Silvan Niedermeier: “All These Scars, There and There.” Fighting Forced Confessions in the Pre-1954 South

Today we welcome a guest post from Silvan Niedermeier, author of The Color of the Third Degree: Racism, Police Torture, and Civil Rights in the American South, 1930–1955, out now from UNC Press.

Available for the first time in English, The Color of the Third Degree uncovers the still-hidden history of police torture in the Jim Crow South. Based on a wide array of previously neglected archival sources, Silvan Niedermeier argues that as public lynching decreased, less visible practices of racial subjugation and repression became central to southern white supremacy. In an effort to deter unruly white mobs, as well as oppress black communities, white southern law officers violently extorted confessions and testimony from black suspects and defendants in jail cells and police stations to secure speedy convictions. In response, black citizens and the NAACP fought to expose these brutal practices through individual action, local organizing, and litigation. In spite of these efforts, police torture remained a widespread, powerful form of racial control and suppression well into the late twentieth century.

Translated by Paul Allen Cohen, The Color of the Third Degree is now available in print and ebook editions.


“All These Scars, There and There.” Fighting Forced Confessions in the Pre-1954 South

Why did the gruesome practice of lynching African Americans decline in the American South of the 1920s and 1930s? Most importantly, because southern states began to enforce their monopoly of force. Seeing lynching as more and more harmful to the image of the New South, Southern politicians urged law officers to protect black suspects from lynch mobs. Meanwhile, Jessie Daniel Ames’ Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching called for white women to dissuade their husbands from taking part in lynchings and pressed sheriffs to prevent such acts. Yet, there was another, related reason for the decline of lynchings: Sheriffs and police officers substituted whites’ desire for retribution by violently forcing black suspects into confessions. Archival records of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) indicate that law officers were most apt to force confession from black suspects who were accused of the murder or rape of white persons. Southern judges regularly approved such questionable confessions as evidence and thus expedited the conviction and execution of the defendants. The decline in lynchings had a dark underside.

Court transcripts show, however, that black defendants did not remain silent about their ordeal and actively challenged their abusive treatment in court. When twenty-six-year-old Dave Canty stood on trial in Montgomery, Alabama, in June 1938, for the murder of a white woman and attack on her sister, he gave detailed information on his alleged torture, named the officers involved, and repeated their statements to him. In addition, he presented the still visible scars on his body to the jury. As the court stenographer recorded: “Witness went before the jury and showed scars he said the officers put on him […] ‘All these scars, there and there.’” When Canty showed the jurors more scars on his legs, the district attorney admonished him with the following racist remark: “Don’t pull your pants up, I didn’t want to see your ugly legs. Nobody wants to see your leg.” The court sentenced Canty to death but local civil rights activists, a sympathetic white lawyer, and the legal department of the NAACP saved him from the electric chair. In 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial. Canty received life imprisonment and died several years later in Kilby Prison, the same place where the police had allegedly tortured him into his purported confession.

Between 1936 and 1945, the NAACP successfully appealed several such cases to the U.S. Supreme Court. The campaign delimited the admissibility of forced confessions in U.S. courts and established the groundwork for future civil rights activism in some of the most racially oppressive regions of the South. It could not stop, however, the widespread torture of black prisoners by southern police. Generally, southern judges, district attorneys, and juries refused to hold law officers accountable for such acts. A new situation arose in the early 1940s, when the U.S. Justice Department ordered the first probes into southern cases of police torture by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Rather than leading to the punishment of law officers, these federal investigations stirred up resistance by southern whites. Police violence remained a brutal and symbolic practice of racial oppression well into second half of the twentieth century when the protests of the civil rights movement increasingly challenged the segregated order of the South.


Photo by Hamish John Appleby

Silvan Niedermeier is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer of history at Erfurt University.