Silvan Niedermeier: Justice Then and Justice Now – The Unending History of Police Violence in the United States

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.


Justice Then and Justice Now – The Unending History of Police Violence in the United States

When on November 24, 2014, a Grand Jury found that “no probable cause” existed to file any indictments against white police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, protest and turmoil erupted. Placards like “We Need Justice Now” made it clear that the protesters saw the decision as another instance of the U.S. justice system failing to sanction police violence against blacks and were no longer willing to accept this state of things. Darren Wilson, they asserted, needed to face charges in a court, in order to rebuild trust in the justice system of the United States. The long history of police brutality in the United States exposes the deep-lying roots of this demand.

An instructive example is the investigation of police officer William F. Sutherland, which arose in Atlanta in March 1940. It was one of the few cases of the time, in which the torture of a black prisoner by a white police officer gained the attention of the southern public. Sutherland was accused of having tortured Quintar South, a sixteen-year-old high-school student, with an electric iron to make him confess to a burglary. A white woman who employed South in her home brought the case to the attention of the local white press. Local welfare institutions and white citizens publicly voiced their indignation about the occurrence, Atlanta’s mayor William B. Hartsfield proclaimed to put an end to police torture in the city, and the white press demanded that the state should not rest until it punished the guilty officer.

Three months later, a trial against Sutherland took place in Atlanta’s criminal court. Quintar South testified extensively on the torture he had received by the hands of Sutherland. Former fellow prisoners, his white female employer, and a white newspaper reporter supported his charges. Officer Sutherland took the stand and refuted the allegations. Several police officers testified that they saw no wounds on South’s body while he was in custody. After forty-five minutes of deliberation, the white jurors found the officer “not guilty.”

However, the acquittal of Sutherland did not mean the end of prosecution. For the first time in history, the U.S. Justice Department had ordered a probe against Sutherland by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, based on civil rights statutes of the post-Civil War era. FBI agents interviewed numerous witnesses related to the case, took photographs of the marks on Quintar South’s body, and conducted a forensic examination of the alleged torture weapon. When the local U.S. attorney asked for additional investigations into Sutherland’s past, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover convinced his superiors in the Justice Department to suspend the order, arguing that such a step would “rupture” the “friendly relationship” between the FBI and the Atlanta police.

In February 1941, Sutherland faced charges of civil rights violations in the U.S. District Court of Atlanta. Again, Quintar South and several black and white witnesses took the stand. The U.S. attorney entered the photographs of South’s wounds as evidence. Defense witnesses responded by testifying to Sutherland’s “good reputation.” Contrary to the hopes of Atlanta’s black community, the white jurors declared themselves unable to reach a verdict. A second trial in November also ended without verdict. In June 1944, the Justice Department dropped the investigations. As the local black press commented after the first mistrial, the result “cannot be anything but a sore disappointment to Atlantans of both races anxious to see justice in this case prevail.”

Between 1940 and 1955, federal prosecutors repeatedly failed to hold southern law officers accountable for civil rights violations, also because the U.S. Supreme Court limited the possibilities of convicting officers for this offense. Moreover, southern juries refused to punish police officers for having violated the civil rights of black men or women. That “justice” in cases of police violence remained largely in vain even in federal courts further demoralized African Americans and bolstered law officers. Today’s fight to make “Black Lives Matter” retains much of its urgency from this decades-long failure to provide justice to victims of police violence.


Photo by Hamish John Appleby

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