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November 6, 1977
Guest post by Tracy Stefanov, History MA student at Arizona State University.
On this day thirty-nine years ago, Atlanta Daily World journalist Martha G. Fleming, wrote an article, nearly thirty years in the making, titled “Atlantans Pay Tribute To City’s First Black Police.” This article is about the city of Atlanta honoring and recognizing the first black policemen for their “contributions to the cause of social justice and racial pride on a police force that denied them an equal opportunity to fully execute the ideas of justice and fair play to which they were duly sworn.”127 This event was sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, attended by 200 guests, and the honorees included six of the surviving original eight officers: Willard Strickland, Robert McKibbens, Ernest Lyons, Johnny P. Jones, Henry Hooks, and Claude Dixon. Willie T. Elkins and John Sanders Jr.died prior to the NAACP’s tribute, however, they were honored and recognized posthumously.128
In 1948, because of political pressure (dating back to 1936) from civil rights leaders (Dr. Martin Luther King Sr.) and Atlanta leaders (Rev. William Holmes Border) to hire black police officers, Mayor William Hartsfield and Police Chief Herbert Jenkins decided to allow African-American men to take the police exam. Nearly sixty men took this exam; however, only eight men were hired. Dubbed “the Eight” by original officer Claude Dixon, these men became police officers during some of the most tumultuous times in twentieth-century American history. During the tribute dinner, current Mayor Maynard Jackson talked about these tumultuous times and the Jim Crow laws the officers had to adhere to even though they were hired to make sure Atlanta’s citizens were obeying the law. He said, “These whom we honor tonight weren’t allowed to do anything but risk their lives.” This article talks about how four of “these” men participated in a documentary, which was narrated by George Coleman, who was a longtime journalist for the Atlanta Daily World paper.
The documentary chronicles the officers’ twenty-nine years since they were sworn in: how they felt then about their white counterparts, how they feel today, and what changes have been made since 1948 toward racial equalities. Claude Dixon, for example, stated in the documentary that “the language in itself (during the swearing-in ceremonies) was an insult. I remember having to say: ‘I a nigger cop do swear to uphold…’” He did go on to say that “the difference [today], is like night and day.” Some of the other inequalities these police officers had to endure that their white counterparts did not included not being about to wear their uniforms outside of working, not being able to arrest white people, having “separate facilities,” and patroling only black neighborhoods.
Rev. William Holmes Border said this in the article about the compromises made by the black police officers: “It was an achievement for democracy.” He said this because the sacrifices the officers had to make ended with Atlanta eventually swearing in “its first Black public safety commissioner.” An Atlanta Daily World contributor, C. A. Scott believes that the motivation behind hiring African-American police officers was not necessarily a step toward equality, but more because of the political implications. There was a need for black officers because of the “high homicide statistics almost exclusively in the black neighborhoods.” The mayor was up for reelection, and the officers hired promised him that their neighborhoods would vote for him, so Mayor William Hartsfield had a political motivator to agree to the hiring of black officers.129
Other newspaper articles from the Atlanta Daily World throughout the years since the hiring of the city’s first black officers repeatedly report on “the Eight,” indicating the importance of their accomplishment. One such article’s headline from October 28, 1977, says “Police Equality Was Long Fought Road.” Another from March 23, 1986, says, “Black Police Officers Reflect On Anniversary.” As members of “the Eight” and others associated with this historic event passed away, the newspaper reported on their funerals, accomplishments, and honored these men with city proclamations. There is not a lot of scholarly works on these men; however, Thomas Mullen has recently written about these men specifically.130
To read more, see Karen Ferguson’s Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta; Ronald H. Bayor’s Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta; and Alton Hornsby Jr.’s Black Power in Dixie: A Political History of African Americans in Atlanta.