We Need to Know Their Names

By Kaylie Simon

Her name was Niece Brown.

Niece Brown was 74-years-old when she was killed by Officer George D. Booker.

Niece Brown was at home.

Niece Brown didn’t allegedly have a weapon or a toy gun. (Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling)

Niece Brown didn’t allegedly resist arrest. (Eric Garner)

Niece Brown wasn’t driving with a broken taillight. (Philando Castile)

Niece Brown wasn’t allegedly engaged in illegal activities.  (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray)

Niece Brown didn’t allegedly kill herself.  (Sandra Bland)

Niece Brown wasn’t “accidentally” killed after an officer reached for and fired a heavy gun instead of a taser. (Oscar Grant)

Niece Brown didn’t startle the officer. (Timothy Stansbury Jr.)

His name was George D. Booker.

George D. Booker was white.

George D. Booker was 26-years-old.

George D. Booker was off-duty.

George D. Booker was intoxicated.

George D. Booker went to Niece Brown’s home.

George D. Booker asked where Niece Brown’s daughter was.

George D. Booker beat Niece Brown to death with his beer bottle when she said that her daughter wasn’t home.

It was June 10, 1945. In Selma, Alabama.

Selma Police officer George D. Booker didn’t claim he killed Niece Brown in self-defense. He couldn’t, right? She was 74-years-old.

George D. Booker didn’t claim he killed her because he suspected she had a weapon. There was no evidence to support that theory.

Booker didn’t claim Niece Brown had violated the law in an effort to tarnish her reputation. He didn’t suggest that she brought the trouble upon herself. She was 74-years-old and in her own home.

How were Booker and his defense lawyers, Arthur Stewart and James Pitt to defend his actions? In his closing argument to the jury in defense of Officer George D. Booker, James Pitt said,

“If we convict this brave man who is upholding the banner of white supremacy by his actions, then we may as well give all of our guns to the niggers and let them run the Black Belt.”

In other words, let’s honor police officers who murder African American individuals for their mere existence. If we don’t permit this behavior, we lose control, and allow Black people to have power over their lives and the land they were recently forced to work. This argument was not only permissible in court, it resonated with the jury. The media reported at the time that “[t]he 12 farmers deliberated only a few seconds then voted to free [George D. Booker].”

Most of us are shocked and enraged when grand juries fail to indict officers like Timothy Loehmann who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio in 2014; Darren Dean Wilson who claimed he killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in self-defense in Missouri in 2014; Daniel Pantaleo who chocked Eric Garner to death in New York in 2014; and when a jury trial results in an acquittal, as was with case for Jeronimo Yanez who was charged with manslaughter for killing Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016. It is baffling to try to decipher how these cases resulted in non-convictions.

Wanton and racialized police killings of African Americans have occurred since the inception of policing in the US. We need to know the names of the victims and the facts of these historic cases that predated cell phones and body cameras. Without placing present day incidents in a historic context, we allow claims of self-defense and images of victim teens with marijuana or baggy pants to distract us from the system’s origin. We need to recognize our court system as the progeny of one that once allowed a lawyer to argue that murdering a 74-year-old African American woman in her home was a brave act because it helped to maintain white supremacy.

Too often the narrative around police killings shifts from the focus on the officer’s actions to the myth that the African American victims were responsible for their own deaths.  To unmask this myth, we need to remember Niece Brown. We also need to remember Della McDuffie and William McDuffie. Della McDuffie was 63-years-old and wheelchair bound when on April 25, 1953, she was beaten to death by Wilcox County Sheriff Lummie Jenkins during a raid of an African American cafe. A year into the investigation, her husband, William McDuffie, was mysteriously drowned after he refused to change his statements about what happened to his wife. No legal action was taken in either case.

We need to remember 16-year-old Benny Mitchell and 15-year-old Ernest Collins. On November 13, 1935, in Columbus, Texas a mob of approximately 700 people took the two teenagers from police custody and hung them from an oak tree. It was alleged that the teens confessed to drowning a white woman[1]. The boys were in custody pending legal proceedings. Because of their age, they were ineligible for the death penalty. If they had been convicted, the maximum sentence they could have received was confinement until age twenty-one.

County Attorney O.P. Moore said, “I do not call the citizens who executed the Negroes a mob. I consider their action an expression of the will of the people.” County Judge H.P. Hahn said, “I am strongly opposed to mob violence and favor orderly process of the law. The fact that the Negroes who so brutally murdered Miss Kollmann could not be adequately punished by law because of their ages, prevents me from condemning those citizens who meted justice to the ravishing murderers last night.”

Benny Mitchell and Ernest Collins, like many other African Americans were not afforded the right to due process of the law. Probable cause hadn’t been found at a grand jury and a trial jury hadn’t reached a verdict. Yet, a county attorney refused to recognize the group of hundreds as a mob and approved of the lynching as the will of the people. A judge praised their behavior in light of the fact that the law restricted the amount of time a juvenile could serve.

Statements like those of lawyers like James Pitt and O.P. Moore and judges like H.P. Hahn outlive the men who uttered the words. That our court system condoned racial violence informs why police officers today are so commonly uncharged, unindicted or acquitted at trial.

Nowhere in the US today could these words be stated in a courtroom:

“If we convict this brave man who is upholding the banner of white supremacy by his actions, then we may as well give all of our guns to the niggers and let them run the Black Belt.”

But the sentiment Pitt expressed in 1945 is today often masked by demonizing the victim and claims about self-defense, suicide, accident, and “resisting.”  This racist undercurrent, informs our judicial system to this day.

The cases of Niece Brown, Della McDuffie, Benny Mitchell, and Ernest Collins are from the CRRJ-Nobles Archive.

[1] Confession law today recognizes that coerced confessions are impermissible due to their unreliability whereas historically they were commonplace.

One thought on “We Need to Know Their Names

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  1. Incredibly powerful piece, one that so clearly demonstrates the historic legacy of racism in our system and policing. I hope this is shared widely.

    Like

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