Cover image for The color of the law : race, violence, and justice in the post-World War II South
The color of the law : race, violence, and justice in the post-World War II South
O'Brien, Gail Williams.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xiii, 334 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV9955.S63 O27 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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On February 25, 1946, African Americans in Columbia, Tennessee, averted the lynching of James Stephenson, a nineteen-year-old, black Navy veteran accused of attacking a white radio repairman at a local department store. That night, after Stephenson was safely out of town, four of Columbia's police officers were shot and wounded when they tried to enter the town's black business district. The next morning, the Tennessee Highway Patrol invaded the district, wrecking establishments and beating men as they arrested them. By day's end, more than one hundred African Americans had been jailed. Two days later, highway patrolmen killed two of the arrestees while they were awaiting release from jail.

Drawing on oral interviews and a rich array of written sources, Gail Williams O'Brien tells the dramatic story of the Columbia "race riot," the national attention it drew, and its surprising legal aftermath. In the process, she illuminates the effects of World War II on race relations and the criminal justice system in the United States. O'Brien argues that the Columbia events are emblematic of a nationwide shift during the 1940s from mob violence against African Americans to increased confrontations between blacks and the police and courts. As such, they reveal the history behind such contemporary conflicts as the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson cases.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

O'Brien explores the circumstances surrounding an aborted lynching in Columbia, Tennessee, at the end of World War II to illustrate transitions that were occurring in race relations during that period. Seething racial tensions boiled over into an attempted lynching, triggered by a relatively minor incident--a black man's attempt to get a radio repaired. Black veterans returning from the war resisted what had been typical practice of venting racial animosity by lynching, triggering a movement in the larger black community from passivity to resistance. O'Brien relates the broader sociological implications of that resistance and focuses on individuals and their actions. For example, the sheriff who, in an effort to protect the intended victim, allowed him to escape. O'Brien also explores the interplay between the criminal-justice system of the old South and the broader political context that included increasing civil rights activism, the progressive labor movement, and the increasing outmigration of both whites and blacks. --Vernon Ford

Library Journal Review

Southern race relations in the years immediately following World War II and their implications for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s have recently attracted more attention from popular and academic writers. Historian OBrien (North Carolina State Univ.) examines an averted 1946 lynching and its aftermath in the small community of Columbia, TN. Among the significant contributions of her work is the light it sheds on the connections between the events of 1946 and the communitys race relations in earlier decades; she also discusses the leadership that middle-class African Americans provided for others in Columbias black community during this crisis. The value of the book is only slightly reduced by OBriens predilection for expressing conclusions with a higher degree of certitude than the evidence appears to warrant. For history and Civil Rights collections in academic libraries.Thomas H. Ferrell, Univ. of Southwestern Louisiana, Lafayette (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Scholars and academic writers are at last focusing their attention on southern race relations in the immediate post-WW II period and their implications for the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and '60s. In this well-researched and well-written book, O'Brien (North Carolina State Univ.) dissects the anatomy of a thwarted lynching and its aftermath that occurred in 1946 in Columbia County, Tennessee. Provoked by a seemingly trivial occurrence, an African American man's effort to get a radio fixed, substantial racial anxieties erupted into a white effort to carry out an extralegal execution. The author reveals in riveting prose that African American veterans back from the war, and the larger black community in Columbia County, resisted white racism and its associated white violence in an unprecedented way. This strong, determined black resistance fundamentally altered how the southern racial caste system, especially the criminal justice system, would be defeated by new political realities that included the civil rights campaigns and a broad-minded labor movement, as well as black and white migration. Finally, this healthy and powerful black resistance to white hegemony meant that American law would have to be increasingly color blind. All levels. W. T. Howard; Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

Table of Contents

1 The Columbia Story
Part I Racial Violence
2 The Bottom and Its Brokers
3 War, Esteem, Efficacy, and Entitlement
4 The Making and Unmaking of Mobocracy
Part II Racial Justice
5 The Politics of Policing
6 Grand (Jury) Maneuvers and the Politics of Exclusion
7 Outsiders and the Politics of Justice
Sources Cited
Map of downtown ColumbiaTennessee James Stephenson
Whites gathered in Columbia on February 25 State guardsman turns back mobHollis Reynolds after his seizure by highway patrolmen and John Blackwell after beating Black Columbians being marched to jail and Saul Blair's barbershop after the raid First block of East Eighth Street on February 26 and Gladys Stephenson and Maurice Weaver and Saul Blair Jesse "Peter" Harris being searched Arrestees after the patrol raid on February 26 and White civilians on the road on February 25 The four Columbia police officers who were fired upon and Sheriff James J. Underwood Sr. Three young members of the State Guard State Guard Commander and Jacob McGavock Dickinson Jr. Highway Patrol officers search men from the Lodge Hall Highway patrolmen and armed white civilians and Morton's Funeral Parlor after the raid Columbia policeman and Bernard O. Stofel NAACP defense counsel and five of the defendants and Z. Alexander Looby and Maurice Weaver and Leon Ransom Lawrenceburg jurors