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May 1, 1954
Guest post by Caitlin Sullivan, undergraduate student at Manhattan College.
The May 1, 1954, issue of The Chicago Defender reported on the plan to hire four African-American police officers by the Montgomery, Alabama, police department. The short report explains that these police officers will only be assigned to patrol African-American neighborhoods. It also notes that “they will arrest white people only in an ‘extreme emergency.’” The inclusion of African Americans to the police force was done on a trial basis and after much consideration.
Even though this article is short, it presents the stark contrast between giving authority to African Americans in the 1950s but making sure that it was extremely limited. Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1950s was the capital of one, if not the most, anti–civil rights for African Americans states in the country. The fact that it is Alabama where this is taking place is what makes this a progressive step forward for African Americans. Even though authority was limited and only a very small number of officers were included, it was the beginning of breaking down small barriers. This was especially important during a time where law enforcement targeted African Americans.
The limitations on this small advancement become the reminder that segregation was still a large part of everyday life in the United States. The most blatant limitation comes from the authority of African-American police officers to arrest whites in Montgomery. The article says in “extreme circumstances” this would be allowed but does not clarify what these extreme circumstances include. This meant that in most cases, possibly all cases due to the ambiguity of “extreme” cases, white citizens would hold power over African-American police officers.
This small article poses many questions about how advanced the inclusion of four African-American police officers really was. Were these police officers ever able to be successful with the limitations imposed on them? Would they actually arrest other African Americans, especially when African Americans had been targeted by the police for decades? Did they ever even try to arrest white people, and what happened if they did? This article speaks to the time period, where separate but equal was being touted but the practice was not there at all. These questions would further explain whether this inclusion was an advancement or just another way to limit African Americans.