Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

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

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

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

Article excerpt

The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War II South. By Gail Williams O'Brien. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Pp. 334. Acknowledgments, introduction illustrations, conclusion, notes, index. $45.00, cloth; $18.95, paper.)

The Columbia, Tennessee, race riot of 1946 began with a seemingly innocuous incident. A dispute between Billy Fleming, a white radio repairman, and two African-American customers resulted in fisticuffs. After the fight, police arrested the African Americans, James Stephenson and his mother, and charged them with attempted murder. Armed white men gathered near the jail, and the sheriff, hoping to avert a lynching, turned the prisoners over to leading black citizens; James Stephenson was hustled away. In the meantime, several dozen armed African Americans gathered in the Bottoms, the black business section of Columbia.

The presence of the armed African Americans intensified the situation, and when four white policemen entered the Bottoms, they were greeted by gunfire. In turn, law enforcement forces from outside Columbia were summoned. Members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, a roughneck elite police force, arrived on the scene and raided the Bottoms. There they arrested over a hundred African Americans and wrecked black business establishments. An investigation by an all-white grand jury led to the trial of twenty-five African Americans on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. However, with a change of venue to a neighboring county, an all-white jury acquitted all but two of the defendants, who were represented by NAACP attorneys.

Gail Williams O'Brien analyzes these events in minute detail, showing that the legal system worked in very different ways for blacks and whites. Whereas Fleming threw the first punches in the fight, only the Stephensons were detained, and on exaggerated charges. While the armed African Americans were suppressed by police forces, the white lynch mob was not. Indeed, members of the mob and the police mixed freely, as shown in numerous photographs. African Americans were excluded from the police forces as well as juries. The white judges presiding over the investigation and trial were inclined to be harsh toward African Americans. Powerful politicians, who relied upon the support of racist whites to stay in power, acquiesced in this double standard of justice. …

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