Segregating the police: negotiating equality in postwar Memphis, Tennessee

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Margaret Keeton Williams (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Charles Bolton

Abstract: In early November 1948, black police officers began patrolling the Beale Street area of Memphis, Tennessee. The nine men hired to be black police officers in Memphis in the fall of 1948 were a surprising sight in a city that operated on racial segregation and maintained, often violently, a strict racial hierarchy. This dissertation examines the conditions that created the opportunity for black men to police the segregated streets of the South. Emerging during the years surrounding World War II, the trend among southern cities to hire black police officers was the result of the economic, political, and social changes brought to the American South by the war. Taking Memphis, Tennessee, as a case study, this dissertation looks at the ways in which black and white leaders in the South navigated these changes and the ways in which southern urban race relations evolved during the World War II era. This dissertation seeks to answer the question of why the campaign for black police officers succeeded in Memphis, and what that campaign tells us about black activism and efforts towards greater black equality during the waning years of the Jim Crow era. Black police officers do not fit into a southern narrative of racial progress, despite the claims of white Southerners in the late 1940s. Nor do they fit into a post-Civil Rights narrative of progress seeking to negate a nadir of black activism. Instead, white officials’ decision to hire black police officers was more directly the result of black reactions to white police brutality. Black Memphians used the language of the World War II era to demand greater protection for their community. However, the increase in police brutality was the result of white officers’ perceived need to maintain their control in the face of the changes to southern society brought on by World War II. Thus, white officials hired black officers to alleviate this tension by separating policing between white and black and expected black officers to enforce segregation and white conceptions of appropriate black behavior. Thus, the campaign for and the experience of black police officers in the first years after hiring did not achieve black hopes to bettering black lives, but rather merely perpetuated segregation. Although it was not until 1948 that black officers became a permanent fixture on the Memphis police force, the city of Memphis has a long history of using black men to police the city’s streets in moments of crisis. While this study is focused on the 1948 campaign for black police officers, it begins with a look back at those moments of crisis, placing the 1948 campaign in the long history of Memphis’s black community and the community’s demand for an equal place in the city.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2016
Black Police, Jim Crow, Memphis, Segregation, World War II
African American police $z Tennessee $z Memphis $x History $y 20th century
Police $z Tennessee $z Memphis $x History $y 20th century
Discrimination in law enforcement $z Tennessee $z Memphis $x History $y 20th century
African Americans $x Civil rights $z Tennessee $z Memphis $x History $y 20th century
Memphis (Tenn.) $x Race relations $x History $y 20th century

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