman Jr. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. James H. Hershman Jr. is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.