Vol. 10 No. 7 (July 2000)
THE COLOR OF THE LAW: RACE, VIOLENCE, AND JUSTICE IN THE POST-WORLD WAR II SOUTH by Gail Williams O'Brien. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 334 pp. Cloth $45.00.
Reviewed by Akiba Covitz, Department of Political Science, University of Richmond.
This important book on the complex interplay between race and justice in the United States boldly and successfully attempts to operate on two quite distinct levels. On the surface, Gail Williams O'Brien tells the story of the attempted lynching of African American Navy veteran James Stephenson and the bloody race "riot" that occurred in its aftermath in Columbia, Tennessee, in February 1946. The horrific events began rather mildly, with an argument about a radio owned by Stephenson's mother and badly repaired in a white-owned department store. Things rapidly got out of hand, and Stephenson and his mother soon found themselves in prison and threatened by a white mob. The Stephensons, released by the somewhat sympathetic town sheriff, managed to escape the mob, but the rampaging whites soon turned their wrath on the larger black community. That African American community took up arms and defended itself against the white mob.
Below that initial narrative surface, however, O'Brien places what she refers to as the "concreteness" of this singular event in its broad historical, political, and legal context, convincingly demonstrating the importance of the event that she refers to as "a clarifying moment" (p. 3). When I first started reading this book, I must admit that I was somewhat skeptical. The title portended something quite theoretically and historically compelling for the study of law and politics in the United States. The implications of such a work about fundamental topics such as justice and race would, it seems, be far-reaching. I had some initial concerns, however, about what O'Brien alternately calls the "vehicle" or "bridge" that was to be used for this journey. She uses a particular -- and not a particularly well known -- event as her chosen metaphorical vehicle to carry this rather heavy ideological cargo: a violent, deadly episode that followed an attempted lynching in the town of Columbia, Tennessee. I had seen a number of references to this event, but I had never been led to believe before that it had extraordinary significance.
The difficulty with such works is that a dedicated author can find nearly anything he or she needs in a given event. O'Brien says that her book is an attempt to "marry" the historical details of an "historical case study," with the deeper power and theoretical generality of "sociological" analysis (see p. 2). The difficulty with this tactic, bluntly put, is that if some particular event, especially one as chaotic as a riot, is looked at long enough, scholars likely can make out something or other that relates to their research agendas encapsulated in those events.
Let me state clearly that the analytical shoe-horning that is described
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above is not the case with O'Brien's valuable contribution to the literature on race, law and society, American history and law, the impact of World War II on American society, and criminal justice. O'Brien, Professor of History and Associate Dean at North Carolina State University, addresses these often difficult and always contentious issues of race and justice through the judicious use of what turns out to be an appropriate and carefully chosen vehicle. Although the marriage between this singular event and the larger analytical issues that O'Brien addresses is not always perfect, it does ultimately succeed.
O'Brien's seven chapters walk her readers through each of the necessary factual and analytical steps. We are shown that this battle between the black citizens of Columbia, and the white citizens of Columbia with extensive support by law enforcement officials, is not merely a particular moment in history. Through studying this moment in its proper context, it emerges as a vital instance in understanding important currents in American political life. O'Brien begins the body of her book by laying out the details of the bloody Columbia race riot and attempted lynching. She narrates the story, day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour. In so doing, she successfully grabs her readers and draws them into the events. She also manages to personalize these events, as well as providing many helpful photographs and maps for additional context, giving us images of real-life characters whom will we follow through the rest of the work. In this first chapter, she conspicuously avoids analyzing or drawing conclusions about the meaning of the chaotic events. Instead, she ends her introduction and her narrative of the facts by asking four searching questions that will serve to carry her excellent analysis through the remainder of the book and make good on the promise of her title.
The first of these four questions has to do with how the African American community in Columbia managed to protect itself and one of its members from a concerted and joint effort by white citizens and authorities. There had been lynchings in the recent past in Columbia. Why was the local black community not intimidated by the array of armed, racist, white authorities that confronted Columbia's African Americans? Second, although two African Americans in police custody were killed, and there was extensive property damage, O'Brien investigates the underpinnings of the white mob that formed and that eventually failed in its goal of complete destruction of the black community of Columbia. How could such a mob fail, especially one supported by dozens of heavily armed white local and state police officers and in a county of Tennessee that had long been a Ku Klux Klan stronghold?
In framing her third guiding question, O'Brien asks why it was that the State National Guard, still mobilized in the immediate aftermath of World War II but still a white institution, attempted to maintain order in the face of white mob rage supported by white state troopers. What differentiated National Guard troops from the local and state police officers? Finally, from a criminal law perspective, O'Brien tries to understand how the two grand juries, one state and one federal, reached such astonishingly different verdicts based on the same evidence, and what that means for our contemporary understanding of institutionalized racism and African American views of the American criminal justice system.
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O'Brien's answers to these questions in the remainder of the book are necessarily complex and compel her to "roam widely" (p. 2), historically, analytically, and geographically. Ultimately, her most effective focus is on the significant changes that were taking place in the South in the United States in the years since the American Civil War. O'Brien identifies as a key element in her analysis the increased "personal efficacy" that was felt by returning black World War II veterans in a changing South. A great migration and a resulting "structural change" had been taking place; many blacks as well as whites left rural areas to relocate in booming towns and larger urban areas. Entrenched, traditional roles and absolute dividing lines of all varieties that had plagued hundreds of small southern towns were somewhat less entrenched and absolute in America's changing towns and cities. Newly mobile and empowered African American veterans were more worldly and self-assured (as well as better trained with weapons and battle tactics) than when they first entered the military. More fundamentally, these veterans were far less willing to accept traditional notions of white supremacy after having risked their lives fighting against openly racist Axis regimes and their now defeated ideologies. There was also a developing black middle class in such places as Columbia, and these businesspeople and professionals were increasingly powerful, and beginning to become more integrated into white society in the South.
In this painstakingly researched book, O'Brien draws on many primary, archival sources, including unsealed federal grand jury records, and dozens of interviews conducted with those from both sides of the conflict. This is a book that succeeds on many levels. It is a deep, careful reading of a race riot that followed an attempted lynching in the small town of Columbia, Tennessee in 1946. However, it is far more than this. THE COLOR OF THE LAW is a compelling reading of the transformative currents that were coursing through America in the months following the conclusion of a world war fought in the name of freedom.
In terms of current hot-button debates, O'Brien's study will also be of great interest to those seeking to study
and teach about the continued suspicion that African Americans harbor toward the police and the American criminal
justice system. This book would make an excellent addition to any law and society course, as well as historically-oriented
courses in civil rights and civil liberties, and courses on the American South and American politics in general.
It is an important work that adds depth and context to our knowledge of the American South and America itself.
THE COLOR OF THE LAW is a model of careful and courageous scholarship and should be standard reading for students
of law and justice in the United States.
Copyright 2000 by the author.