In this WSB clip featuring reporter Jim Whipkey, the battle for social justice and equality has finally come to a head after a long summer of racial tension. On July 31, 1971, ninety-one African American citizens, most of them in their twenties, held an illegal march in downtown Columbus in order to protest the discrimination and inequality that prevailed throughout the city. As the protestors marched and sang the popular freedom song “Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me’Round,” a policeman shouted a restraining order from a helicopter while fellow officers arrested the protestors.
Racial discrimination and inequality brewed throughout daily life in Columbus, especially within the police department. African American policemen made up only about eight percent of the total police force in a city that was about thirty-five percent African American. Policemen did not ride in integrated patrol cars on a regular basis, and black policemen were continuously assigned to work in predominately black areas. Black policemen complained of discrimination during promotions and overall favoritism to white policemen.
The season of racial hostility that occurred during 1971 commenced on May 31 when seven black policemen, all members of the Afro-American Police League (AAPL), ripped the American flags from their uniforms during a picket outside of their headquarters. Due to their bold statement, George Arnold, J.H. Clarke, Robert Leonard, G.L. Smith, W.L. Pearson, F.L. White, and Vinson Willis were all fired on the basis of “conduct unbecoming of a police officer.” They argued that there was no justice in the Columbus police department and that they would not wear the flag until they received the equality, justice, and respect for which it stood.
Many conflicts ensued due to the racial tension caused by the policemen’s gesture. Perhaps the most tragic occurred on June 21, 1971. Officer L.A. Jacks shot and killed a twenty-year old black youth named Willie J. Osborne after an alleged armed robbery. At First African Baptist Church, with approximately fifteen hundred African Americans present, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams eulogized Osborne. Abernathy boldly declared that Osborne was killed “by the bullet of a racist policeman … [who] had been taught from the cradle that niggers come a dime a dozen.”
Subsequently, between July 24 and July 27, thirty-one requests were made to the police department for services linked to sniper fire, brick throwing, and arson. Fed up with the racial strife, Mayor J. R. Allen vowed that “there will not be one more law violated.” He decided that he would restore peace, even if it meant filling up jail cells. On July 31, 1971, Judge John H. Land issued a restraining order to prevent the protest that was scheduled for that day. Nonetheless, ninety-one African Americans decided to proceed with the march and were arrested.
In the following months, the Columbus City Council revoked the emergency ordinance, and the Superior Court nullified the restraining order. The Police Hearing Board officially dismissed the seven policemen. Eventually, the protestors appealed all contempt charges.
For generations, African Americans faithfully fought under America’s flag and died alongside whites in massive numbers. Similarly, all seven black policemen were Vietnam War veterans who risked their lives to protect the United States, yet were treated as second class citizens. When the seven policemen ripped the flags from their uniforms, they embodied the disillusionment that many African Americans felt within their country.
The black power salutes of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics could have inspired the seven Columbus policemen. This controversial statement of black power symbolized the desire of African Americans to claim equality. Also in 1968, Orangeburg, South Carolina policemen killed three African American students during a segregation protest. Additionally, Muhammad Ali’s 1967 military draft refusal culminated in June of 1971, when he received news of his acquittal. All of these events could have fueled the already heated emotions of the seven policemen. The actions of the policemen, athletes, and students illuminate the issue of a country failing to uphold its promises to all of its citizens and the struggle of those citizens to hold their leaders accountable.
One of the most recent examples of this tension occurred in August of 2006 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the southeastern coast of the United States, heavily damaging the city of New Orleans. The disaster left thousands of victims, many of them African American, homeless, and over a thousand others dead. The failure of the United States government to respond immediately to the distressed victims evoked feelings of irritation and suspicion among blacks. Some suspected that if the population of New Orleans had been predominately white, the government would have responded faster. Rapper Lil’ Wayne, a New Orleans native, outwardly criticized the government for its delayed reaction to the Katrina victims through his song “Tie My Hands,” while rapper Kanye West stated on NBC that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Throughout American history, African Americans have used the law, the media, sports, and entertainment to critique this nation.
Resources (click here)
1. Read the article on the “Freedom on Film” Augusta page entitled “Paine College Students Desegregate City Buses." What are some similarities and differences between these two stories?
2. Do you think that the policemen were justified when they ripped the flags from their uniforms? Is this an acceptable form of expression?
3. The Vietnam War forced many young people to fight for a cause that they did not support. Many African Americans fought for the United States in Vietnam but faced discrimination when they came home. Do you think that this disillusionment led to disloyalty to America as a whole or simply frustration with its policies?
4. This protest takes place during the Black Power era. What differences can you see between this period of the Civil Rights Movement versus the period during the 1950s and 1960s?
5. During the struggle for Civil Rights, African Americans used many means of publicity to bring attention to discrimination. What types of methods do individuals use to criticize the United States today?
Take it to the Streets!
The United States Flag Code is a document that outlines the rules and regulations for handling the American flag. Read the code, and record which rules you see residents following in your community. Do citizens adhere to some of these regulations more than others? Are some rules ignored completely? If so, explain why.
Writer: JoyEllen Freeman
and Researchers: JoyEllen Freeman
Site Designer: William Weems