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The Color of the Law

Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post@-World War II South

Gail Williams O'Brien

Publication Year: 1999

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. Exploring the famous 1956 race riot in Columbia, Tennessee, this book reveals the roots of black distrust and conflict with the criminal justice system. The Columbia events are viewed as emblematic of the nation’s postwar shift from mob violence against blacks to increased confrontations between blacks and the police and the courts. 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.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-8

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiv

My gratitude is deep and wide. I appreciate the leadership of John W. Cell and the advice and support of the participants, including the late Betty Shabazz, in a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Summer Seminar in the mid-1980s, when I began to shift the focus of my work from the nineteenth century to the twentieth. ...

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Introduction

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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. ...

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1. The Columbia Story

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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. ...

Part I. Racial Violence

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2. The Bottom and Its Brokers

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pp. 59-88

The selection of the Bottom as a place to make a stand in behalf of James Stephenson was not happenstance. 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, ...

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3. War, Esteem, Efficacy, and Entitlement

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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 ...

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4. The Making and Unmaking of Mobocracy

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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, ...

Part II. Racial Justice

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5. The Politics of Policing

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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 ...

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6. Grand (Jury) Maneuvers and the Politics of Exclusion

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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 ...

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7. Outsiders and the Politics of Justice

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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, ...

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Conclusion

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pp. 245-256

"Prevented lynchings function as 'historical counterexamples' to completed lynchings and, as such, arc 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. ...

Notes

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pp. 257-312

Sources Cited

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pp. 313-326

Index

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pp. 327-334


E-ISBN-13: 9781469603421
E-ISBN-10: 146960342X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807824757
Print-ISBN-10: 0807824755

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 23 illus., 1 map
Publication Year: 1999

Series Title: The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture