The Color of the Law

The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War II South

GAIL WILLIAMS O’BRIEN
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807882306_o_brien
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  • Book Info
    The Color of the Law
    Book Description:

    On February 25, 1946, African Americans in Columbia, Tennessee, averted the lynching of James Stephenson, a nineteen-year-old, black Navy veteran accused of attacking a white radio repairman at a local department store. That night, after Stephenson was safely out of town, four of Columbia's police officers were shot and wounded when they tried to enter the town's black business district. The next morning, the Tennessee Highway Patrol invaded the district, wrecking establishments and beating men as they arrested them. By day's end, more than one hundred African Americans had been jailed. Two days later, highway patrolmen killed two of the arrestees while they were awaiting release from jail.Drawing on oral interviews and a rich array of written sources, Gail Williams O'Brien tells the dramatic story of the Columbia "race riot," the national attention it drew, and its surprising legal aftermath. In the process, she illuminates the effects of World War II on race relations and the criminal justice system in the United States. O'Brien argues that the Columbia events are emblematic of a nationwide shift during the 1940s from mob violence against African Americans to increased confrontations between blacks and the police and courts. As such, they reveal the history behind such contemporary conflicts as the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson cases.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0342-1
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-6)

    With its incessant demand for labor and its clarion call for democracy, World War II penetrated the remotest corners of American society. Most notably in the South, it affected race relations more powerfully than any event since the Civil War almost one hundred years earlier. Changes occurred as blacks, as well as whites, fought in the armed forces, migrated in large numbers within and outside the region, switched jobs, joined unions, and sometimes improved their living standard. African Americans also heard a national rhetoric intoning freedom and equality, while their own press called for a Double-V, victory at home as...

  5. 1 THE COLUMBIA STORY
    (pp. 7-56)

    For Gladys Stephenson, getting the children’s radio repaired was a trying experience. A 37-year-old domestic worker and mother of four, Stephenson lived in a black working-class neighborhood in the West End in Columbia, a small Middle Tennessee town located about forty-three miles south of Nashville. She had sent the radio in for repairs in early January 1946. Her eldest son James would soon be home from the Navy, and she may have wanted it in working condition for his return; certainly, the other children were clamoring for it. When Stephenson’s 17-year-old son, John Robert, carried the radio to the repair...

  6. PART I. RACIAL VIOLENCE
    • 2 THE BOTTOM AND ITS BROKERS
      (pp. 59-88)

      The selection of the Bottom as a place to make a stand in behalf of James Stephenson wasnothappenstance. Most simply, the first block of East Eighth Street was a confined physical space long controlled by African Americans. Frequented by a multitude of low-wage workers and owned by a handful of middle-class entrepreneurs, the establishments of the Bottom reflected the larger social structure of the community. At once, they offered mute testimony to the vitality of black institutions and to the limitations imposed on them by white society.

      On February 25th, the owners of East Eighth Street businesses and...

    • 3 WAR, ESTEEM, EFFICACY, AND ENTITLEMENT
      (pp. 89-108)

      Without question, World War II affected middle-class leaders such as Morton and the Blairs. As the organizers of war bond and Red Cross drives in Maury County, James and Mary Morton felt their commitment to a “Double-V” strengthened as the war progressed. Saul Blair also both imbibed and circulated word of the “Double-V” effort as he distributed theChicago Defender, a black newspaper that minced no words in the campaign’s behalf. Additionally, the flush of wartime prosperity and the quickened pace that it brought to the business community undoubtedly reinforced the prestige and position of established leaders like the Blairs...

    • 4 THE MAKING AND UNMAKING OF MOBOCRACY
      (pp. 109-138)

      Unfortunately for African Americans, the improved job opportunities that accompanied World War II disappeared quickly, and the GI Bill did not offer black veterans the same advantages that it presented whites. Nevertheless, black southerners, through the growing sense of entitlement and personal efficacy that they experienced during the war, were in a better position to repel mob actions immediately following the war than they were before it.

      Unquestionably, the fierce defense of Stephenson by black Maury Countians deterred the would-be lunch mob on the town square. As noted in Chapter 1, the crowd milled for hours, coalescing only briefly when...

  7. PART II. RACIAL JUSTICE
    • 5 THE POLITICS OF POLICING
      (pp. 141-179)

      Ironically, while the migration of African Americans to the nation’s cities discouraged attacks by white civilians, it increased the possibility of negative encounters between police officers and black residents. This occurred because after World War II, police in the urban South were more likely to abuse blacks than were those in small towns and the countryside.¹ Police abuse was also rising in certain urban locales in the postwar era.²

      While both developments were undoubtedly related to the growing number of African Americans in cities, the very anonymity of urban blacks often led police to typecast all with whom they came...

    • 6 GRAND (JURY) MANEUVERS AND THE POLITICS OF EXCLUSION
      (pp. 180-211)

      By the close of World War II, the extension of civil rights to African Americans had become for white liberals “an acid test” of their creed.¹ Conservatives meanwhile continued to defend the status quo, and some southern officials, like Theodore Bilbo and Ed Crump, grew increasingly shrill and vociferous as they detected enhanced personal efficacy among black Americans and the growing centrality of civil rights to their white allies. Those seeking improved treatment for African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s looked especially to the president, the Justice Department, and, whenever they could force the issue, the Supreme Court. Those...

    • 7 OUTSIDERS AND THE POLITICS OF JUSTICE
      (pp. 212-244)

      A native of Culleoka who was deeply incensed at the negative publicity his community was receiving, Judge Joe M. Ingram proved no more impartial in the trial that occurred in Lawrenceburg than had his predecessor, Judge Davies, in the grand jury hearing. Time and again Ingram acted in concert with the prosecution, and as happened so often in cases involving African Americans accused of crimes against whites, he seemed to assume the guilt of those on trial and to pursue “speed” as a main objective.¹ Yet the outcome of this case differed markedly from that of the grand jury hearing,...

  8. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 245-256)

    “Prevented lynchings function as ‘historical counterexamples’ to completed lynchings and, as such, are analytically indispensable to the analysis of lynchings,” scholars Larry J. Griffin, Paula Clark, and Joanne C. Sandberg recently observed.¹ In keeping with this observation, the failed lynching in Maury County in February 1946 tells us much about the lynching phenomenon and its demise. It also reveals a great deal about the evolution of black-white relations since the Civil War and about the impact on those relations of a war that permeated American society more than any other in the twentieth century.

    Additionally, the actions of law enforcement...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 257-312)
  10. SOURCES CITED
    (pp. 313-326)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 327-334)