Law and Order in Black and White: Policing the Color Line in Atlanta

Originally published in Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946, a multimedia CD-ROM, Worth Publishers, 2001.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) made an impressive effort to bring black workers into the ranks of the labor movement in the 1930s. But despite the organization’s impressive gains elsewhere, the southern labor movement remained largely entwined with the stubborn tradition of white racism. Many southern black workers therefore looked to the black community in the fight to end segregation and expand job opportunities for African Americans. Although local activism did not bear fruit in many places until after World War II, African Americans in Atlanta successfully united in the 1930s and early 1940s to confront an old enemy: racial exclusiveness in the Atlanta police department.

For Atlanta’s black community, the all-white police force, which enjoyed unfettered authority over the city’s African Americans, was a source of long-standing acrimony. While frequently indifferent to the desire for security in the black community, the Atlanta police force was zealous in enforcing vague ordinances against idleness and loitering, laws that gave the police arbitrary power over the city’s poor white and poor black citizens.

Few police officers permitted black Atlantans to walk the city streets after dark, for example. Caught without a pass from an employer, African Americans might be jailed for a night or two without being formally charged with a crime. Worse still, they might suffer beatings and other forms of unprovoked police violence. An independent investigation of the Atlanta police force in 1933 documented thirty-one incidents of police brutality in a twelve-month period; twenty-two of the victims had been shot by officers, according to the published report, and seven more had been severely beaten. Hotel worker B. B. Beamon’s interview for the “Living Atlanta” radio series recounts harassment and brutality as a routine feature of black life in Atlanta. “It was just a common thing,” he recalls, “for the police to beat you, woop you, or kick your door down … That’s one reason why we wanted the black police.”

Periodic efforts in the 1930s to integrate the police department, spearheaded by black leaders such as Martin Luther King Sr., were unsuccessful. The Ku Klux Klan still wielded influence on city politics, and few whites dared to challenge its virulent opposition to the hiring of black police. Indeed, numerous active police officers and city officials—including former mayor Walter Sims—were among the KKK’s most vigorous supporters in this period. Herbert Jenkins, himself a former Klan member and later chief of police when the first African Americans were hired on the police force, remembers the scope of the Klan’s power. “Most people holding public office had … support from the Klan, during those years,” he recalls in an interview for the “Living Atlanta” series. “It was helpful to me as chief of police that I was a one-time member.”

Atlanta’s political environment slowly changed, however, in part in response to the persistent political assertiveness of the city’s black citizens. When a federal court ruled unconstitutional Georgia’s all-white primary in 1946, black activists initiated a massive voter registration drive that tripled the African-American vote in the city in only two months. With thousands of newly registered voters willing to cast their ballots along racial lines, agitation for the hiring of black police took on a new urgency for the city’s elected officials. Indeed, the pragmatic Mayor William Hartsfield had swiftly dismissed petitions for police integration in 1945; but the next year found him orchestrating a victorious confrontation with the Klan over the issue. In April 1948, with the tacit support of Chief Jenkins and the Hartsfield administration, eight black police officers finally donned their uniforms. The long fight against racial exclusiveness in the Atlanta police force had finally ended.

At first, numerous restrictions placed on the powers of the newly hired black police officers made the victory seem hollow. The eight officers were prohibited from arresting whites. The city consigned them to a separate station, inside the local YMCA; and they were not allowed to be seen off-duty in uniform or carrying their guns. Moreover, many white police officers treated them with disdain. Still, the mere existence of black police officers in Atlanta occasioned rejoicing among the city’s African Americans. “The streets were lined with hundreds, thousands of people everywhere we went,” remembers one of the eight pioneers, O. R. McKibbons, in an interview for the “Living Atlanta” series. “To me,” he explains, “it was a matter of pride to go out and do my job. And it’s a matter of pride with me today.