By M. Marie Maxwell
Earlier this month millions of Americans voted. Voting is one of the hallmarks of our democracy, and one method to make their elected officials accountable to the people. Government accountability, for the elected and the unelected, is also found through peaceful protest, letters, petitions, journalistic exposes, court actions and other expressions of complaint and praise, such as the civil rights movement. The 20th century fight for civil rights, the struggle against unfair treatment by governing authorities was not just the big cases and marches we remember. It was also made up of smaller battles, like that found in the Transcripts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Chief of Police Robert V. Murray and the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, 1957 (NAID 12527082, entry P 48), from Record Group 351, Records of the Government of the District of Columbia.
At the time this event took place, the District of Columbia, also known as Washington, DC was governed by a three man Board of Commissioners, appointed by the President of the United States. It is from the Board of Commissioners’ transcripts we have the words of people seeking accountability from their government. Their interests were represented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also called the NAACP who brought before the Commission charges against the city’s police chief and the police department of discriminatory racial bias against African Americans.
Through several days of hearings, experts, criminals, policemen, and community leaders testify on the condition of the police department and its practices. Transcripts read like a script, where you can read what each person says in the record. In the October 29, 1957 hearing, E. Lewis Ferrell, for the NAACP questioned Harry R. Chase, a Sanitary Engineering employee, about a mishap where a police officer struck him:
Q. You mentioned some bleeding. Where were you bleeding?
A. From my mouth and head.
Q. And how did your mouth get hurt?
A. Well, his blackjack hit me up in here (demonstrating), and my tooth came through my lip.
Chase was also questioned by Roger Robb, council for Robert V. Murray, the Chief of Police about a statement Chase signed. Robb read the statement into the record:
MR. ROBB: “2655 Birney St. S.E. Apt. 204
Harry Chase at 7 P.M. Tues. Oct. 15, 57 said he did not wish to make a statement as he thought the motorcycle officer was a pretty good fellow & there was just a misunderstanding at that time. He said he thought the motor-man was a Perfect Gentleman.
/s/ Harry R. Chase
Area newspapers covered the hearings (not included in the series), and their articles give a sense of how well the NAACP presented their case. For example, in a November 17, 1957 Washington Post article, “Police Quiz Called Blow to NAACP”, Commissioner Robert E. McLaughlin remarked that he found the evidence presented, “scanty”. McLaughlin did say that the Board of Commissioners would consider a six-point program suggested by the NAACP, part of which included more active hiring of African Americans in the police force. Evidence of a greater effort by the Board of Commissioners to integrate the DC government workforce and hire African Americans can be found in the John B. Duncan Papers, 1951-1968 (NAID 12052591), also in Record Group 351.
One thought on “NAACP vs the Washington DC Police Department: A 1957 hearing before the DC Board of Commissioners”
It is clear that memories can be augmented or filtered to serve particular agendas. It is sad that the trust that some leaders place in such accounts is done without verification. Discovery of the deviation from actual fact raises a pall over the accounts of others, even those that may not be shaded with purpose. As President Reagan so often said, “Trust, but verify.”
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