James Corder on the Subway in NYC

James CorderIn the summer of 1973, I was the director of the Selma Inter-religious Project in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The Selma Project was a support organization for civil rights activists working in small towns located in the rural Black Belt across central and southern Alabama, southern Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle. Most of our board members were black Baptist preachers, and I was a skinny 23-year-old white kid in charge of running the project and raising money.  

One of our staff members was James Corder, a Primitive Baptist preacher in his 60s who worked as a "lay advocate" for poor people who needed represenattion and advice in dealing with government agencies and companies. James was the moderator or pastor for several small Primitive Baptist Churches in the Sipsey River Association. He also had a small farm where he raised cotton, soybeans, and other crops outside of the town of Aliceville in Pickens County, the heart of the Black Belt.

In 1973, James and I travelled together to New York City, where we planned to visit several foundations and donors who had provided financial support for the Selma Project for years. At the time, the farthest from home that James had ever been was to Birmingham, just 55 miles from his home.  

Our first morning in New York, we got on the Manhattan subway headed downtown for a meeting at a foundation. The car was crowded with commuters, people clutching hand straps and metal poles and seat backs, swaying into each other as the train sped up and slowed down when it stopped at stations. I had nodded off into my subway mind meld, engrossed in thoughts of Tuscaloosa sunshine and memories of my days driving New York cabs a few years before. Into my reverie crept the notion that not all was right in the jouncing, jolting subway car.

“Look at him,” said James.

Next to us stood an elderly Chinese gentleman in a black dress suit, and into his coat pocket, as I watched in fascination, crept a slim brown hand, which pawed about inside the pocket for a moment, and then withdrew a black leather wallet.

 ‚ÄúHey!‚Äù I poked the Chinese gentleman in the arm. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôre getting robbed!‚Äù

The hand quivered frantically, then dropped the wallet on the floor. The Chinese gentleman stared at me with frightened eyes from a deeply-seamed face.

“It’s him. It’s that guy,” I said.

That guy, a tall, skinny, fresh-faced kid who looked foreign, maybe Argentinean, or maybe Puerto Rican, or even Israeli, leapt toward the door of the car, which was coming to a slow, rocking halt at the Fourteenth Street Station. He spun around like a cornered rat, his back against the sliding door, and whipped out a switchblade with a sharp, clicking noise to reveal a long, silver edge that glittered in the uncertain light. He looked right at me and screamed a series of guttural curses, jabbing the knife toward my face from no more than two yards away. I felt frozen, powerless, fascinated by the shiny steel tip.

James jumped in front of me. He crouched, ready to spring, with his fists up and his chin thrust forward.

“You go on now,” he said. “You go on and do it.”

The boy’s eyes flickered from James’ face to the Chinese gentleman’s, then to mine with a look of pure, snake-like hatred. The train began to slow, and he jerked his head once to see the pillars of a station flashing slowly by the car windows. He waved the knife uncertainly toward James, then whispered something unintelligible. The train jerked to a halt, and the doors slid open behind him.

He backed slowly out of the car and stood there, as we all looked at him. As soon as the doors slid shut he started to scream, leaping up and down, brandishing the knife, advancing toward the door even as the car jolted into motion. As the train gathered speed and rocketed away from the platform into the blackness of the tunnel, we could hear him still screaming over the ratcheting sound of the train wheels over the steel tracks and the rising hubbub of voices inside the car.