The Struggle For Racial Equity In The Champaign County Criminal Justice System

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

On the morning of April 29, 1970, Edgar
Hoults, a twenty-three year old African
American man was shot and killed by a
local police officer near his home in
Urbana. Edgar, an employee of Follett’s
Book Store, had been unable to sleep and
decided to visit with friends who were
working overnight at the store. Earlier in the week, a series
of firebombings had taken place leaving Follett’s in need of
late night repairs. According to the store manager, Anthony
Fernandez, Edgar “horsed around” briefly with his coworkers
and then left.
Nearby, Champaign police officers Fred Eastman and
Robert Soucie were on patrol. According to police
accounts, the officers witnessed Hoults drive north on
Wright Street running two stop signs. In response, the officers
turned on their siren and engaged Hoults in a highspeed
chase. After a few minutes, Hoults lost control of the
vehicle and slammed into a fence. Despite the impact, he
was able to pull himself out of the car and began to run
through an open field with Eastman in pursuit on foot.
The details of what followed are contested. However,
what is clear is that Eastman pulled out his .33 caliber
revolver and fired. The hollow-point bullet, designed for
maximum impact, traveled approximately 50 yards across
the field striking Edgar Hoults in the back of the head
causing his death. Eastman claimed that he had slipped
while firing a warning shot in the air, accidentally causing
Hoults death. However, reports to the contrary quickly
emerged. Several African-American eyewitnesses argued
that Eastman hadn’t stumbled, but rather had carefully
taken aim at his victim. Others claimed that Hoults had
put his hands in the air as a sign of surrender.
Public officials struggled to locate a reason for Hoults’s
evasion of local officers during a routine traffic stop. He
had no outstanding warrants and had never been convicted
of a crime. By all accounts Edgar Hoults was a sober
family man with a promising future. Left behind was his
pregnant wife, Alice, and two small children. The only
motive police could identify was that he had been driving
without a valid drivers license.
Many African American residents were less baffled by
Hoults’s frantic decision to flee from local police officers
who were widely considered to be racist and corrupt. Mirroring
events in cities across the country, protests against
racial inequity and police brutality occurred intermittently
throughout the 1960s and 1970s in Champaign-Urbana.
Longstanding organizations like the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the
Urban League were joined in the struggle by newer organizations
like the Concerned Citizens Committee (CCC) and
the Black Action Council for United Progress (BACUP).
The death of Edgar Hoults triggered a community-wide
struggle for racial equity in the Champaign County criminal
justice system that continues to resonate. A loose coalition
of civil rights organizations, community members,
and college students quickly mobilized to protest police
brutality against African Americans, demand the reorganization
of lily-white law enforcement, and ensure that an
independent investigation into the Hoults shooting be performed.
Concerned citizens flooded city council meetings
expressing their outrage.
University students staged mass protests, the largest of
which took place on May 11 when 1,500 people assembled
on the quad. Hoults’s death resonated particularly
amongst black students, many of whom, due to restrictions
in university accommodation, had been housed by
African American families in the North End forging close
experiential and political ties. As testament to these deep
feelings of solidarity, black students
successfully pushed for the fledgling
Afro-American Culture Center to be
renamed after Hoults in a ceremony
facilitated by both student and community
While the vast majority of students
and community members
engaged in nonviolent protests,
some felt that different strategies
were required. In the days following
the shooting, fires broke out at Lincoln
Square Mall and at Jos. Kuhn &
Co. in downtown Champaign.
While local press sought to characterize
the bombings as the spontaneous
acts of angry black youth, letters
written to the editorial board of
the Daily Illini indicated that they
were the deliberate and carefully
planned work of a revolutionary
nationalist cadre called Revolutionary
Force 26. In accordance with
broader ideological and tactical
shifts in the black liberation and student
movements, Revolutionary
Force 26 represented the increasing
militancy of activists frustrated with
the slow pace of change and disenchanted with the integrationist
agenda of the movement. Elsewhere, struggles
ensued between law enforcement and local gangs as police
surveillance of black communities was heightened.
Widespread fears about the independence of the investigation
into Hoults’s death were confirmed on May 13
when Howard Mitchell, the director of the Community
Relations Committee, castigated local police and city officials
for their negligence. “The only city investigation that
can be considered extensive,” Mitchell claimed, “has been
my own.” When faced with demands for information
about the Hoults case, police authorities failed to cooperate
forcing the Committee to seek the aid of higher authorities
on numerous occasions. For their part, city officials
had demonstrated a lack of consideration for the victim’s
family and the local African American population. “Naturally,
the city was on the spot,” Mitchell explained, “but a
man was dead and no one seemed willing to say ‘I’m sorry’
without being reminded.”
Though the States’ Attorney, Lawrence Johnson, initially
opted to file charges of voluntary manslaughter against
Eastman, tremendous public pressure ensured that when
the trial began in October the murder charge was resurrected.
Amidst high security, Judge B. E. Morgan presided
over a packed courtroom as several eyewitnesses took the
stand to testify that Officer Eastman had intentionally
killed Edgar Hoults. After the prosecution
presented its case, the defense
brought out Eastman and several fellow
police officers, none of whom
had been present during the shooting,
to corroborate Eastman’s story of
accidental death.
Despite the testimony of several eyewitnesses
to the contrary, an allwhite
jury took less than two and a
half hours and one vote to find Eastman
not guilty of murder and involuntary
manslaughter. At the most
fundamental level, the all-white jury
had been more convinced by the testimony
of a white police officer than
that of multiple African-American
eyewitnesses. As one juror explained,
“We believed he was honest when he
said he slipped and fell, and that the
killing was accidental.” Finding no
justice in the criminal proceeding,
Alice Hoults filed a civil suit on April
30, 1971. Her struggle continued
until 1976 when she finally reached
an out of court settlement for
$59,000. After more than five years,
Alice Hoults ended her bitter struggle
for justice and reparations.
However, the collective struggle for racial equity in the
Champaign County criminal justice system continues. The
prevalence of all-white juries, the lack of police accountability,
and well-established racial disparities at each stage
of the process demands that we continue to work in close
collaboration for the furthering of freedom and justice in
our communities.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.