The Police Role in Racial Conflicts
Sheriff Rainey of Neshoba County is necessarily part of a dying breed in the deep and rural South. Brutal, corrupt, and insensitive to outside opinion, his kind will have to be replaced as industry moves in and Negroes turn out to vote. Indeed, a new breed of Southern law man has recently appeared, one who is at least as effective as his more heavy-handed predecessors in achieving the same ends. One of the hallmarks of this new sheriff or police chief is that he is a man who reads—and one of the books he will be reading in preparation for the summer of 1965 is this handbook by the Chief of Detectives of Danville, Virginia.
If we don’t hear much about “racial conflict” in Danville it is because the police make sure that whatever happens doesn’t end up being news. They run a tight town. The 10,000 Negroes in this city of 47,000 are kept under steady surveillance. True, there have been marches and protests and demonstrations. But they never come to anything because the police are in control of the situation. There is nothing for the Life photographer to photograph.
In Danville, the home of the Dan River knitting mills, taxpayers value their police. The community gives them the respect, the support, and the money to do a proper job. Danville spends twenty-two cents on its police for every dollar it spends on education, a higher proportion than in any other city in the state. The appearance of racial harmony has to be paid for, even if it means trimming the school budget.
Chief Towler is well-informed about the New Negro. He knows that there are going to be marches, that nothing can be done by the police to prevent processions from forming and starting out for the center of town. But there are storm signals for those who know how to watch for them: “The frequency of public meetings is a good indicator”; “Strangers are observed in close association with local leaders”; “Leaflets will begin appearing on the streets.” There is no excuse for not being ready.
The author takes it for granted that civil rights demonstrators “are actually seeking to go to jail.” And if this is what they want every effort should be made to help them. Civil disobedience—blocking traffic, obstructing side-walks, parading without a permit—is a form of disorder and violates local law. So the marchers will be arrested, but on terms set by the police. The first rule is that arrests must be swift. If the police do not get to the marchers first then white onlookers may decide to break up the demonstrations. That would force the police to arrest white citizens, which is obviously bad for police community relations. At the same time the police can’t arrest a whole procession. If arrests are to stand up in court names must be taken, evidence secured, and a complete record made of what went on. Recommended equipment includes movie cameras, tape recorders, and “long-range…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.