Race, Policing, and Violence in the 20th-Century United States

AHA Session 263
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Room 601 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Cornell University
Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Cornell University

Session Abstract

This panel excavates the building of the American criminal justice system from the ground up, augmenting recent developments in the field of carceral state history in the modern United States with close attention to the local scale. The panelists do so by examining a range of interactions among police and African Americans throughout the twentieth century in a variety of urban contexts, giving particular attention to the effects of the aggressive policing of African Americans from the 1930s through the 1970s. The papers highlight the persistence of police violence against African Americans, as well as the institutional and individual responses that violence prompted and demanded. Ultimately, state violence and discriminatory policing both circumscribed formal institutional critiques, but also encouraged creative subversive interactions among the policed themselves. The panel also provides critical historical context for ongoing national debates, protests, and policy changes regarding contemporary policing and state violence in the United States.

The panelists explore these themes through a series of four case studies drawing on local archives in Chicago, New Orleans, and Memphis. Brandon Jett examines the motivations of black murder suspects who surrendered to police. Jett argues that black southerners exerted a modicum of influence over their interactions with police by turning themselves in, choosing the time and place of their surrender and often limiting the likelihood of violence and manipulation by authorities. Three of the papers focus on the policing of black Chicago. Nora Krinitsky highlights nascent efforts of the NAACP to combat police brutality in the interwar decades. In the face of widespread and systemic police abuse, NAACP lawyers provided legal support to black Chicagoans and often won monetary compensation for the victims. Krinitsky argues, however, that Illinois’ legal anti-discrimination framework limited the potential for the organization’s strategy to limit police violence or affect systemic change among law enforcement institutions. Andrew Baer looks at reforms of the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County State's Attorneys Office from 1960 to 1972 to understand the sanctioning of police torture under Sergeant Jon Burge throughout the 1970s. He argues that the department's obsession with clearance rates, prosecutors' demands for stronger evidence, and officers’ disregard for the rights of black suspects led to a serious human rights crisis by the start of the 1980s. As police employed violence as part of their policing strategy, Simon Balto argues that the Chicago Black Panther Party’s critique of these types of strategies culminated in the Campaign for Community Control of Police (CCCP). This radical proposal advocated for community control of the police and proved widely popular in the city as more than one hundred civic organizations supported the measure. Although the CCCP ultimately failed, Balto contends that the broad-based appeal of the reform effort highlighted the lack of confidence that black Chicagoans had in their municipal police force, based largely on past experiences of violence and brutality. More importantly, the centrality of police reform to the broader struggle for Civil Rights provides insight into the ways that police effected black life.

See more of: AHA Sessions