Gail Williams O'Brien.
The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War II
The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture.
Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xiii +
334 pp. Photographs, notes, bibliography, and index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN
0-8078-4802-6 ISBN 0-8078-2475-5; $18.95 (paper), ISBN .
Christopher Waldrep , Department of History, Eastern Illinois University.
I still remember the first time I read William Faulkner's
story, "Barn Burning." Faulkner's description of the justice's court
delighted me because it seemed to preserve forever a lost scene from a
time beyond my own memory. I felt reassured that what Faulkner's
generation knew about the look of country stores and magistrates had been
recorded. I do not often think of Faulkner when I read historical
monographs, and it makes no sense to compare Gail Williams O'Brien's
writing style to Faulkner's, but there are moments when The Color of
the Law recalls 1948 Maury County, Tennessee with a powerful
verisimilitude, just as the great novelist described Yoknapatawpha County.
O'Brien's research is extensive, reaching into records not readily
available, including interviews with individuals now dead. There is a
sense in which she reached out and grabbed a moment in time for us all to
examine and think about. The texture of the South in 1948 can be found in
this book, and that is a fine and rare achievement.
O'Brien's book begins by narrating a riot in Columbia,
Tennessee. The trouble started in a banal quarrel between two African
Americans and a white storekeeper. A mob of whites gathered, intent on a
lynching, but officials arrested the crowd's prey before violence could
erupt. Later the Maury County sheriff took the pair out of jail and turned
them over to black merchants for safekeeping. Word quickly spread through
the black community, and a crowd of armed blacks assembled to prevent a
lynching. No lynching occurred, but when the state highway patrol showed
up, the cops went wild. Highway patrolmen raided Columbia's black
neighborhood, crashing into black-owned businesses, abusing people, and
looting. Afterwards, a federal grand jury investigated--only to exonerate
all the lawmen involved. Twenty-eight blacks faced serious charges in
circuit court, but, when they went to trial, an all-white jury acquitted
all but two.
O'Brien ends her first story-telling chapter, with four
questions. First, she asks, who participated in the African American
effort to thwart the original lynching? Second, why did whites fail to
carry out their lynching? Third, why did white city cops act so
differently than the state police? And why did the sheriff sympathize, a
bit, with local blacks? Finally, why did the federal grand jury toe the
white line while a state jury acquitted the twenty-eight black defendants?
O'Brien spends the rest of the book seeking answers to these four
With subtle precision, O'Brien traces the roots and
experience of the black community in Columbia. Her second chapter
carefully documents how white abuse and racism made black merchants
increasingly resistant to white abuse. At the same time, black World War
II veterans came home determined not to be pushed around. In a chapter on
the white mob, O'Brien finds that in the wake of World War II's flush
economic times left whites with a reduced interest in lynching. O'Brien's
picture of the Columbia police department is largely sympathetic.
Overworked and underpaid, some at least could identify with blacks enough
to remember them as arming only to defend themselves, not to riot. O'Brien
has less sympathy for the state highway patrol. They come across as
swaggering thugs used to roaring around Tennessee on their Harley
Davidsons. The sheriff of Maury County depended on black votes to get
elected, so he occupied a conflicted position in a racist society. There
are no real heroes among law enforcement in this book, but the sheriff
comes off better than most.
O'Brien's final two chapters look at the legal politics
surrounding the state trial and federal grand jury. In some ways, these
chapters seem less strong than the others. O'Brien gives all the credit
for the outcome of the state trial to the lawyers. Z. Alexander Looby and
Maurice Weaver represented the defense and, according to O'Brien, did so
brilliantly. The state, on the other hand, was led by Paul Bumpus,
intellectually boxed in by legal formalism and racism. This formalism,
O'Brien writes, evidenced itself in the district attorney's failure to see
the social context, ignoring Maury County's tradition of lynching.
O'Brien's criticism of Bumpus as peculiarly formalistic misses the target;
few prosecutors care much for the social fabric that produced the men and
women they charge with crimes. Most prosecutors zero in on the actual
criminal conduct, ignoring everything else. Bumpus's conduct, therefore,
hardly seems a characteristic of legal formalism alone.
Moreover, it is troubling that we learn so little about the
judge presiding over the trial in which Looby, Weaver, and Bumpus did
their lawyering. Although her research into the biographies of most of the
figures in this story is impressive, we learn little about Judge Joe
Ingram. Ingram seems a cipher, silent and passive. But Ingram led a
"painstaking" search for a jury through 700 veniremen (p. 43). Allowing
veniremen to opt out of jury service may have helped the defense. When the
defense used up all their 200 peremptory challenges, Ingram gave them
fifty more. Although O'Brien does not make this argument, Ingram, no doubt
an avowed racist, may well deserve considerable credit for the outcome of
the trial. Is it possible that the same legal formalism that O'Brien
thinks led Bumpus astray led Ingram to strive for due process? The jury
Ingram seated proved sympathetic to the black defendants.
O'Brien's research is generally more detailed and thorough
than her treatment of Ingram. She has tracked down and opened sealed
grand-jury records. She includes twenty-four photographs, most of which
appear courtesy of the United States Attorney's Office, Middle District of
Tennessee. Between 1989 and 1992 she interviewed 47 people, including a
former policeman, Bumpus, a juror from the state trial, and other key
figures. O'Brien acquired the record of the FBI's investigation.
The structure of the book makes it especially appropriate
for undergraduates. The first chapter really is the "historical
page-turner" W. Fitzhugh Brundage promises on the back cover. O'Brien's
technique of asking a series of questions does not lead to a tightly
argued thesis, but students will enjoy watching O'Brien unpack the impact
of state, local, and neighborhood politics on race and law.
But although the structure is appealing, the analysis
sometimes seems a bit thin. There are places where O'Brien skips
opportunities to offer original analysis, choosing instead to quote other
historians' thinking. In her chapter on the politics of justice, for
example, O'Brien repeatedly relies on Jerold Auerbach to explain Maury
County lawyers' thinking. With such rich sources and oral history
interviews, readers have a right to expect O'Brien to extend or challenge
Auerbach's generalities, not simply trot them out. And sometimes, O'Brien
simply missteps. When she mentions Felix Frankfurter in passing, she
quotes "historian Donald Nieman" as saying Frankfurter was "an inspiring
teacher, an exacting scholar, an avid civil libertarian" (p. 226). All
true, no doubt, though irrelevant to this story. And while Don Nieman is
unquestionably an excellent historian, he is hardly the foremost expert on
Felix Frankfurter. There really was no need to quote anyone on that point.
Despite such quibbles, O'Brien has written an excellent
book. Like William Faulkner, she has recovered and preserved a slice of
Southern life. Her picture of stalwart black resistance and faltering
white racism after World War II feels authentic and should be admired by a
Library of Congress
Call Number: HV9955.S63O27 1999
* Discrimination in criminal justice administration
-- Southern States -- History -- 20th century * Afro-Americans --
Southern States -- History -- 20th century
* Mobs -- Southern States -- History -- 20th century
* Southern States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century
Citation: Christopher Waldrep . "Review of Gail Williams
O'Brien, The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the
Post-World War II South," H-Law, H-Net Reviews, June, 1999. URL:
“Gail Williams O’Brien’s
book is a well-written, well-researched, and extremely thought-provoking
account of [the Columbia race riot]…Her book, however, is overly
ambitious. She has sought to use the Columbia case as a vehicle for
explaining the impact of World War II on race relations in the South, the
decline of white racist violence, the militance of some segments of the
African-American community, and the impact of politics on Southern law
enforcement. This is a heavier load than it can bear.”
Michal R. Belknap, review
of The Color of Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War
II South, by Gail Williams O’Brien, The American Historical Review
106 (February 2001): 198-199.