Legal and Political Frameworks in the Burnham-Nobles Archive

Several scholars have covered the history of the early to mid-twentieth century federal efforts to control lynching and anti-Black police violence. 1 The Archive adds depth and detail to this area of study, illuminating the relationship between federal and state prosecutorial initiatives, between civil and criminal proceedings, and the impact of advocacy groups like the NAACP on federal decision-making. It offers an opportunity to reconsider how the Department of Justice and the FBI navigated the thin line between lynchings and police killings, particularly as mob killings declined in the 1940s while police brutality remained potent. It underscores the mechanisms by which, as an NAACP investigator put it, “lynching went underground” in the 1940s. And the correspondence in the department’s files informs our understandings of how its officials in Washington sought, often without success, to get its recalcitrant US attorneys in the South to abide by national policies. A review of several Archive cases illustrates these points. Compare, for example, the case of Henry Bedford, who died in 1934, with the case of Wilbert Robinson, who died in 1949.

Henry Bedford was born into slavery in 1864 in Smith County, Mississippi. His father and mother were born in Maryland and sold to a Smith County enslaver. Bedford left no record of his life, but the Archive contains illuminating documents concerning his death in 1934, including a protest letter from a white man to the Tuskegee Institute, a death certificate, and correspondence between a Black attorney in Jackson and NAACP leader Walter White. Seeking to leave farm work for work in a saw mill, Bedford had moved with his wife to Pelahatchie in Rankin County, just east of Smith. There Bedford had a tenancy with a man named Cawthorne. In a dispute with Cawthorne over how much rent was due, Henry Bedford was, his killers would later explain to the sheriff, too “sassy” for “a nigger” speaking to a white man. 2 Cawthorne’s son and three of his friends kidnapped Bedford, then a seventy-year-old widower, took him into the woods, whipped him with a strap and left him to die, which, in a few hours, he did.

From newspaper articles and the files of the NAACP and the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), we can piece together that in Pelahatchie white opinion about the murder was divided. If Bedford had been “sassy,” it was out of character, according to local whites, for he was, they recalled, someone who “remained in his place.” 3 That some thought the slayers should be tried in court was clear from the letter the Tuskegee Institute received, for the letter writer expressed “the wish of the best citizens of the town that an agent be sent to investigate and prosecute.” 4 Others, the sheriff observed, were critical because he arrested (and then released on bail) the men for “just killing a nigger.” 5 The file suggests that perhaps a compromise was ultimately struck: as far as the available documents reveal, the men were arrested, released, and never prosecuted.

As to Mississippi’s extant official record of this event, only the death certificate, a strikingly suggestive document, remains. As this Archive bears out, officials certifying deaths during this era took great care to obscure anti-Black criminal violence. In the case of Henry Bedford, however, reflecting, perhaps, the sentiment of some that the killing was extreme, the recording official noted on the death certificate that the man died from a “whipping administered by mob.” 6 We can surmise, as well, that in his senior years Bedford was alone: no-one could provide to the official the names of Bedford’s mother, father, or wife. He had retired from the mill about three years before his death, and he was buried, without benefit of an undertaker, in a homemade casket at some unrecorded place in Pelahatchie. Such was the life and death of Henry Bedford, as pieced together from the records in this collection.

The case files thicken as the years go by, even if what provoked the lethality remained the same. Wilbert Robertson, age 29, was on his way to work at a restaurant, Mr. Cheek’s Place, near Clinton, Louisiana on July 4, 1949. During the week Robertson worked as a mechanic, but on weekends and holidays he worked at Cheek’s Place. On this particular day a deputy sheriff, one George Freeman, who was investigating a traffic accident on the highway, sought to control a rubber-necking crowd, many of them, in the language of the judicial record, “colored people.” 7 By one account, when Freeman demanded that the onlookers stand back, Robertson turned around and said “OK, boss.” “Don’t ‘o.k.’ me,” yelled the deputy, so furious at the “disrespect” that he began to beat Robertson with his nightstick. Robertson drew his hands up around his head and retreated, whereupon, as the crown swerved in witness, the deputy shot him. He died at New Orleans’s Charity Hospital six days later. Freeman escaped criminal liability, but there is a federal file on the case. Robertson’s wife, however, not content to leave the pursuit of justice in the hands of state and federal prosecutors, persuaded one of New Orleans’ well-known lawyers to file a state court civil suit against the deputy on her behalf and to benefit the couple’s four children. The case was initially dismissed by a judge before trial, and thereafter reversed on appeal. At a three-day trial where sixteen witnesses–including, presumably, some of the “colored people” who watched the killing–testified, Freeman apparently persuaded a jury that he was acting in self-defense when he killed Robertson; that verdict dismissing Robertson’s claim was sustained in the appeals court the second time around. 8

These two cases, that of Bedford and Robertson, separated by fifteen years, speak to some of the Archive’s most illuminating teachings. The Archive highlights the tenacity and constancy of white supremacist, masculinist ideologies of violence during the Jim Crow decades, while it also demarcates the civil rights legal environment in the early 1930s from that in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Archive also quietly demonstrates how the political disenfranchisement (or more plainly, denial of the vote) of Black Americans fundamentally enabled and strengthened anti-Black violence over these same years. Southern state and federal legislators, state, county, and municipal officials, including county sheriffs, were all empowered by an electorate that did not include Black citizens.

Moreover, in 1934, when Bedford was beaten to death in Mississippi, there was, officials in the Department of Justice had concluded, no readily discernible pathway for the federal government to prosecute the killers. Nor, in effect, were any state juridical forums open to the victim. Indeed, when the attorney in Jackson, S. D. Redmond, wrote to Walter White about the case, he was so fearful of reprisal that he asked White not to disclose his identity. With Bedford’s burial in a handmade coffin in an unknown grave, his case was rendered invisible.

Much had changed by 1949. Not only were there several state judicial examinations of the killing of Wilbert Robertson, but the Justice Department also opened a file. That the results were disappointing cannot be gainsaid. It is true, as well, that Mississippi and Louisiana are not apples to apples comparisons. Nevertheless, there is a good deal to be learned by comparing the legal aftermath of the Bedford matter in 1934 to that of Robertson in 1949.

The Department of Justice launched a unit specifically to address civil rights matters in 1939, and enforcement of the Reconstruction-era criminal civil rights statutes fell within its purview. These laws criminalizing the deprivation of constitutional or other federally protected rights by individuals acting for the state (arguably applicable in the Robertson case), or by private actors conspiring with one another (potentially applicable in the Bedford case), were adopted immediately after the Civil War by a Congress that recognized that state officials, or private gangs, who abused the rights of individuals were a threat to enforcement of the Constitution’s provisions and to the Reconstruction agenda. In 1939 the Civil Liberties Unit (later to be renamed the Civil Rights Section) of the Department of Justice (and established by Attorney General Frank Murphy) was charged with enforcing these criminal statutes. Prior to that, the department’s position was that it lacked authority to prosecute police criminality or lynch mobs.

Indeed, the premise of the campaign for federal anti-lynching legislation was the belief that the Reconstruction-era statutes could not reach private racist violence by groups or mobs. This view–that new laws were needed–was based in large measure on a 1906 Supreme Court decision in the case of US v. Hodges. 9 In Hodges, the white defendants had forced a group of African American men to abandon their jobs–and the contracts that secured them–at gunpoint. A prosecution under the federal “enforcement” statutes ensued in Arkansas, where the incident took place, and convictions were obtained. On appeal, however, tossing out the jury verdicts, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s argument that the defendants’ conduct violated the Black workers’ rights under the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments. The thirteenth amendment did not apply, the Court opined, because it barred only the bondage that prevailed during slavery, and the fourteenth amendment was similarly inapplicable because the white private defendants were not “state actors” within the meaning of the law.

Having thus stripped the muscle from the Reconstruction statutes, the Supreme Court’s Hodges decision deprived the Department of Justice of the tools it needed to battle lynching and other forms of anti-Black violence. And as for the campaign for federal anti-lynching legislation, the lobbying efforts of civil rights organizations ultimately failed. The Dyer bill of 1922 passed the House but was filibustered in the Senate. Similarly, the Costigan-Wagner bill was passed in the House in 1937 and 1940 but was filibustered each time in the Senate. All three filibusters were led by Senators from Southern states, where Black Americans were effectively denied the vote through all manner of prohibition, including violence. These were interconnected phenomena: disfranchisement enabled racial violence, but racial violence also enforced the policy of disfranchisement.

No prosecutions would follow Hodges until the early 1940s. In the early 1930s, even as they pressed Congress for an anti-lynching statute, civil rights lawyers argued, unsuccessfully, that existing laws provided the tools that the DOJ needed to bring prosecutions against lynchers. In 1933, NAACP lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston wrote a memorandum urging the DOJ to pursue lynchers in an Alabama case. Three young men had been kidnapped by a mob as they were being transported by local lawmen from Tuscaloosa, where they were charged with rape and murder, to Birmingham. 10 The mob killed two of the men while the third escaped. When a local grand jury refused to indict anyone, Houston urged the DOJ to bring a federal case, arguing that “A Nation whose government can protect its citizens abroad, which can invade the sovereignty of a foreign Nation,” should not abandon them “through a lack of official courage to enforce the written law.” 11 What occurred in the Alabama case violated existing federal law, Houston argued, in part because the sheriff facilitated the lynching. Rejecting Houston’s appeal, the Department concluded he had not demonstrated there was “state action,” a prerequisite under one of the laws. Houston’s claim that the sheriff and his men facilitated the actions of the mob were, a DOJ lawyer wrote, “clearly the conclusions reached by the writer of the memorandum without submitting any facts to support the same.” 12 Of course, Houston’s memorandum called for a federal investigation into the sheriff’s complicity; it was not itself the final word on that question. Attorney General Homer Cummings rejected Houston’s argument, preferring to wait for explicit congressional authority before taking on such a “local” matter.

Charles Houston’s argument was finally picked up by the department after the establishment, in 1939, of what would become the Civil Rights Section, but gaining traction with southern federal prosecutors and juries proved challenging. In 1940 the department pursued a prosecution of an Atlanta police officer, W.F. Sutherland, who had, in pursuit of a confession, branded a sixteen-year-old detainee with an electric device. The federal criminal prosecution required the cooperation of the FBI, however, and J. Edgar Hoover was reluctant to interfere with a local police department, one whose cooperation he required in other matters. “The Atlanta police department is not under investigation in this matter and . . . the only person indicted is Sutherland,” Hoover wrote to the department’s prosecutors. 13 The matter was mistried twice in federal court (after a Fulton County jury had acquitted Sutherland) and ultimately dismissed.

In Sikestown, Missouri, a mob lynched Cleo Wright in 1942, just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The department sought unsuccessfully to persuade a federal grand jury to bring charges against the killers. A handful of other prosecutions followed, but it was an uphill battle. The cases in the Archive reveal that the department repeatedly yielded to the views of local federal prosecutors, who were generally adamantly opposed to civil rights claims. These local fears about federal overreach were reflected in the communications and practices of its lawyers in Washington. In May 1940 the Civil Rights Section sent out a memorandum warning that prosecuting local law enforcement officers under the enforcement statutes should be a last resort, for such cases “may arouse antagonism on States’ rights grounds, for jury reasons, and perhaps also as a matter of constitutional law.” Local offices could proceed only “in cases of flagrant and persistent breakdown of local law enforcement either in general or with respect to a particular type of case.” 14 Further, if the victim of the lynching or police killing was not “of good character,” there would be no prosecution. The chief of the department’s Criminal Division reminded his line prosecutors that “a third-degree complaint against a victim with a bad record is a very different case from one where the victim is a first offender. We also limit investigations to cases of outright brutality.” 15

It was not until 1946 that the department enjoyed unqualified success in a prosecution targeting anti-Black violence under the Reconstruction-era statutes. Tom Crews, a Florida town marshal beat one Samuel McFadden and then forced him to jump from a bridge into the Suwannee River, where he drowned. The department prosecuted, won a verdict, and, in a notable turn of the tide, held onto it on appeal. 16

Well-known is the history of the failure of federal authorities to prosecute the Klansmen who killed Harry T. Moore and Harriette Moore in Mims, FL in 1951. The Archive amplifies this history, documenting, for example, the killing of William “Pim” Lockwood in 1946 by a deputy sheriff in Tuskegee, AL. The department’s lawyers in Washington deemed the case against the deputy triable, but the local US attorney, Edward Parker, would not follow through. The Civil Rights Section eventually closed the file because, according to a lawyer’s note in the file, “X–will not go on anything.” 17 “X” was Parker. As well, the Archive reveals the deep skepticism of the Washington-based prosecutors in the Section. Sammie Lee Bland, 19 years old, died in Grenada, Mississippi in 1953. His body was found in the Yalobusha River nearly two weeks after a violent encounter with a local police officer. His sister had reported his disappearance to the FBI before the body was recovered. The initial report from a witness was that Bland, dancing and generally acting up, had laughingly said “come and get me, white folks.” Overhearing the remark, an officer, Sam Ferguson, beat and shot Bland. The accounts of how Bland met his death varied, but the file suggests the FBI’s investigation may have been affected by bias. An intriguing handwritten note in the file declared “sounds like another ‘Crews v. US,’” but the FBI agents do not appear to have protected their witnesses, leading some to recant. 18

As exemplified by the Wilbert Robertson case in 1949, aggrieved families could, if they had the wherewithal, take advantage of state civil remedies by the mid to late 1940s. This allowed them to control the legal narrative in a manner that was not possible when state and federal prosecutors controlled the facts and legal strategy. Hence, these state civil proceedings suggest how African Americans took advantage of judicial forums as soon as they became available to them. The Alabama case of a man named Captain Butler offers another good example. Butler, a leader of the United Mine Workers and a pastor in the Birmingham area, was, in 1948, shot to death by security officers employed by the mining company where he worked. A coroner determined the shooting was justified, thereby reducing the likelihood of a criminal prosecution, but Butler’s wife brought a civil suit, where witnesses successfully disputed the killers’ claim that Butler had pulled a gun on them. A jury, likely all white men, returned a $10,000 verdict for Mrs. Butler. The Jet Magazine spread the word to Black communities across the country with the headline, “Ala. Widow Awarded $10,000 Judgement.” 19 In the 1953 Sammie Lee Bland case as well, a civil suit was brought against the Grenada police chief by Bland’s family. The suit was unproductive, but as one of three brutality lawsuits filed in the same month and year against the chief, it built a record that contributed to his forced termination three months after the filing.

The Archive is an important source of newly collected data about the legal processes associated with racist violence during the Jim Crow era, the efforts to harness legal remedies by Black communities and their organizations and allies, and the impact of closed courtroom doors on the lives of Black people.

WWII: African American Soldiers, Veterans, and Citizens in the Burnham-Nobles Archive

Though far from an exhaustive chronicle, the Burnham-Nobles Archive contains detailed records on the killings of nearly 200 African Americans who had been members of the U.S. military. Dozens of these victims were active-duty military personnel. These include such well-known cases as the killing of Pvt. Felix Hall at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1941, and Pvt. Booker T. Spicely in Durham, North Carolina in 1944 as well as lesser-known cases, such as Pvt. Ned Turman who was killed in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1941 and Sgt. Thomas P. Foster, killed in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1942.

Spanning the years 1930-1954, these records highlight both the new dangers and new opportunities that the mass mobilization for WWII presented to African American communities across the South. The home front experience radically disordered the well-policed geographies of mid-century white supremacy. The presence of black troops in uniform, carrying the implicit threat of federal intervention, in public spaces of the Jim Crow South provoked a violent response from its segregationist defenders.

As James Baldwin reflected on his childhood during these years, he recalled the feeling among those with family members in the military of

“directionless, hopeless bitterness as well as that panic which can scarcely be suppressed when one knows that a human being one loves is beyond one’s reach, and in danger … People I knew felt, mainly, a peculiar kind of relief when they knew their boys were being shipped out of the South to do battle overseas. It was, perhaps, like feeling that the most dangerous part of the journey had been passed and that now, even if death should come, it would come with honor and not at the hands of their countrymen.” 20

Dozens of African American soldiers in uniform did not make it out of the South. Among these was Pvt. Adam Green, who was shot and killed in April 1945 at the train station in Dumas, Arkansas by City Marshal J. R. Wilson as he attempted to reboard a moving train on which he was a through passenger. Green was under orders to travel from Camp Livingston, Louisiana to Fort Ord, California. In a letter to the Attorney General, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy wrote that the killing was unprovoked and unjustified. According to eyewitnesses, Green had neither threatened Wilson nor resisted arrest. Marshal Wilson stated in his testimony that Green “clenched his fist” and chose to respond with lethal force.

Those African Americans stationed in the South during the war had to tread lightly, especially on public transit. Pvt. Edward Green was shot and killed by bus driver Odell Lachnette in Alexandria, Louisiana in March 1944. Green, who had been standing, took the seat of a white man who had gotten up and left the bus. Lachnette ordered the solider to get out of that seat three times. Each time, Green protested that there were no other seats in the back. The driver then picked up his blackjack and started to advance on Green, changed his mind and returned to the driver's seat to get his gun instead. At this point, Green left the bus and begged the driver not to shoot him. He asked twice. Instead, Lachnette walked right up to Green and shot him through the heart, killing him instantly. After a brief detention, the driver was released and soon returned to his route. The week previously, this same driver ran over and killed a black soldier. He did not stop his bus until he was overtaken by the military police.

Finally, those veterans returning to the South came back changed from their experiences in the military and were far less willing to submit to Jim Crow social norms. St. Clair V. Pressley was shot and killed by officer Weldon A. Parrott in Johnsonville, South Carolina on November 10th, 1945. Recently discharged from the military, Pressley returned to Johnsonville and joined two other Black servicemen at a “negro café” on Front Street near the railroad station. They drank and talked for several hours, glad to be home after the war. At around 4:15, Officer Weldon Parrott attempted to arrest Pressley for public drunkenness and using abusive language. When Parrott grabbed Pressley by the arm, the ex-serviceman turned to face Parrott in a manner the officer later claimed was threatening. The officer then shot Pressley, who collapsed from his wounds as Parrott dragged him bodily towards the jail. He died shortly thereafter at the hospital. Every Black witness at the café stated that Parrott shot Pressley without provocation, but a single white witness standing 50 yards away backed Parrott's story of self-defense. The police later claimed to have found a penknife on Pressley, which, they said, justified the slaying.

The records collected by the Archive also reveal the fraught relationship between military authorities and local law enforcement over the policing of African American troops stationed in the South during WWII. While welcoming the federal investment that base construction brought the South during the war, local white leaders committed to the preservation of the Jim Crow social order were also concerned with the stationing of Black troops in these newly built and expanded facilities. Base commanders sometimes found themselves in conflict with local segregationists, especially following the killing of a Black soldier at the hands of police.

For example, Pvt. Willie Osborn was on leave from Louisiana’s Camp Claiborne in October 1944 and had traveled to Lake Providence to see a show. While at the show, he accidentally, it appeared, bumped into John Sheldon Sullivan, an off-duty police officer who was attending the same show with his wife and children. A few heated words were exchanged, but the two men parted without exchanging blows. Sullivan then went home, where he likely retrieved a gun, returned to the show where he confronted Osborn again. In the ensuing fight, Sullivan shot and killed the solider. An inquest cleared the officer of legal responsibility for the shooting, concluding that Sullivan fired in self-defense. In the weeks that followed, Major D. C. Bartlett, provost marshal of Camp Claiborne, made inquiries and became convinced that a soldier stationed at his base had been shot and killed without justification. He then successfully pressed the FBI to conduct a genuine investigation. The investigation corroborated Bartlett’s contentions, finding that Osborn had been shot in the back, and thereby casting doubt on Sullivan’s claims of self-defense. Nevertheless, the Department of Justice concluded they could not, pursuant to federal criminal civil rights statutes, prosecute, as Sullivan was not acting in his capacity as an officer of the law when he shot and killed Osborn. Inasmuch as law enforcement generally operated with impunity during Jim Crow, this outcome is perhaps not surprising. What is unexpected are the ways in which military authorities sometimes intervened on behalf of Black soldiers. It was these interventions that generated the records that comprise a portion of the Burnham-Nobles Archive.

The impact of WWII as reflected in the Archive is not limited to the experiences of soldiers and veterans. As the United States found itself at war abroad with nations that explicitly embraced theories of racial chauvinism, it became more difficult for the defenders of Jim Crow at home to equate white supremacy with American patriotism, as had been the case when Rep. John E. Rankin (D-MS) in March 1943 condemned on the House floor as “Gestapo tactics” federal attempts to secure indictments against the killers of a man named Howard Wash. Regardless, the emerging public discourse surrounding the war allowed opponents of lynching and police brutality to paint the perpetrators of anti-Black violence as allies of Hitler and anti-American. This can be seen in the hundreds of letters of protest collected in records of the DOJ and gathered in the Archive. For example, the lynching of Cellos Harrison outside of Marianna, Florida in June 1943 drew a strong rebuke from the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America. In a telegram sent to Attorney General Francis Biddle, the lynching, it was argued, gave “aid and comfort to Axis enemies. Such outranges [sic] within our own land will greatly reduce our influence with our many colored Allied who will judge what we say over there by what is done over here.”

The letters of protest contained within the DOJ records gathered here also highlight how the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union blunted the effectiveness of anti-communism and opened some space for communists to act more openly against lynching and police brutality. During and immediately after WWII, the Communist Party and various left-wing groups vigorously pushed the federal government to investigate lynchings as well as killings at the hands of police. As the DOJ’s lawyers carefully strategized how to prosecute cases against lynchers, often concluding that they would never win before an all-white southern jury, they were bombarded with thousands of letters demanding that they act. For example, following the killings of Moses Green, Jesse James Payne, and Sam McFadden in late 1945, the International Labor Defense mobilized a nationwide letter-writing campaign. These efforts were buttressed by similar efforts across the political spectrum including the International Workers Order, left-wing locals of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, dozens of local NAACP chapters, religious institutions such as the National Baptist Publishing Board, and churches such as the First Presbyterian Church of Ottumwa, Iowa. This broad array of support shows how powerfully a war against fascism abroad could support campaigns against lynching and police violence at home.

Killings at the Hands of Police in the Burnham-Nobles Archive

As we have built this Archive, one of the most surprising things we have discovered is the sheer volume of the documentation detailing police involvement in racial homicides targeting African American victims. A large part of this has to do with the increasingly bureaucratic nature of police departments as they professionalized over the course of the twentieth century. Not only does this bureaucracy generate records about police-involved killings within police institutions themselves, but it also spurs the creation of more records in institutions that respond to these killings, such as the NAACP and the Department of Justice.

The bureaucratic record of police violence

The multiple layers of bureaucratic record keeping have preserved evidence of incidents such as the beating death of Noverta Robertson at the hands of town marshal Enos B. Criswell at Walnut, Mississippi in October 1947. We discovered this case in the Department of Justice Litigation Index, which indexes by name correspondence on cases where the DOJ received information about a possible violation of federal civil rights, starting in the late 1920s. The card for Enos B. Criswell was remarkably detailed, informing us of a “request of Olean Simelton for investigation relative to death of Noverta Robinson, aka Noverta Robertson, victim resulting from a beating at the hands of Enos B. Criswell and Deputy Sheriff Chris Wells, Walnut Miss. on 10-17-47.” Robertson’s murder was assigned DOJ case #144-40-19, which gave us the information we needed to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the DOJ file.

As we awaited the results of our FOIA request, we then located further evidence in the records of the NAACP held at the Library of Congress. These records contained correspondence with the DOJ about Robertson’s murder. Importantly, it also contained an affidavit from Robertson's sister, Olean Simelton, which provided a crucial counter narrative to the conclusion of the coroner’s jury that Robertson died of natural causes. It was this affidavit, submitted to the DOJ by both the victim’s sister and the NAACP that prompted the DOJ to direct the FBI to investigate.

When we received the DOJ file, we discovered a remarkably thorough investigation that generated a case file of 122 pages, and which substantially supported Simelton’s version of events. According to that account, Robertson was walking on his way to downtown Walnut, Mississippi to buy some oil. While returning home, Marshal Criswell stopped him and asked where he was going, and Robertson replied “home.” Perhaps it was a lack of deference that prompted Criswell to beat Robertson savagely and throw him in jail. Though there were several white witnesses to the beating, none chose to intervene. Robertson was bailed out the following morning, went home, fell asleep, and died.

DOJ File #144-40-19 not only contained Simelton’s account, but also contains interviews with more than a dozen witnesses, who saw Criswell beat Robertson. It also contains the report of the coroner's jury stating that Robertson died of natural causes, despite undeniable evidence of a brutal beating. After the coroner’s determination clearing Criswell, Judge Thomas E. Pegram ordered an autopsy. This revealed a blood clot the size of man's palm in the victim's brain–evidence of a severe beating. The failure of the coroner’s jury to find legal responsibility for Robertson’s death may have tied Judge Pegram’s hands and there does not appear to have been any local attempt to prosecute Criswell at the state level before the DOJ attempted to bring a civil rights case against him.

With assistance from the FBI, the DOJ built that case, corroborating many of the allegations Simelton detailed in her original affidavit, namely that Criswell was likely intoxicated when he killed Robertson and that he had a cruel and violent reputation among both black and white residents of Walnut. The FBI discovered that Criswell had been forced to step down as deputy sheriff due to his “bad character,” and had been known to engage in “shakedown rackets.” Though the DOJ felt that it had a strong case grounded in a remarkably thorough FBI investigation, the federal prosecutors had their doubts about whether a local jury would convict. The doubts were well-founded. At the trial, witnesses that the DOJ’s attorneys had lined up to testify backed away, undermining the case. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Though the outcome of the trial is not unusual, the level of detail these records provide will likely open several new avenues into the history of policing in the Jim Crow south.

A police thumb on the scales of justice

The Archive holds thousands of pages of records that contain contrasting and often conflicting accounts of violent encounters between victims and assailants. These typically comprise an official police perspective (often buttressed by white eyewitness accounts) and the perspective offered by the African American victim’s family and community. Though police are ideally supposed to be neutral enforcers of the law, the gendered and racialized understanding of the relationship between victims and perpetrators evident in these files demonstrates how police weighted the scales of justice against Black victims and in favor of white perpetrators.

This can be seen clearly in the case of Willie James Watson, who was killed on May 4, 1951 in Valdosta, Georgia by police lieutenant Hugh Flowers and his son, officer Raymond Flowers. Across its ninety-six pages, DOJ Case File #144-19M-102 offers two dramatically conflicting accounts of the killing. A local African American teacher, Henry White, had collected statements from several African American witnesses, which described Watson as asleep or drunk or both on a public bench when the officers, Hugh and Raymond Flowers, attempted to arrest him for public drunkenness. As they attempted to get him into the car, Watson hooked his arm around a telephone pole and would not be dislodged. To get Watson to let go, Raymond Flowers then struck Watson repeatedly. One eyewitness claimed that Watson was struck twenty-four times. Another stated that after the beating, Watson was “dead on his feet,” and in no position to resist arrest. No witness saw Watson wield the knife that police would later claim he used to attack them, prompting them to shoot in self-defense. No autopsy was performed, but the undertaker believed that Watson died from a skull fracture rather than the bullet wounds; he observed that Watson's skull had been broken severely enough that “brain matter was seeping out.” When Henry White presented his evidence to the mayor, the city council, and the sheriff, none of them acted, prompting him to contact A. T. Walden of the Atlanta NAACP, who then forwarded the results of White’s investigation on to the DOJ.

As Henry White gathered his evidence, the police advanced the claim that, upon being roused, Watson suddenly “came up with a knife” and started fighting them, forcing them to defend themselves. The Valdosta Daily Times repeated the officers’ account of their battle with a “knife-wielding Valdosta Negro.” This became the official story of the killing when the chief of police, Wilbur Perkerson, failed to locate any eyewitnesses who could offer an alternate version, Henry White’s efforts notwithstanding. When Watson’s widow swore out warrants against Hugh Flowers and his son, Raymond, a local Justice of the Peace dismissed these due to “insufficient evidence to establish probable cause.” The accumulated weight of all these official sources repeating the same story of the officers’ innocence prompted U.S. Attorney John P. Cowart to attempt to close the case, attributing the killing to “the bad judgement and inexperience of a youthful police officer” rather than “ill will” towards Watson. When the DOJ ordered him to reopen it for presentation to a grand jury, both officers were indicted on civil rights charges. The federal jury found Raymond Flowers not guilty. The elder Flowers escaped judgment altogether when he died of cancer.

Police, Posses, and Lynch Mobs

Finally, the Archive also contains records on dozens of killings that feature the involvement of legally deputized posses. Quite frequently, the actions of these legal posses closely resembled those of illegal lynch mobs. The NAACP recognized this when it released its 1940 report, Lynching Goes Underground: A Report on a New Technique. Based on the investigations of Howard Kester, a white leader of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and NAACP ally, this investigation sought to prove that lynchings had not declined as some had been claiming. Rather, they had gone “underground.” One of the cases the NAACP chose to support their contention detailed the fatal shooting of Claude Banks at the hands of a legally deputized posse. As Kester explained, “the evidence seems to indicate that the group of men who fired upon Banks ... was a legally deputized posse” and “it is positively known that both deputies and members of the local police force were among those who shot Claude Banks.” He concluded that:

“whether a posse or a plain mob matters little to Claude Banks or his parents and brother ... The posse ... acted as similar groups always act. A white man had been attacked by a Negro: A Negro must pay, the right Negro, if possible, but a Negro at whatever costs. Two careless, happy Negro boys rode by. When it was discovered that they were Negroes and did not stop, they became immediately guilty in the eyes of the white men who formed the posse ... They were just ‘two niggers’ and as such could be shot down like wild animals seeking to escape before the hunter.” 21

Among the materials collected within the Burnham-Nobles Archive, there is evidence of at least three different types of relationships between police, posses, and lynch mobs.

The first type of relationship is one wherein the posse, though reputedly deputized, is practically indistinguishable from the lynch mob. In May 1936, siblings Cora and William Wales were killed in Gordonsville, Virginia at the hands of a posse numbering 2,000 headed by state and county police. The Wales family possessed a sizeable amount of land that local whites had been trying to seize from them for years. The final attempt to do so began when Sheriff William B. Young attempted to serve a “lunacy warrant” to have William Wales institutionalized, clearing the way for the seizure of his property. A dispute ensued, culminating in the shooting death of Sheriff Young at Wales’s hands. When the posse arrived, the Wales siblings barricaded themselves in their house. After a seven-hour standoff, the house was set ablaze and both Cora and William Wales were shot as they tried to escape. Rather than attempt arrest William Wales for the murder, the posse took matters into its own hands, dispensing summary justice much as a lynch mob would do. As the ashes of the former Wales homestead cooled, a newspaper photographer captured images of posse members and others combing through the ruins of the house for souvenirs to commemorate the event, much as members of a lynch mob would.

Sometimes police would lose control of an officially deputized posse, which would then take actions like those typical of a lynch mob. For example, Walter Turner was shot and killed in October 1947 in Talbot County, Georgia. An African American trusty serving a life sentence, Turner was part of a posse comprising nearly 100 peace officers and volunteers who were seeking escaped African American convict Roscoe Carson. After shooting Sheriff James H. Ferguson in the hip and hand, Carson had escaped from the county jail. Turner, leading the way with the bloodhounds, had finally tracked Carson down and was the first to find him. As Turner pleaded with Carson to turn himself in, the escapee refused, and the two men then struggled for possession of the sheriff's stolen gun. As they were grappling, J. E. Hawkins, a “prominent lumberman” and posse man, was the second to arrive and immediately opened fire. The fusillade of bullets that Hawkins unleashed hit both Carson and Turner indiscriminately, wounding the former and killing the latter. It's unclear whether anyone else in the posse took part in the shooting, but Hawkins was arrested on charges of involuntary manslaughter and released on $500 bond. The available sources do not indicate if Hawkins ever went to trial.

Finally, evidence in the Archive of police collaboration with lynch mobs demonstrates just how faint the line could be between legally deputized posses and lynch mobs. In May 1930, George Hughes was burned alive in the courthouse at Grayson County, Texas by a mob numbering several thousand. Hughes had been accused of raping a white woman following a dispute with his employers over wages owed. Rather than stopping the assault on the courthouse, local police were put to work directing traffic as hundreds of carloads poured into town to attend the lynching. Similarly, when Wilder Charles McGowan was killed in November 1938 at the hands of a mob numbering 200 near Wiggins, Mississippi, Sheriff H. C. Hinton expressed his approval that it was an “orderly lynching” with “no shooting and no disorder in the mob.” Though Sheriff Hinton told a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune that “grand jury or court action would await his investigation of the mob action,” we have found no indication that any of the more than a dozen identified participants in the lynching ever faced charges.

Coroners and Inquests in the Burnham-Nobles Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Archive defines an inquest as any procedure wherein a legally constituted authority seeks to determine whether there is a question of criminal legal responsibility for a death. An inquest is not a trial. It occurs before any charges are filed by a prosecutor. The purpose of an inquest is to determine whether charges should be filed. Inquests can be described in the documents in various ways, most often as a “coroner’s jury” or an “inquest.”

Sometimes even if an inquest determines there was no criminal wrongdoing in a homicide case, a prosecutor may nevertheless file charges. An inquest is not the same as a hearing to determine whether an officer of the law should be discharged from their position. For example, in our file on John L. Thomas, the City Commission “conducted an inquiry into the shooting to determine if the officers who killed Thomas were at fault … It was the decision of the Commission that neither of the officers were responsible, and no administrative action was taken against them with respect to their positions.” This hearing pertained to the officers' employment, not their criminal responsibility. This decision may have contributed to their ability to escape criminal responsibility for their actions; however, it is not an inquest.

Moreover, an inquest is different from a preliminary hearing, which may be held to determine whether to pursue further proceedings, such as a trial. And finally, an inquest is not the same thing as an autopsy. Though some jurisdictions covered by our archive required coroners to have medical training, many did not. Commonly, an inquest over a dead body did not require any medical examination of the corpse of the victim.

An “inquest authority” is the person legally authorized to undertake the inquest. Often these were elected coroners, especially during the 1930s and 40s. As we approach the end of our timeframe, in the 1950s, however, professional medical examiners or state toxicologists often performed these functions. The laws governing inquests vary widely across jurisdictions and time periods however; inquests were often overseen by justices of the peace, county judges, sheriffs, or other legal authorities

Generally occurring at the initial stage of an investigation, inquests could and often did improperly secure impunity for the perpetrators of racial violence. If an inquest by a coroner or a coroner’s jury determined that the cause of death was something other than intentional homicidal violence at the hands of an identifiable party, it was easy to forestall further investigation of a racially motivated killing.

Coroners, and the juries they sometimes summoned to conduct an inquest, understood the power they had to ensure that those who killed could avoid legal consequences. For example, the coroner’s jury that was charged with conducting an inquest into the lynching of Willie Earle in Greenville, South Carolina, in February 1947 sought to subvert the process. The jury had the names of thirty-one members of the lynch mob, and confessions from some of those named. Nevertheless, in an attempt to clear these men, the panel refused to enter these names in its report. The jury reported that Earle came to his death “from a shotgun wound inflicted by a party or parties of a mob who had taken him from the Pickens County jail.” Twenty-six men had confessed to the crime, but no criminal complaints were filed in the case.

Because of their unique role in the history of racial violence, the Burnham-Nobles Archive has been especially attentive to the practices of coroners and the inquests over which they presided.

Categories of Inquest Findings

When an inquest concluded that there was no legal responsibility for a death, the reasons given tended to fall into three broad categories:

  1. Death due to natural or other causes
    1. David Bereium was detained by police in Liberty County, Florida in December 1953 at the site of a raid on a whiskey still. In the process of the arrest, he was beaten on the head. Upon his demise in a hospital three days later, a coroner’s inquest determined that the death was due to “epilepsy or delerium tremens.” The arresting officers were cleared in Bereium’s death.
    2. Wallace Williams was arrested in May 1952 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Prior to his arrest, Williams had been intermittently hospitalized in an asylum and was prone to having convulsions. On the day he died, he was walking in Lake Charles and had a convulsion. Claiming that Williams fought them, the police used blackjacks and pistols to beat him into submission. Placed in a jail cell, the severely injured man succumbed to his wounds shortly thereafter. A coroner, Henry S. Snatic, MD, concluded that the cause of death was a heart attack resulting from a struggle with the officers and not from the beating. The arresting officers were not charged in connection with Williams’s death.
  2. Death at the hands of parties unknown
    1. Dock Rogers was shot and killed by members of a mob in Willard, North Carolina in August 1933. Rogers had initially been shot and arrested by a sheriff’s posse, then seized from that posse by a mob, shot again and dragged behind a car around the courthouse. Although the coroner, Magistrate A. C. Blake, was present at the lynching, he nonetheless concluded that the lynching was done by a “person or persons unknown.” After the coroner’s investigation the case was brought before a grand jury at least twice, but nobody was charged in the case.
    2. Wilder Charles McGowan was shot and killed by a mob numbering at least two hundred in Wiggins, Mississippi in November 1938. Although a quarter of the population of Wiggins likely attended the lynching, a coroner determined that death was caused by “persons unknown.” Conducting an independent investigation, the NAACP identified no fewer than seventeen members of the mob. NAACP investigators could not, however, overcome the coroner’s initial determination. It appears that no charges were brought in the McGowan matter.
  3. Justifiable homicide
    1. Prentiss McCann was killed in July 1945 in Mobile, Alabama. Two police officers, breaking up a dice game, opened fire as they pulled up in front of the bar. McCann was in the area buying milk for his young twins. Hit by a bullet, he died shortly thereafter. Claiming that McCann was reaching for a weapon, the police asserted they acted in self-defense. An assistant coroner, Thomas B. Henderson, MD, examined McCann's body and believed that the police had lied in claiming self-defense. However, Henderson’s conclusion was overruled by his supervisor, Coroner Dr. H. S. J. Walker, who issued a finding of “justifiable homicide.” After Walker’s decision, the state solicitor declined to file charges.
    2. R. D. Howard was killed in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana in June 1943. Accused of stealing a cow, Howard was arrested without a warrant. Officer William Percy Newton shot Howard in the neck, killing him instantly. A coroner’s jury summoned by Coroner Forrest M. Terral declared the killing to be a “justifiable homicide in the line of duty.” However, off the record, the coroner admitted that Howard was likely murdered in cold blood. He could not “afford to question” the jury's ruling, he claimed, “for after all, I have to reside and make my living in this community.” Nobody was prosecuted for Howard’s murder.
  • 1 See, e.g., Pamela S. Karlan, “Contracting the Thirteenth Amendment: Hodges v. United States,” Boston University Law Review, 85 (June 2005), 783-809; John T. Elliff, The United States Department of Justice and Individual Rights, 1937-1962 (New York, 1987); Risa L. Goluboff, The Lost Promise of Civil Rights (Cambridge, MA 2007); Gail Williams O’Brien, The Color of the Law: Race, Violence and Justice in the Post-World War II South (Chapel Hill, 1999); Dominic J. Capeci Jr., The Lynching of Cleo Wright (Lexington, KY, 1998); Mark Tushnet, “The Politics of Equality in Constitutional Law: The Equal Protection Clause, Dr. DuBois, and Charles Hamilton Houston,” Journal of American History, 74 (December 1987), 884-903; Robert K. Carr, Federal Protection of Civil Rights: Quest for a Sword (Ithaca, 1947), Christopher Waldrep, “National Policing, Lynching, and Constitutional Change,” The Journal of Southern History 74 (August 2008), 589-626.

  • 2 C.W. Cawthorne, quoted in S.D. Redmond, letter to Walter White, Aug. 14, 1934, NAACP Papers, Box IC-360, Folder 30, Administrative Subject Files (Lynching).

  • 3 “Business Leaders Resent Lynching, Mob Victim Was a Good Citizen,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, Aug 18, 1934.

  • 4 J. A McAllister, letter to the NAACP, Jul. 26, 1934, NAACP Papers, Box IC-360, Folder 30, Administrative Subject Files (Lynching), NARA.

  • 5 C. W. Cawthorne, quoted in S. D. Redmond, letter to Walter White, Aug. 14, 1934, NAACP Papers, Box IC-360, Folder 30, Administrative Subject Files (Lynching), NARA.

  • 6 Henry Bedford, death certificate, Jul. 26, 1934, Mississippi State Board of Health.

  • 7 Robertson v. Palmer, 74 So. 2d. 408 (1954).

  • 8 Robertson v. Palmer, 74 So. 2d. 408 (1954) (the plaintiff’s legal name was Robinson).

  • 9 US v. Hodges, 203 U.S. 1 (1906).

  • 10 Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching. 1933. The Plight of Tuscaloosa : A Case Study of Conditions in Tuscaloosa County Alabama 1933. Atlanta: Commission.

  • 11 Charles Hamilton Houston Papers Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Box 163- 25.

  • 12 “Memorandum for the Assistant to the Attorney General,” August 30, 1933, File 158260 Box 1279, Straight Numerical Files, DOJ, NARA Record Group 60.

  • 13 Quoted in John T. Elliff, “Aspects of Federal Civil Rights Enforcement: The Justice Department and the FBI, 1939-1964, Perspectives in American History: Volume V, 1971, 609 (Cambridge University, 1971).

  • 14 Federal Criminal Jurisdiction Over Violations of Civil Liberties, Memorandum with Circular No. 3356 (Supplement No. 1) from O. John Rogge, Assistant Attorney General, to All United States Attorneys, May 21, 1940.

  • 15 Wendell Berge to James Rowe, March 3, 1942, DOJ Litigation Case File 144-19-5.

  • 16 Crews v. U.S., 160 F.2d 746 (1947).

  • 17 DOJ 144-2-17, undated memo to file, 1946.

  • 18 DOJ 144-40-81, undated memo in file, 1953.

  • 19 “Ala. Widow Awarded $10,000 Judgement,” Jet, May 1, 1952.

  • 20 James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (New York: Dial Press, 1955), 90-91.

  • 21 Lynching Goes Underground: A Report on a New Technique (New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1940). Copy in NAACP Records, Series I, Box C359, Folder 22, Library of Congress.