It is widely accepted that law enforcement failures at both the federal and state level were the most salient feature of the official response to the Civil Rights Movement. These failures were associated with massive disturbances, social dislocation, and severe personal trauma; the impact on the criminal justice system and on American race relations has been comprehensive and intractable. In challenging legal segregation and pushing for aggressive enforcement of new federal laws targeting Jim Crow, the Movement introduced tactics such as direct action and non-violent confrontation – dramatic approaches that generated police engagement.
Movement activists, many of them from out of state, often became targets of racist attacks as they lived and organized in communities across the Deep South. These experiences led to frequent and often violent contacts between law enforcement and activists. During the early years of the Movement, southern authorities hostile to the racial justice agenda maintained a punishing double standard, on the one hand refusing to protect activists from private attacks, and on the other hijacking the legal apparatus – over which they had exclusive control – to harass and abuse organizers and to destabilize their Movement. The resort to unlawful violence by police authorities accelerated the attacks of organized racist groups and helped to catalyze the tumultuous explosions that characterized the period. In the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, the federal government was widely viewed as a safe haven. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education led to a dynamic tension between the Movement and the federal government that was largely productive – federal law endorsed the ideal of equal citizenship that the Movement sought to make real. However, as anti-civil rights violence became more pervasive, routine, and lethal, and as the tactics of activists became more militant, federal authorities abstained from intervening in local law enforcement operations. At the height of the Movement neither the Justice Department nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation viewed its role as proactive; rather these officials waited to respond to individual complaints, and even then their involvement was wholly deficient. Rather than curing the problem, the feeble nature of the federal response to anti-civil rights violence aggravated it, emboldening law-breakers and casting into doubt the Movement’s choice of non-violent resistance.
In sum, the criminal justice systems at both the state and federal level utterly failed to uphold constitutional rights and to protect basic security. Although there is general agreement among scholars on this broad point, the dynamics of the law enforcement involvement in anti-civil rights violence – the characteristics of the incidents, their number and location, patterns and sequences – are not well understood. An account has not yet been made of the enormous social and personal costs of these institutional failures. Nor has there been a comprehensive assessment of the impact of this government misconduct on the landscape and trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement. Critically inquiring into the ongoing effects of events that are now around fifty years old, CRRJ’s research seeks to supply the empirical groundwork from which that gap can be filled.
Although these institutional obstacles to equal justice no longer exist, the shadow they cast over present problems is only vaguely understood. What, if any, is the correlation between this systematic misuse of law enforcement power and the sharp turn that the Movement took away from non-violence after 1965? How did this period of official lawlessness contribute to the longstanding and well-documented mistrust of police and courts among African-Americans? What action did law enforcement agencies in the affected region take to regain the public trust? What bearing do these historic events have on present-day civil rights issues, such as racial profiling, hate crimes, and racial disparities in incarceration? What have been the long-term consequences for those most deeply affected by the events – the victims of the violence and their families? What official action should now be undertaken to redress the harms and to restore justice? In light of the scale and duration of the abuses, are the new prosecutions that have been undertaken in several southern jurisdictions adequate or appropriate measures to redress these old crimes?
These issues are best explored while those who were personally affected by this history can still contribute to the public discourse about their meaning. The victims of anti-civil rights violence are in the best position to convey the impact of these events on their long-term physical health and mental well-being. Those involved on the law enforcement side can shed much light on the institutional mechanics and policy concerns that were in play. Determining what actually transpired is a necessary first step in the quest for satisfactory reconciliation, even if ultimately it may not be sufficient to reach that goal. CRRJ’s research program is designed to establish the scope and pattern of these past injustices. While there is a large body of both primary and secondary material available on the Civil Rights Movement, there is presently no data base dedicated exclusively to the legal treatment of civil rights activists by the government actors charged with protecting them. CRRJ engages with several bodies of research in the field of law and society, federalism, transitional justice, and the history of the civil rights movement. It will help to inform current policy initiatives to redress these past wrongs.