Brandon Jett, a Ph.D. candidate in the
History Department, used his 2015 Tedder Family Doctoral Fellowship to conduct archival
research in the Birmingham City Archives in Birmingham, Alabama. His
dissertation explores the complex web of interactions between African-American
communities and the police in the Jim Crow South in the cities of Memphis, New
Orleans, and Birmingham from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
Violence and abuse are words most strongly associated with the relationship
between African Americans and the police. However, Jett shows how African Americans
in the early decades of the twentieth century did not always associate the
police with violence and oppression. Rather, African Americans often called on the
police to protect their lives and livelihoods. Distrust
and police abuse were certainly widespread in the Jim Crow South, but this did
not always define the interactions between African Americans and police or
prevent African Americans from using law enforcement to advance their own
Before the 1880s, Birmingham was not a large city. The traditional South, associated with genteel agriculturalism, began to evolve into a new industrial South between the 1880s and 1930s, which produced a general population boom. Population growth in Birmingham and other cities in the South pushed police departments to become more bureaucratic and technologically savvy. According to the narrative of violence and abuse, the birth of modern police departments did not bode well for African American communities.
However, the expansion and reorganization of police forces in Birmingham and across the South did not necessarily disempower African-American communities. Archived police reports and newspapers highlight that the relationship between African Americans and police in the early twentieth century involved cooperation as much as conflict. For example, the Jefferson County Grand Jury records report 1770 cases involving an African-American victim from 1920-1930. The sheer number of cases and large number of black witnesses offering voluntary testimony shows that African American communities did not necessarily underreport crimes or distance themselves from police investigations because of fear. Also, a large number of these cases were violent crimes such as homicide, assault, and theft committed within the Birmingham African-American community. Clearly, many African Americans sought out Birmingham police to mediate interpersonal disputes, to protect their property and livelihoods, and reduce crime and violence in their own communities.
Jett’s research reveals two threads tangled in the web of interactions between African Americans and police. Despite the police officers’ racist attitudes, the archival evidence shows that African Americans pushed police to respond to their needs following a crime. The services provided by the police legitimated their position as the proper protectors of law and authority while maintaining the policies of Jim Crow. However, sometimes African Americans benefitted from these interactions too. African Americans were not simply victims of violence, but agents that used the institutions available to them in order to ameliorate and mitigate suffering and harm in their lives.
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