The Color Of The Third Degree: Racism, Police Torture And Civil Rights In The American South, 1930-1955

Author: Silvan Niedermeier, translated by Paul Cohen
Publisher: Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Originally published 2014. 224p.
Reviewer: Nicholas W. Mason | March 2020

Mob violence against African Americans in the U.S. South sustained a decades-long height by 1930. Characterized by historians as “extralegal violence,” anti-black lynching eventually declined due to the heroic efforts of antilynching activists like Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as well as changing attitudes towards what white Southerners saw as criminal justice. Yet by the rise of the Civil Rights era, another form of normalized brutality against African Americans in the South and elsewhere – police violence – was in full swing. Between the decline of lynching and the rise of Civil Rights in the United States lies the titular “third degree:” the use of lengthy interrogation and torture to extract information related to an alleged crime, including forced or false confessions.

Available for the first time in English in 2019, The Color of the Third Degree is a history of police violence against African Americans in the U.S. South. Dr. Silvan Niedermeier of the University of Erfurt in Germany positions his work in the “interim period” between the height of lynching violence up to 1930, and the post-1955 Civil Rights era. Paul Cohen brings Professor Niedermeier’s important work to anglophone scholars with his eloquent translation, which is based on the author’s 2014 monograph Bürgerrechte: Polizeifolter im Süden der USA 1930-1955. Niedermeier examines the “transformations and continuities of racial violence” in the period through the lens of police brutality, particularly police torture used to extract forced confessions from black suspects, as well as the voices that fought back against said violence.

The author also explores the role of the “visibility” of torture, including a consideration of why incidents became known to, or remained concealed from, the contemporary public. Drawing on a Foucauldian theoretical base, the author considers how the simultaneous concealment and proliferation of police torture empowered white supremacy.

Niedermeier argues that, as lynchings decreased in number during the 1930s, racial violence in the South instead transformed into a system of police torture used to “secure speedy convictions” of African American suspects through the criminal justice system, instead of outside of it. During the period, police torture sustained white supremacy by transforming popular violence from lynching into a legal, state-sponsored system. The shift from extralegal violence to state-sponsored violence in the form of police brutality, the author argues, shows that white supremacy did not end as lynchings declined, but instead adapted along cultural and political trends in the South. The steep consequences of police torture included both the normalization of routine violence against African Americans and convictions based on forced confessions, including those leading to death sentences.

The author points out that early movements against police torture were concurrent with the roots of the so-called “long civil rights movement.” However, police torture in the South had been used in some form against African American men and women since slavery, and its covert nature made it hard to ascertain and prosecute. “As with other forms of state violence,” Niedermeyer argues, police torture exists primarily “beyond the public eye.” The concealment of state violence from the public view has enabled its continuity to the present day, where it manifests itself in the form of the modern death penalty.

The monograph’s first chapter explores the “transformation” of violence in detail. The author points out that the decline of anti-black lynchings in the 1930s was due not only to antilynching activism, but also to the “dark side” of state enforcement of its monopoly on racial violence.

The author opens with an illustrative case study in which nine black youths were falsely accused of rape and then tortured to produce false confessions, ultimately leading to eight death sentences. The decline in lynchings was accompanied by white elites’ increasingly critical attitudes towards the practice, and was neither an “indication of modernization” nor a relaxation of white supremacy, but rather a “complex and convoluted process” by which racial violence became subordinated to state control.

Chapter One also explores the spectacles of torture and the power dynamics at play as it unfolded. Police torture was more than just an inhumane method of forcing confessions; it was also an ongoing performance of white law enforcement’s oppression of black populations in the South, just as lynchings had operated for decades prior.

Chapter Two explores black defendants’ courtroom resistance to unfair prosecution. The author argues that, like lynchings across prior decades, trials for African Americans accused of rape or murder were sensationalized performances of white supremacy rather than impartial avenues of justice. However, trials were also opportunities for black defendants to express some measure of resistance against discrimination by “demanding their procedural rights be respected.” Just as police torture was used to force confessions from black suspects, defendants used their own testimonies of torture by state authorities to express their innocence. Ultimately, the unequal framework between black and white witnesses in court limited the effectiveness of these testimonies. Niedermeier’s analysis expands our understanding of the repressive nature of Southern criminal justice frameworks in the period.

Chapter Three explores black resistance to racial violence more deeply by highlighting the NAACP’s campaign against police torture and forced confessions. The author points out that the NAACP’s campaign built on its earlier anti-lynching struggles by drawing attention to and then condemning individual incidents of torture in the South, as well as by appealing verdicts in which torture was used to gain evidence. Unfortunately, the NAACP failed to immediately curb the use of police torture in the South, and white law enforcement continued to enjoy state-sponsored impunity for its use.

Chapter Four examines what the author calls white Southerners’ “highly selective awareness of racial violence.” When incidents of police torture made it into the white press, it portrayed them with outrage, but as unfortunate and isolated. Niedermeier juxtaposes the white press of Atlanta’s portrayal of the case of Quintar South, a sixteen year-old black youth who was tortured by police, against the black press, who seized it as an opportunity to draw attention to the larger issue of widespread racist police brutality. Finally, Chapter Five examines the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal investigations of police torture in the South. By the end of the period, the widespread use of police violence remained an open question in the wake of desegregation and the impending Civil Rights movement.

The Color of the Third Degree relies on both NAACP and FBI investigative records to track down incidents of police brutality that both entered or escaped the public eye. According to the author, the existence of these FBI investigations in particular represents earlier than expected, but nonetheless limited, federal initiatives to protect African American civil rights in the South. The bulk of the text’s primary source analysis takes a narrative format; the author closely analyzes a wide selection of important case studies to draw conclusions about the functions and promulgations of police violence.

Positioning itself in the so-called “interim” between two historical periods, the height of mob violence in the South between 1880-1930 and post-1955 struggles for civil rights, The Color of the Third Degree is useful reading for anybody studying either period. For historians, one key defining factor of lynching is its extralegal status – the way it operates outside of the court of law. Niedermeier complicates this notion by directly connecting mob violence with the rise of legal torture in the 1930s. Likewise, for those interested in the American struggles for civil rights, Niedermeier provides insight into early federal intervention before Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

For all of his important insights, Niedermeier occasionally asks more questions than the monograph provides answers. The author’s conclusion that NAACP activism failed to curb police torture may leave readers wanting. At just fourteen pages, Chapter Four in particular reads a bit bare, and one cannot help but to wonder if there is not more to be said about the representation of police torture in different demographics of the press.

Yet overall, the author provides an important and incredibly timely expose into the roots of modern state violence. The author concludes with a mixed bag of sorts: although “diverse initiatives” against police brutality “issued a clear challenge to the social order of the Jim Crow South,” the author reiterates the limited success of these initiatives. Instead, Niedermeier points to the ongoing struggles against police violence in the 1960s and 70s, and today with the Black Lives Matter movement. Like many historical issues of race and oppression in the United States, the story of police violence is still a very open book, and Niedermeier’s work is vital to our understanding of its roots.

Nicholas W. Mason, Graduate Student and Teaching Assistant Department of History, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University

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