The inhumanity of brutality is colourless: African Americans and police relations

24 July 2015


One of the most interesting things about working with so many varied primary source documents on a daily basis is how often the material makes me think of current issues. Items that appear in the news, questions that are still being considered, and consequences from past events still being felt always bring home the importance of history. I’ve had the privilege of working on African American Communities which covers various themes and issues of importance, and notably that of police and community relations.

Recently, the question of how those in positions of authority interact with and treat members of the public has been attracting much attention in the US. High profile cases include those in which members of the public have died after encounters with the police, including Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. The questions about historic police brutality are well covered in material by the Chicago Urban League (CUL) and the Atlanta History Center collections, and offer insight into how police-community relations in America have developed over the decades. Given the increasing outcry against mistreatment by the police in the 1960s and 1970s, the collections offer much by way of official reports and analyses. An interesting document is one entitled Behind the New York Rights: Causes and Reactions, dated August 1964 and marked ‘not for publication’. This recaps the events that led to the death of African American teenager James Powell, and the race riots that followed, stating that the ‘cry of “police brutality”… was quickly taken up in Harlem and within a few days was being echoed in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto and upstate Rochester’.


Image @ University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Nowadays we have such websites as the Guardian’s ‘The Counted’, which keeps tabs on the members of the American public who have died as a result of encounters with the police and other law enforcement groups. This desire to make a record for all to see reminded me of the more rudimentary reports created by various organisations, and invariably collected for research purposes by the CUL. One such document is The Police and Their Use of Fatal Force in Chicago, which aimed to be ‘a step toward what will hopefully be a thorough public examination of use and abuse of police authority in Chicago’. Fatal encounters were not kept out of the public view, allowing studies such as this one to pick apart the data and compare occurrences and demographics in an effort to understand police-community relations. 


Complementing this more scientific approach are the letters from the public sent to the Atlanta police chief Herbert T. Jenkins in the 1960s. One person states, ‘…if a policeman cannot put up with verbal abuse then I suggest he is in the wrong business!’ Another letter shows how the issue of police-community relations could elicit vastly varying responses, as this person asserts that ‘if the “kid”… used any form of obscenity… then the “kid” got a well-earned belt in the right place – his big mouth’.


Image @ Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The recent hiring of Ferguson’s first African American interim police chief nearly a year after the death of Michael Brown serves as a reminder that African American police officers have always played a prominent role in police-community relations. In a 1969 press release, the Afro-American Patrolman’s League decried the violence dealt by police, asserting that ‘it matters little whether brutality is committed by white or black policemen. The inhumanity of brutaity [sic] is colorless’.


Atlanta's first African American policemen, 30 Apr 1948. Image @ Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


From black power to #blacklivesmatter, the discussion surrounding police-community relations, particularly where African Americans citizens are concerned, is clearly one with a long history which is worth turning our attention to before we aim to tackle the same questions being asked today.



African American Communities will be published in October 2015. Full access will be restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license. You will be able to use the keyword terms 'police' and 'police brutality' or the theme 'Police and Community Relations' to find much more on this topic.

About the Author

Sara Hussain

Sara Hussain

Since joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 I have worked across a variety of projects, including World's Fairs and African American Communities. I enjoy studying all types of history and dabbling in languages, and travelling in my spare time, a combination which is perfectly complemented by my day-to-day work.