Community forum: racial attack echoes Vermont history
This week’s writer is Stephen C. Terry of Middlebury, who is a former editor of the Herald of Rutland (1977-1985) and a Statehouse reporter (1965-1969).
Racism hit Vermonters hard in the face with the shotgun attack by three white night horsemen on a black minister’s house in Irasburg in the early hours of July 19, 1968.
The shock and impact of this racial attack is still being felt and debated over half a century later with the publication of a new book on the infamous Irasburg case, along with two other police scandals. State in the 1970s.
Gary Shattuck’s new book, “Night-Rider Legacy, Weaponizing Race in the Irasburg Affair of 1968,” published by White River Press with UVM’s Center for Research on Vermont, is a blockbuster read when race issues in Vermont can no longer be ignored. The book is available this month.
Shattuck of Shrewsbury is a former Vermont State Police Commander, lawyer, former Vermont Deputy District Attorney, and now author. He spent four years of meticulous research for his important book with nearly 1,000 footnotes. He brings to life the events surrounding the Irasburg affair, which shattered Vermont’s image of calm by making national news for its unusual racial attack in a lily white state.
The Irasburg case involved three young white people from northeastern Vermont on a sweltering summer night in 1968, attacking the Irasburg home of a black minister and his family with shotguns.
The racial attack rocked Vermont as it became a central feature of the 1968 political campaign for governor and a bitter end to outgoing governor’s six-year term Philip H. Hoff.
The Irasburg case resulted in the conviction of Larry Conley, who was at home on leave from the military, on a minor charge while his two nightrider companions – a man and a young woman – evaded prosecution.
The case also exposed flaws in the way state police dealt with racial issues and in their command structure.
The lessons of this series of events, as well as the Router Bit affair of 1979 and the dirty cop Paul Lawrence, who in the 1970s planted drugs on people and then arrested them, highlighted a decade bad behavior on the part of the Vermont State Police. For this reason, this book is an important retelling of Vermont history, especially now that police and community issues are often seen as breaking news in the country.
For me, Shattuck’s book was a throwback to one of Vermont’s most reported events of 1968, an already very tumultuous year with the murders of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King, the angst of the Vietnam War, a GOP Governor’s Primary, and efforts in our state to foster a better racial understanding between rural white youth and urban blacks.
During the Irasburg affair, I was a reporter at the Statehouse for the Herald of Rutland and the Barre-Montpelier Argus timetable and one of the journalists covering these events.
For many in Vermont, these events and the role of the Vermont State Police during the 1960s and 1970s have faded into the mists of history. Yet this story is critically important for Vermonters to have a perspective with which to judge the work of Vermont police forces, state and local today.
Shattuck did a brilliant job recreating this era. He writes, in the end, that his book is “an account of the unintended consequences resulting from the reckless use of confrontational and racist language against law enforcement when there was virtually no evidence of it. racism”.
Wow! Shattuck’s conclusion surprised me because I remained convinced, more than half a century later, that racial attitudes tainted the work of the Vermont State Police in the Irasburg case investigation. In fact, a three-member commission investigating the Irasburg case, led by the late United States District Judge Ernest W. Gibson Jr., found that the state’s police had gone from pursuing the rifle attack. to the persecution of the black minister. As state police investigated the shotgun attack, they observed the married black minister having sex with his White House guest. This resulted in the two being charged with the crime of adultery, which added a whole new salacious dimension to the story.
The router bits affair involved members of the St. Johnsbury area State Police getting free seconds of router bits for their personal use, which they then hijacked. In 1979, I directed coverage of the impact of the Router Bit scandal as the editor of the Herald of Rutland. The tragic result was that the corporal of the Vermont State Police. Howard Gary Gould, upset by the scandal, committed suicide on July 30, 1979, behind the Vermont Statehouse, and left a note which is included in the book.
I agree that the Vermont State Police did little to support Gould’s widow and family after the tragic event. At the same time, the Vermont media have also failed in their reporting. We were all focused on the scandal and not much on the human tragedy and its impact on the Gould family. As the Herald editor-in-chief, I should have done more to focus our reporters on this aspect of the story.
In the book’s epilogue, Shattuck documents the many efforts of the Vermont State Police to create new leadership from within. He convincingly argues that the old culture of “Redstone Fortress”, the former location of the police headquarters, has now evolved into a culture of accountability and transparency. Prior to these events, state policing was a law in itself, as the scandals of the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated.
(Disclosure: Shattuck, after several interviews, asked me if I would write a preface for his book. I agreed, and although I disagreed with his central conclusion, he courageously included it. I think that gives this important book even more credibility.)