Ask An Americanist: Professor Brandon Jett

What led you to/sparked your interest in this area of research?

I’ve always had an interested in “revolutionary” eras of history. Moments when things get upended in one way or another. As an undergraduate, I was drawn to the experiences of white and Black Americans in the post-Emancipation/Jim Crow era. Understanding how Black Americans pushed the boundaries of what freedom meant and how white Americans reacted to this new status and the new demands of African Americans is what I am most interested in as a scholar. When I got into my MA and PhD studies, I grew more interested into the way in which white southerners, in particular, reimposed white supremacy after the destruction of slavery. A major part of that process was extralegal violence, specifically lynchings. My first published articles focused on lynching in northeast Texas. From there, I shifted focus a bit. It became clear to me that white southerners became more reliant on formal institutions of criminal justice, as opposed to extralegal justice, to maintain racial and social control in the Jim Crow era. Throughout this period, as Leon F. Litwack argued, the police became the enforcers of Jim Crow. For the last several years, the focus of my research has been on how African Americans responded to the growth of police forces in the early twentieth century and how they attempted to utilize this growing force for their own interests

Could you give us a short overview of your new book Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South?

Throughout the Jim Crow era, southern police departments played a vital role in the maintenance of white supremacy. Police targeted African Americans through an array of actions, including violent interactions, unjust arrests, and the enforcement of segregation laws and customs. Scholars have devoted much attention to law enforcement’s use of aggression and brutality as a means of maintaining African American subordination. While these interpretations are vital to the broader understanding of police and minority relations, Black citizens have often come off as powerless in their encounters with law enforcement. My book, by contrast, reveals previously unrecognized efforts by African Americans to use, manage, and exploit policing. In the process, I expose a much more complex relationship, suggesting that while violence or the threat of violence shaped police and minority relations, it did not define all interactions.

Black residents of southern cities repeatedly critiqued the violent policing strategies and law enforcement’s seeming lack of interest in crimes committed against African Americans. These criticisms notwithstanding, African Americans also voiced a desire for the police to become more involved in their communities to reduce the seemingly intractable problem of crime, much of which resulted from racial discrimination and other structural factors related to Jim Crow. Although the actions of the police were problematic, African Americans nonetheless believed that law enforcement could play a role in reducing crime in their communities. During the first half of the twentieth century, Black citizens repeatedly demanded better policing and engaged in behaviors designed to extract services from law enforcement officers in Black neighborhoods as part of a broader strategy to make their communities safer.

By examining the myriad ways in which African Americans influenced the police to serve the interests of the Black community, Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South adds a new layer to our understanding of race relations in the urban South in the Jim Crow era and contributes to current debates around the relationship between the police and minorities in the United States.

What was the reasoning behind your main focus on the three Southern cities Birmingham, Memphis, and New Orleans?

Birmingham, Alabama, Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana, provide interesting context for the study of the police and African Americans in the early twentieth century. While each of these cities is undoubtedly unique, the similarities between them are more important for my book. First, each city experienced massive population growth in the first half of the twentieth century that mirrored the trends in most major southern metropolises. Second, city officials and boosters all embraced the mantra of the “New South” in ways that mirrored the diversification of the southern economy in other twentieth-century cities in the region. Third, local governments in each of these cities embraced racial segregation and Jim Crow laws and customs similar to most other southern cities. Finally, each city’s police department expanded, incorporated new technologies, and emphasized control of African Americans throughout the early twentieth century. An examination of the relationship between Black residents and the police in Birmingham, Memphis, and New Orleans, then, provides insight into the broader trends occurring throughout the South in the first half of the twentieth century.

In addition to their representativeness, extraordinarily rich sources document the police/African-American relationship in these cities. To understand the ways Black organizations negotiated their relationship with southern police departments, I relied on the Papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and African American newspapers. These records document the various efforts to combat police brutality by local branches in Birmingham, Memphis, and New Orleans. I collected over 700 reports, letters, and memorandums that detail the various cases taken up by each branch, their efforts to work through civil authorities, and how Black citizens responded to each organization’s work against abusive policing. The real basis of my book, however, came from my examination of street-level interactions on over 21,000 police homicide reports, police offense reports, and grand jury indictment records. These sources include demographic information of people involved in homicides, thefts, and assaults, the location of the incidents, the date and time of investigations, and arrests. Perhaps most important, these documents also include lengthy narratives of what occurred and how police investigated the crime. The data from these sources allowed me to identify trends in the types of crimes reported to the police by African Americans, the number of arrests made by police, and how often Black witnesses gave statements to the police. Equally important, the qualitative evidence from these sources allows for the words of African American victims, suspects, and witnesses to come through as they explained to law enforcement officers what happened in each case and why they decided to call the police.

Did the events of 2020 (e.g. the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests) change the way you thought about the book? Or did these events solidify the story you were telling about race and policing?

So much so. In June 2020, I received the readers’ report from my manuscript. While the main arguments of the book did not change as a result of the murder of George Floyd and the protests, some of my understanding of what these historical trends meant to the current state of policing and African Americans did. In the first iteration of my conclusion, I emphasized how my work demonstrated that it was possible for Black communities to be both critical of law enforcement for their violence and racially-discriminatory practices, while at the same time still believe that law enforcement, when done right, can play a role in reducing crime and better serving Black communities. While I still think that is true, in June 2020 there was a fierce outcry against policing and calls not just to reallocate funding from policing into community programs, but also calls for abolition of police departments completely. While these calls were not unique to the post-George Floyd protests, the idea of abolition seemed to be gaining more traction than in the past. It is within this context that my understanding of the larger significance of my work shifted. I saw the efforts of African Americans to work with formal institutions of criminal justice and reform the flawed and racially-discriminatory system in ways that would better serve their communities as missed opportunities. Many of the critiques of law enforcement today are eerily similar to the critique of law enforcement from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Despite the fact that African American communities in the Jim Crow period seemed open to police reform and working with law enforcement to tackle issues of crime in Black communities and, as James Forman, Jr. and Michael Javen Fortner demonstrated, this interest extends well into the 20th century, criminal justice officials and political leaders have failed to address them with much success. When we think about the failure to address the critiques over the last nearly 100 years, the calls for abolition of police departments seem less like knee-jerk reactions to the killing of George Floyd, but instead these calls for abolition are a direct result of the failures of the police to address the issues faced by Black communities who, for nearly a century, worked through and with law enforcement to try and remedy those problems.

What are you working on now?

I am working on several projects right now. I am building a digital history site called “Lynching in LaBelle” that is a collaborative effort between myself and Florida SouthWestern State College students to build an online repository of primary and secondary sources, oral histories and interviews, and other materials related to the 1926 lynching of Henry Patterson in LaBelle, Florida. This site will be nearing completion by the end of summer 2021. You can find it at LynchinginLaBelle.com. I am also co-edited a volume that explores different trends in violence in Texas from 1965 to 2018. I am also working to be more publicly-facing in my work. I’ve published a number of OpEds for our local paper, the Ft. Myers News-Press and published a few pieces with the Washington Post. Finally, I’m preparing my next book that will explore homicide trends in Memphis, Tennessee, from 1917 to 1972. If you are interested in learning about what I’ve done and what I’m doing, check out my website at brandontjett.com. You can also follow me on Twitter: @DrBrandonJett1

Brandon Jett is Professor of History at Florida SouthWestern State College.

He is an award-winning scholar, writer, and teacher of American history and crime, violence, and criminal justice in the United States. He is the author of Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South and his work has been featured in numerous other venues, including the Washington Post.  In 2017, he was awarded a William Nelson Cromwell Foundation Early Career Scholar Fellowship from the American Society for Legal History.

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