James and Hattie Bell Brazier had a reputation for a higher standard of living than most blacks and even some whites in the small Georgia town of Dawson. They were African-Americans who owned their home. Between them they worked five jobs. In 1956, they purchased a brand new car. It would cost them dearly.
James Brazier was a thirty year-old World War II veteran with a day job at the local Chevrolet dealership gas station and a night job at the Dawson Cotton Oil company. While the median annual income for nonwhite families in late 1950s Terrell County was $1,300, James earned nearly three times that much—not even including his wife’s income from her multiple cleaning jobs. Sometimes the Braziers even picked cotton to add even more to their relatively substantial income. Only 12 percent of the nonwhite families in Terrell County made more than $3,000 a year. The median income for whites in the county at that time, meanwhile, was $4,300.
By November 1957, meanwhile, Hattie was all too familiar with the dusty roads leading from her home to the Terrell County jail. James had been in trouble with local law enforcement before. Police officers usually just charged him with disorderly conduct and let him go, the fine less than $25. This time, though, in early November, would be different.
On November 2, Hattie had taken their four children to a fair in nearby Albany. James was supposed to pick his family up from the outing but he never showed up. When she finally got back to Dawson that Saturday night, Hattie learned that her husband had again been arrested. When she arrived at the jail, Officer Weyman Burchle Cherry told her that her husband had been drunk and tearing down the road at 75 miles per hour. Cherry told her to come back the next morning. She did, and waited while her husband paid a $150 bond. But as soon as he climbed into their Chevrolet, the couple sped straight to the hospital.
From his night in jail, James Brazier sported a large swollen red bump in between his eyes and blood in his ears. He vomited blood, too, and when he lifted his shirt, Hattie could see the mark of a footprint on his lower back. According to her sworn affidavit for a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigation, James told Hattie that as soon as they entered the jail, Cherry had smacked him on the back of the head and knocked him to the floor. The officer snarled down at him, James told her, and said, “You smart son-of-a-bitch, I been wanting to get my hands on you for a long time.”
James wanted to know why, and Cherry told him, according to Hattie: “You is a nigger who is buying new cars and we can’t hardly live. I’ll get you yet.” After hitting and kicking Brazier more, Cherry warned him, “You’d better not say any damn thing about it or I’ll stomp your damn brains out.”
Soon after James Brazier was treated for his head injuries, he complained to Hattie about persistent headaches. Since her husband’s ailments had been cause by his interactions with the Dawson police, Hattie marched back to the jail, which was the center of operations for both city and county law enforcement. She brandished the medical bill before the sheriff, Z.T. Mathews. The sheriff told her that if James’s headaches persisted, Mathews himself would take him to the hospital.
The headaches did persist. So the next month, Hattie returned to the jail to take Mathews up on his word. Law enforcement officials picked James up from his home. But instead of checking him in to the hospital, they dumped him back in a jail cell. Hattie had to post $25 bail for James’s release, though he had not been charged with a crime.
In the spring of 1958, the Braziers bought another new car: a 1958 Impala, which would have had a starting price of $2,586—more than Officer Cherry’s annual salary. Cherry would later be promoted to assistant chief of police, but even then he would only earn only about two-thirds of Brazier’s annual income. The Braziers did not fear white jealousy. James Brazier kept his brand new Chevrolet—light blue with a white top—clean and shining, cruising it proudly around the small town.
One day, a different white Dawson police officer, Randolph McDonald, eyed the automobile and asked Hattie and James how they were able to afford it.
“I works for what I gets,” James Brazier retorted, according to his wife.
McDonald’s response would haunt Hattie Brazier in the months and years to come. “You’ll never remember paying for it,” he said.
In April 1956, Terrell County, Georgia had honored the one hundredth year since its founding with a special weeklong celebration. The festivities included the “Miss Centennial” and “Miss Terrell County” pageants, daily activities dedicated to agriculture and the military, and nightly Centennial Pageant performances and “Colossal Fireworks Displays.”
The city of Dawson, the county seat, released a seventy-six-page “panorama” to commemorate the event, which was “dedicated to the men and women whose far-seeing judgment and Christian beliefs have made Terrell County one of the growing, progressive Counties of Southwest Georgia, where families take root and grow, nurtured by working Churches, good schools and expressed neighborliness.”
Somber portraits of deceased members of important families peer out from the booklet’s pages, with their genealogies detailed underneath. Photographs of old railroads and men on horseback show the county’s transition from nineteenth century wilderness to an agricultural community. But something was missing. Despite the fact that two-thirds of the county’s population at the time was African-American, the only black people in the booklet appear in photographs as laborers or are mentioned, nameless, as slaves. This was, in a sense, historically accurate. Blacks had not had equal political, social, or economic representation in Terrell County for the county’s entire one hundred year existence.
Dawson was a part of Georgia’s “Black Belt” in both an agricultural and population sense. Its rich, dark soil yielded peanuts, cotton, fertilizer, and corn. Its majority black population worked that soil and labored in the railroad, mills, and logging camps, or in white people’s homes.
By 1958, though, changing national sentiment and successful federal legislation were threatening the legitimacy of unequal societies like that of Terrell County. The Supreme Court had ruled in the 1954 decision Brown v Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional—opening the door for desegregation and paving the path for a nationwide campaign for equal rights.
A little more than a year after Brown, the violent lynching death of a fourteen-year-old black Chicago native, Emmett Till, in Money, Mississippi, kick-started the national civil rights movement. Till’s death would have been simply another statistic if his mother, Mamie Till, had not chosen to give her son an open-casket funeral. Publicity surrounding the gruesome corpse, the grieving mother, and the acquittal of the white men widely known to be responsible, brought race-related violence to the forefront of the national conscience. In 1957, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, establishing the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, both of which would find their way to Terrell County within the next few years.
While the Brazier family may have been distantly aware of looming cultural change, miles of dusty roads, a declining agricultural economy, and a culture of traditional conservatism in southwest Georgia muffled the significance of these events. Hattie and James, like the vast majority of Terrell County blacks, were not involved in civil rights activity. White men pulled the economic strings, and any threat to the racial hierarchy would result in guaranteed unemployment, or worse. Dawson’s law enforcement officials were notorious for their use of violence against African-American men and women. Every black child in Dawson was raised in fear of the flashing lights of the police cruiser.
On the afternoon of April 20, 1958, some five months after his arrest and beating, James Brazier dropped Hattie and the children back off at their home in North Ash Street after church. He left the house in his baby blue Chevrolet to bring his sister’s children to their home. When he returned an hour later, Hattie saw that he was driving a different car. She recognized the new vehicle as that of James’s father, Odell Brazier.
Hattie rushed outside. She could see several of her neighbors relaxing in the afternoon sunlight on their porches. James climbed out of the car with fear etched on his face. As Hattie would later recant to investigators, James told her he had been on his way home when he had spotted his father’s car parked on the side of the highway, in front of a police cruiser. As James Brazier pulled over, he saw Officer McDonald hitting the elder Brazier on the head with a blackjack. James got out of his car—the 1958 Impala that McDonald had previously admired—and implored McDonald to stop hitting his father. McDonald pushed Odell Brazier into the police cruiser and drove off toward the county jail.
As James was finishing the story, another police cruiser pulled up to their house, carrying Officers McDonald and Cherry. The policemen hopped out of the car, slammed the doors, and marched down the Brazier’s yard. They ignored Hattie and grabbed James’s arms, dragging him to the front of the house.
McDonald charged that Brazier had threatened him and interfered with Odell Brazier’s arrest. In front of the four young Brazier children and an audience of neighbors, Cherry kicked James Brazier in the groin and beat him on the head with a blackjack. Some neighbors claimed Cherry also pulled a gun.
Verda remembers “horrible” sight: “Just watching your mom scream was enough to drive you crazy,” she recalled in an interview. “And we just children, and just couldn’t do nothing. Everyone standing around looking, nobody could do anything.”
James Brazier Jr., his namesake’s oldest son, pushed between the two men, but Cherry knocked boy to the ground. The police officers, who had not shown a warrant, charged James Brazier with resisting arrest and hauled him to the Terrell County Jail, which shared facilities with the city of Dawson Police Department.
Hattie Brazier immediately tracked down her husband’s employer, Ragan Arnold. She hoped that, as a white man, he could reason with the officers. After Arnold did not convince the officers to let her husband out of jail, Hattie worried alone in bed until two in the morning.
When he was brought into the prison, James Brazier had been wearing his Sunday suit, a white shirt, and dress shoes. Dr. Charles Ward, who was called to the jail to look at him, observed that James had head wounds, slurred speech, and, once again, blood in his ear—all symptoms of a serious head injury. Ward, a white man who was also the County Medical Examiner, interpreted the slurred speech as intoxication. He recommended the police officers place Brazier somewhere quiet, so the officers transferred him from the male side of the prison to the female side.
Later that night, according to other inmates who were inside the jail then, Cherry, McDonald, and other officers led James Brazier out of his cell. When they returned him hours later, he was incoherent, bloody, and naked, wrapped in an army blanket. After daybreak, when he was expected to make an appearance at Mayor’s Court and enter a plea for resisting arrest, a nearly comatose James Brazier had to be carried out of his cell.
V.L. Singletary, Dawson’s mayor and the court judge, fined Odell Brazier $115 but postponed James Brazier’s hearing because “he appeared to be intoxicated.” Hattie Brazier arrived at the courthouse just in time to see the end of her husband’s appearance in mayor’s court. When she saw him, she screamed. She later described the scene: “He was sitting in a chair, slung over,” she said, “and his tongue was hanging kind-of half-way out and a long sleet of white slobber was hanging out his mouth.”
The mayor threw her out of court for causing a disturbance. After the trial, she drove her husband to the Terrell County Hospital, where they saw Dr. Ward—the same doctor who had treated James Brazier’s head injuries the night before with nothing but a bandage. Upon this examination, he told Hattie Brazier to rush the now unconscious man to a specialist an hour away. With her family in tow, Hattie Brazier rocketed off to Columbus. Sara Brazier, James’s sister, was pregnant at the time. She cradled her brother’s battered head in the backseat of their car as the family sped towards the hospital.
He would last four days. During the time James Brazier lay in the Columbus Medical Center, a nurse at the Columbus Medical Center let Hattie stay at her home so she could be close to her husband. All of the couple’s children gathered to say goodbye to their father. Verda Brazier remembers the scene:
“When we saw him that Friday his head was soft as cotton, like a newborn baby…They said he didn’t gain conscious but he did for a moment, because they called all the children in to say, you know, goodbye. And he opened his eyes and said ‘Where gurl?’ He called my mama ‘gurl.’”
James Brazier died on April 25, 1958 of cerebral necrosis and hemorrhage related to head trauma. His family held a military funeral for him at I Hope Baptist Church the next week. Verda watched her newly widowed mother receive sympathy. “Everybody kept saying ‘Oh, it’s a shame he had to leave that little baby and she got all them children to take care of,’” Verda remembers. “Oh it was horrible. All I could do was cry.”
The end of her husband’s life did not mean the end of trouble for Hattie Brazier and her family. While she was grieving at her husband’s funeral service, Dawson police arrested Odell Brazier again, for running a stop sign. In fact, the Braziers would only remain in Dawson for a few months after James’s death, in part because of continued harassment.
Verda remembers that her mother “wasn’t afraid at all,” and helped her children stay brave for the short time they stayed in Dawson after their father’s death. “She was just a strong woman,” she recalled. “I mean you couldn’t jump in her face without her retaliating, talking back. She wasn’t shy at all; I’ll put it that way. She wasn’t shy.”
Still, Verda had to walk through a barrage of taunts and rocks to get to school. “Nah nah nah nah nah, your daddy got killed, nah nah nah nah nah,” she would recall.
Hattie sent Verda and her brother James to live with relatives in New Jersey. James’s siblings believed that the death of their father, his namesake, gave him lifelong anger problems. For years afterward, his brothers and sisters could not mention their father’s name in his presence.
The violent circumstances of James Brazier’s death continued to haunt his sister Sara, too. She remained in Dawson and worked at a restaurant where Cherry, McDonald, and other law enforcement officers frequently ate lunch. The sight of them sitting at the lunch counter crashed a new wave of anger over the young woman every day.
Still, the Brazier family did not stay quiet. Evan as James was still lying comatose in his hospital bed, Odell Brazier made the two-and-a-half hour journey to Atlanta to report the case to the FBI, which opened an initial civil rights investigation, bringing FBI Agents Maurice Foshee and Henry Burgett into Dawson.
Meanwhile, about a month after James Brazier died, tensions between the Dawson African-American community and local law enforcement, already high since Brazier’s death, came to a head. On the night of May 23, Officer Cherry shot Tobe Latimer, a black man, in the buttocks at the local juke joint. Two nights later, Officer Cherry killed another black man, Willie Countryman, a thirty-two-year-old laborer. Cherry shot Countryman in the middle of the night in the victim’s own back yard. Cherry and Robert Hancock, another officer on the night patrol, said they had been investigating a loud noise when Countryman appeared from behind a tree, brandishing a knife.
However, black witnesses said there had been no noise outside that night aside from the ring of the lone bullet bursting from Cherry’s pistol, and that Countryman’s small yard did not have a tree thick enough to hide a man. There were further inconsistencies with the police officers’ version of events, but a coroner’s jury ruled that Cherry had acted in self-defense.
That same day Countryman was killed, another officer, Harold Jones, arrested a twenty-one-year-old black man named Billie Flagg. Flagg had been playing a game of baseball when Jones cruised by in his police vehicle. Flagg made a hand gesture like he was shooting a gun at the police officer. Jones stopped the car, marched up to Flagg, slapped him and took him to jail. When Flagg’s mother, Annie, went to the jail to inquire about her son, she was also thrown into jail.
The news about the weekend’s events spread quickly within the Dawson African-American community. After hearing rumors that black men and women were considering retaliation against Officer Cherry, who had reportedly said that he was going to “get” four more black men, a small group of leading black citizens convened a meeting under the banner “Law, Justice, Order.” They hastily wrote a letter to John Wesley Dobbs, a leading political leader in Atlanta:
The colord people is worred and afred, But if something don’t be done some are planning on getting there guns and trying to stop it that way seam like no one else cares if they kill all of us. They don’t believe no one care for them we are praying that something be done in a hurry!! In a Hurry! In a Hurry!
At the end of the letter, they signed their names and added a postscript: “PLEASE COME! PLEASE COME! PLEASE COME! WE CAN’T HOLD THESE PEOPLE MUCH LONGER.”
The FBI opened up a new investigation in Dawson, into the death of Willie Countryman. The investigation began with a stumble, as Cherry went on vacation for Labor Day—prolonging the process—and Special Agent Burgett was censured for possibly mishandling his interviews with reticent black witnesses. Additionally, the Police Chief, Howard Lee, told his officers not to talk with FBI agents without an attorney present—an abnormality that stood out to the Special Agent in Charge in Atlanta.
While the FBI probe sputtered, the NAACP began its own investigation. Amos Holmes, the organization’s field secretary for the state of Georgia, had become aware of Brazier’s death from a small blurb in the Atlanta Daily World in May announcing the start of the FBI investigation. Holmes came into Terrell County after reports of Countryman’s death. Black witnesses were more willing to talk to Holmes than to the white FBI agents, although they were still averse to getting involved with the NAACP. (The Terrell County branch of the NAACP was widely considered a one-man show run, operated, and funded by local black landowner D.U. Pullum—one of the few black men and women not economically dependent on a white man.) Local racial tensions were so high that local African-Americans warned Holmes, as a member of the NAACP, to stay away. Holmes would assess the situation in the county to be “as bad as any [the NAACP administrators] have seen during our experiences in the South.”
Despite the known risks of associating with the NAACP—further harassment by white people or possibly being fired by a white employer—Hattie Brazier told Holmes what had happened to her husband. Compiling his interviews into a report, Holmes told NAACP leaders that Terrell County was a “powder keg” that “might explode at any time.” Holmes fed the contents of his report to editor Al Friendly of The Washington Post and Times Herald, which sent reporter Robert E. Lee Baker down to investigate.
With a name charged in Confederate memory, Baker was the main reporter for The Washington Post covering the American South in 1958. When he arrived in Dawson that spring, Baker encountered what he would describe as an “atmosphere of fear,” an “atmosphere of intimidation,” and an “atmosphere of despair.” Not one of the sources with whom he spoke would allow Baker to print their names. They would not even talk to him within county borders. When they did convene with Baker, he found, they “talked softly, earnestly behind tightly drawn shades.”
Baker’s vivid account of the situation in Dawson was published on the June 8 front page under the headline “Death and Violence Terrorize Negroes of Georgia Town.” Baker’s story would bring Dawson’s hidden brutality to national attention. In addition to the deaths of Brazier and Countryman, and the wounding of Flagg, Latimer, and several others, Baker wrote of other injustices in the county. His report described how law enforcement officials could persecute the county’s black community in part because blacks had practically no say in Terrell County.
Only forty-eight of the about 7,500 black people in the county were registered to vote. In comparison, there were 3,486 white registered voters.
Almost three weeks before James Brazier’s death in April 1958, a group of Terrell County blacks had visited the county courthouse in an attempt to register to vote, according to an NAACP investigation. Most of them were teachers in the black schools and many were college graduates. This group of educated black men and women could not pass the registrar’s literacy test, which required registrants to “read, interpret, and write any paragraph of the Federal or State Constitution.” If the registrant could not perform that task, he or she could try to answer twenty to thirty oral questions. The registrant’s answers to these questions were completely open to the interpretation of the registrar, a white Terrell County official.
Questions included: “What does the Constitution of Georgia provide regarding the suspension of the writ of habeus corpus?” “What are the names of the Federal District judges in Georgia?” and “Who are the citizens of Georgia?” One of the black registrants, a teacher with a Bachelor of Science degree, had been trying to register for two years. He was rejected for ostensibly slurring the word “original,” and he was later fired from his position.
This group of registrants planned to push back against this blatant violation of the infant Civil Rights Act of 1957. Baker’s article would give them the publicity they hoped would propel their case forward.
Meanwhile, while Dawson’s blacks met Baker in secret and only dared whisper their stories of violence and oppression, Dawson’s white law enforcement officials brazenly gave Baker, a fellow southern white man, quotations verifying their tyrannical reputations.
“You know, Cap’, there ain’t nothing like fear to keep niggers in line,” Terrell County Sheriff Zachary “Z.T.” Taylor Mathews told Baker, as quoted in the Washington Post. “I’m talking about ‘outlaw’ niggers. And we always tell them there are four roads leading out of Dawson in all directions and they are free to go anytime they don’t like it here.”
Mathews, who ran the Terrell County jail, did not deny that blacks were excluded from the local political process.
“Well, Cap’, I believe we ought to be strict about who votes,” the sheriff said. “There isn’t a nigger in Georgia who wouldn’t take over if he could. They want all the power.” The law enforcement officials blamed the recent unrest on news from the northern press spreading ideas about civil rights, and on “Communists.” They blamed the violent incidents on alcohol.
Dawson’s Police Chief, meanwhile, Howard Lee, told Baker that he was annoyed when white citizens bothered him about James Brazier’s death. He showed Baker the man’s record of seven arrests as an explanation for the deceased man’s character, but noted that he had been surprised by Countryman’s apparent attack on his officers. He said Countryman had been “a good nigger.”
Lee said he didn’t like the FBI coming around asking questions about the Brazier and Countryman deaths. “It aggravates me,” Lee told Baker, as quoted in the story, “because the FBI starts talking to niggers and then the niggers get the thinking they’re important and it stirs them up.” The police chief specifically requested that Baker write down several of his memorable quotations, including: “We’re just as good to niggers as they’ll let us be.”
Baker described Dawson’s leading official, Mayor Singletary, as “a quiet, pleasant man” who “seemed weary” when talking about race. Singletary was the judge who had ignored James Brazier’s visibly severe medical state in court the morning of April 21. Singletary told Baker that race relations in Dawson were “generally good” and that the city had “lots of good niggers.” The city’s police chief painted a prophetically different picture.
“We’ve had a lot of trouble,” Lee told Baker. “We’re going to have more of it.”
Baker’s front-page article evoked sharp reactions across the state and the nation. An editorial in The Washington Post published the day after the article summarized Northern sentiment: “What has happened in Terrell County concerns the conscience of humanity,” it said.
Baker’s national article put Dawson’s own main news source on the defensive. “At the moment without a ‘Little Rock,’ The Washington Post and Times-Herald must have a whipping boy,” Dawson News editor-in-chief Carl Rountree protested in a June 12 editorial. “And so they have chosen Dawson, on the basis of rumor, as its new target.”
“The negroes of Dawson have nothing to fear,” Rountree asserted.
Terrell County’s officials justified their actions. “Anything I did I would do again if the circumstances were the same,” Cherry told The Atlanta Constitution. He maintained that Baker never asked him about Brazier’s death or any other violent incidents for his article. In the same article, Chief Lee defends Officer Cherry, who had shot Countryman and allegedly beaten Brazier, as “one of the most level-headed officers I have worked with.”
As Baker’s article rippled across the country, pressure mounted on the federal government to act. Congressman Charles C. Diggs Jr., an African American Democrat from Michigan, deemed the “obvious voter intimidations and ‘under-color-of-law’ savage brutality” in Dawson “the counterpart of the worst Nazi abomination.”
The information broadcast by the Post story motivated the Justice Department to reopen the Brazier and Countryman cases and to request a full investigation into all of the article’s allegations. Working with the NAACP, federal agents gathered information for prosecution.
During the first week of August 1958, U.S. Attorney Frank Evans went before a federal grand jury sitting in Macon and pursued indictments against the Terrell County law enforcement officials named in Baker’s article. Hattie Brazier stayed involved, in the hope that the men responsible for her husband’s death would meet some kind of punishment. Over the course of three days, Evans presented testimony from more than twenty witnesses in the deaths of James Brazier and Willie Countryman, and in the injuries to Willie B. Latimer, Billy Flagg, and another black man named Eugene Renfroe.
One key witness was missing: Marvin Goshea, a young black man who had been in jail with James Brazier that fateful April night, and who had been prepared to provide incriminating testimony against his former jailers.
Goshea told investigators he had seen Brazier walk into his jail cell wearing his Sunday suit and tie. Goshea had held a coherent conversation with the other prisoner before Officers Cherry and McDonald ordered Brazier to follow them out of the cell later that night. Goshea had heard James Brazier ask them to wait so he could put on his shoes.
Goshea had heard Cherry reply, “You won’t need no shoes.”
The next morning, Goshea helped carry a bloody and incoherent James Brazier to Mayor’s Court. The injured man no longer wore his blue suit coat; he wore only a ripped undershirt and dirty trousers, and he had four bruised and foot-long red marks on his back. His head was bleeding worse than when he had entered the jail the previous night.
Later that summer, shortly after receiving a subpoena to appear before the federal grand jury, the twenty-three-year-old Goshea was walking on a Dawson street when Officer Cherry stopped him and told him to go to jail. Goshea told investigators that when he asked why, Officer Cherry replied, “You just need to be in jail.”
Goshea was kept in jail for one week, including the entire length of the federal grand jury hearing. Goshea never testified. At the end of the week, Cherry told him he could go home. “I can only guess,” Goshea later told investigators, “although no one ever told me, that the only reason I was locked up was because they didn’t want me to go to Macon.”
On August 8, the twenty-three-member grand jury refused to indict Cherry, McDonald, and the other law enforcement officials.
New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis wrote that the verdict was an example of the difficulties of prosecuting civil rights violations under federal law—most significantly, the impossibility of getting an all-white southern jury to bring any indictments for white-on-black crimes. And in a county like Terrell, where less than one percent of the black population was registered to vote and therefore registered to be chosen for jury duty, the juries were all but guaranteed to be white.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department returned to the county one month later to file the first-ever court action under the Civil Rights Act of 1957. U.S. v Raines named the Terrell County Board of Registrars as defendants and charged its members with “arbitrary refusal to register Negroes who demonstrate themselves to be fully qualified.”
In September 1960, Judge William Bootle of the U.S. District Court in Macon found that thirty Terrell County blacks had been denied the right to vote based on race. The court ordered the board of registrars to put four African-Americans on the voter registration rolls and placed an injunction against any further acts of discrimination. However, Bootle denied the Justice Department’s request to appoint a “voter referee” to supervise voter registration. So while there was a formal federal injunction against the Dawson registrars’ actions, there was nothing in place to make sure that the injunction was followed.
Despite federal intrusion, not much changed in Terrell County. The 1960 federal injunction went unenforced. And, meanwhile, the Macon federal grand jury’s decision to not indict Dawson law enforcement officials allowed their tyranny over the black community to continue. Cherry, the officer accused of killing two black men and wounding at least one more, was promoted to police chief in 1959.
So it would be left to Hattie Brazier to decide whether or not to pursue justice against her husband’s killers through a different route. She could quietly accept her husband’s death as an example of insurmountable Southern injustice or she could pursue her day in court, in a civil action. The choice seemed clear to her.
Though Hattie had moved with her two younger children, Hattie Jr. and Willie, to Albany, a half hour’s drive away from Dawson, she still could not avoid harassment by the Dawson police. In 1959, Dawson officers arrested her in Albany on a charge of stealing her own “power mow” from her father-in-law (Odell Brazier), who had borrowed it. When she met Sheriff Mathews back in Dawson that year, he showed no sympathy for her husband’s death. “A nigger like you, I feel like slapping them out,” he told the widow, according to an NAACP investigation. “You niggers set around here and look at television and go up North and come back and do to white folks here like the niggers up North do, but you ain’t gonna do it.
“I’m gonna carry the South’s orders out like they oughta be done,” the sheriff said.
In April 1960, almost exactly two years after Cherry and McDonald grabbed James Brazier from his home on Ash Street, Hattie Brazier’s lawyers filed a civil suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia against Cherry, McDonald, Mathews, and Howard Lee.
Hattie sued for the alleged wrongful death of her husband under the argument that the defendants had deprived James Brazier of his most basic civil right: the right to life. The suit alleged that James Brazier died from “willful and intentional acts of violence, individually and collectively” committed by the defendants who “had a duty to protect him while in their individual and collective custody.” Sheriff Mathews was included in the suit because the county jail shared facilities, including the jailhouse, with the city of Dawson police department.
Hattie sought $120,448 for the price of her husband’s life. Her lawyers determined that James Brazier, who was thirty-one when he died, had had a life expectancy of 33.68 years and had a monthly income of $300. She also sought $50,000 in punitive damage, for a suit totaling $170,448.
Convictions for white-on-black crimes in the Jim Crow South were rare. A black plaintiff would more than likely face an all-white jury and a white judge, who—especially in local or state trials—were likely to side with a white defendant. And in this case, the attorney for the defendants was a powerful one—Charles J. Bloch, who had also defended the Terrell County Board of Registrars in their voting rights suit. Bloch was one of the most eminent lawyers in Georgia and one of the best connected. The Macon-based attorney was a close friend to U.S. Sen. Richard Russell, the powerful segregationist Georgia lawmaker. He had also represented the segregationist governor, Herman Talmadge, and had argued against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1958, the year Dawson first made national news, “Macon’s Lawyer of the Year” published his book, States’ Rights: the Law of the Land. The dry book, full of legalese, outlined Bloch’s opinion that the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board had outrageously denied southern states their right to self-government, without precedent. He was Jewish and, in that regard, an anomaly as a white supremacist.
In Brazier vs. Cherry, Bloch asked the federal court to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction and, in June 1960, federal Judge William Bootle obliged. Hattie Brazier’s lawyers, Donald Hollowell and C.B. King, appealed that decision to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Hollowell and King were two of only a handful of African-American lawyers in Georgia at the time. King was the only black lawyer based in South Georgia who took on criminal and civil cases, and was known for his eloquence and nearly photographic memory in the courtroom. Hollowell, as the chief civil rights lawyer in Atlanta, already had an overloaded schedule by the time he and King filed Hattie Brazier’s civil suit. While serving as chairman of Georgia’s NAACP Legal Redress Committee, he was, along with the committee’s Director-Counsel, Thurgood Marshall, working on a case to desegregate the restaurants in the Atlanta airport. Hollowell was also counsel for Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes in the case that would lead to desegregation of the University of Georgia in 1961. Hollowell fought for equal justice for blacks while experiencing discrimination in the courtroom, including judges who turned their backs on him as he argued his clients’ cases. In the courtroom, Hollowell typically played the “good cop” attorney, while King served the “bad cop” role.
Their work on the Brazier case was likely financed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which financed the bulk of Hollowell’s civil rights case expenses. Hollowell would take civil rights cases for little to no compensation, keeping his firm open through his work with other types of cases. The two African-American attorneys matched blows with Georgia’s leading segregationist lawyer in a flurry of legal paperwork. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Bootle’s decision on July 7, 1961. For the second time in a case involving Terrell County, Bloch had appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. Hattie Brazier’s case would go to trial.
By the time Hattie received word that she would once again be meeting officers Cherry and McDonald in court, the legally sanctioned violence in her husband’s story had fueled Terrell County’s reputation as “Terrible” Terrell. Brewing restlessness and mounting discontent over segregation in southwest Georgia erupted that year with the formation of the Albany Movement in bordering Dougherty County, which mobilized thousands in support of desegregation and set the stage for later, more successful movements. National civil rights organizations descended upon Southwest Georgia and white Dougherty County law enforcement jailed local blacks by the hundreds. The movement attracted national media as prominent civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the nonviolent protests.
The movement also attracted sixteen-year-old Verda Brazier, who had been living in Albany for a short time with her mother. She said she visited a protest at first to be “nosy” and meet boys, but eventually joined in. “You could tell how people felt,” she recalled. “People were determined to get that recognition—I suppose, if you think about it, to stop being trampled and considered a nobody people.”
The Albany Movement spilled over into Terrell County in early 1962, when members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC (usually pronounced as “snick”), announced plans to push their campaign to register black voters beyond Albany and into rural Dougherty, Lee, and Terrell counties. The Southwest Georgia Voter Registration Project leader was Charles Sherrod, who, at twenty-five, was already a veteran of the nonviolent movement. Sherrod, a black man, was acquainted with Terrell County, which SNCC workers christened “Tombstone Territory.”
If SNCC workers were not aware of the Brazier case by the time they entered the county, Marion Paige, an Albany Movement leader, certainly told them about it. It was Paige, who had been working for a local black mortuary, who picked up James Brazier’s corpse from the Columbus Medical Center for the funeral home. He told SNCC workers that when he lifted the body, the dead man’s broken bones “clicked like dice.”
SNCC workers were also connected to the case because of Hattie Brazier’s lawyers, King and Hollowell. The two attorneys were handling thousands of arrests and the unending court battles associated with the Albany Movement. When protests in Albany spiked in December 1961, the Albany police chief, Laurie Pritchett, flooded nearby southwest Georgia jails with more than seven hundred civil rights protesters in an attempt to avoid overcrowding the Dougherty County jail and drawing attention to the city’s growing tensions.
Charles Sherrod planned to change Terrible Terrell through community organizing rather than direct nonviolent protest. Voter registration was the key goal for such counties; Sherrod and his SNCC colleagues believed the majority black proportion of the population had enormous potential for political power.
But the resistance was fierce. Sherrod and twenty other protesters spent time in the Terrell County jail. There, he first encountered Sheriff Mathews, one of the named defendants in Hattie Brazier’s suit. Mathews lined up the prisoners from Albany. “When you come here you lose all your rights,” he barked at them. “This is my jail and I run it like I please.”
When Mathews denied Sherrod’s request to lead a group prayer within their cells, Sherrod appealed to the officer: “We are still human beings and Christians.”
Mathews responded by clubbing Sherrod in the face.
Although Judge Bootle had issued the injunction against the Terrell County Board of Registrars in 1960, two years later fewer than ten more blacks had registered to vote in the county. Terrell County’s white officials had strolled away from the national limelight with no outside pressure to force them to change their ways. The registration process remained in the hands of the state registrars who had been found to discriminate against blacks. And no system stood in place to nurture and develop a black voting bloc. As the historian Howard Zinn found in his 1962 study of the Albany Movement, “the most powerful factors operating against Negro registration still exist in Terrell County: the threat of economic reprisals, an atmosphere of intimidation and repression, a history of brutality.”
James Brazier’s death had become a looming presence over the struggle for equal rights in Terrell County, but Hattie Brazier’s pursuit of justice had become its symbol. SNCC workers and the Terrell County black community hoped that the case might help pave the way for equal justice in the region. Jack Chatfield, a white college student from Vermont, recalled years later that he and the other SNCC workers were highly aware of the case as one of the defining elements of Dawson at the time. “These trials are so important because one of the brightest hopes of the ballot is justice,” another SNCC worker, Faith Holsaert, said.
While Bloch built his defense of Terrell County and Dawson law enforcement officials against Hattie Brazier’s civil suit, those same officials were defending their home turf against the changes promised by the young men and women they saw as trouble-making interlopers. Although he was no longer chief of police, Howard Lee still acted with his old brutal authority; He slapped and kicked a black seventeen-year-old in the Terrell County courthouse as the teenager helped an older black woman register to vote. When Sherrod went to the county registrar’s office to pick up voter registration material, an officer threatened to call his superior, who Sherrod referred to as “the infamous captain Cherry.” Sheriff Mathews then bossed the civil rights leader out of the courthouse. “We don’t know who you are,” Mathews told Sherrod. “We can’t just let anybody come in here and look anywhere they please.”
Mathews’s intimidation tactics pushed his county once again onto the national stage. On July 27, 1962, The New York Times ran a front-page article by reporter Claude Sitton titled “Sheriff Harasses Negroes at Voting Rally in Georgia,” re-introducing the rest of America to Mathews and his deputies. Sitton had covered a dramatic July 26 meeting inside Mount Olive Baptist Church in Sasser, near Dawson, where SNCC workers encouraged black Terrell County citizens to register to vote. As Sitton and two other white journalists in the church watched, Mathews and thirteen other law-enforcement officers interrupted the meeting carrying guns and police batons. A remarkable dialogue ensued, according to Sitton’s story.
“We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last hundred years” Mathews told the group of thirty-eight blacks and two white SNCC workers. The sheriff claimed that none of Terrell County’s blacks were dissatisfied with their way of life. He then asked the group, “Are any of you disturbed?”
They replied, “Yes.”
“Can you vote if you are qualified?”
“Do you need people to come down and tell you what to do?”
“Haven’t you been getting along well for a hundred years?”
The frustrated sheriff told the group that no one was allowed to register between July and December, directly contradicting Georgia law, and that it would “not be in your interest” to continue the meeting. The sheriff told them he was trying to prevent violence from local whites, people he hinted he “could not control.”
“I don’t appreciate outside agitators coming in here and stirring up trouble.” Mathews said. “I’ve helped more colored people than any man in the South, I reckon.”
For Mathews, this was actually mild. Penny Patch, sitting with her SNCC colleagues, noticed that the sheriff held back his usual vitriol because of the reporters’ presence. A local black leader, Lucius Holloway, led a prayer during the meeting: “Our concern is not to destroy. Our concern is not to displace or to fight but to build a community in which all our children can live and grow up in dignity.”
The officers shuffled outside of the church as SNCC workers and the aspiring black registrants joined together in a crescendo of We Shall Overcome. “Their voices had a strident note, as though they were building up the courage to go out into the night,” Sitton wrote, “where the whites waited.”
According to Taylor Branch’s book Parting the Waters, it was after reading Sitton’s story that U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy pushed the Justice Department into action. In August 1962, the civil rights division of the Justice Department filed its second suit against officials in Terrell County for interfering in voter registration. The suit sought an injunction forbidding Mathews—already a defendant in the Brazier v Cherry case—and fifteen other white southwest Georgia officials from intimidating prospective voters by “disrupting meetings, threatening or committing violence or dismissing Negroes from their jobs.”
Tensions in the community were rising, as bad publicity and the ongoing annoyance of SNCC workers continued to incense local whites. Nearly two months after Sitton’s article was published, the small black church that had been the setting for Mathews’s confrontation, Mt. Olive, blazed to the ground, in an apparent case of arson. Before dawn on September 9, 1962, SNCC workers and local blacks held hands and prayed around the ashes, consoling one another as they watched the smoke rise over Terrell County.
Federal, state, and local officials investigated the scene that day and found the cause of the destruction of Mt. Olive and another nearby Baptist church that burned, Mt. Mary, to be undetermined. But the story grew. The baseball star Jackie Robinson, who had been visiting the region as a native of nearby Cairo, visited the site, and would later head the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s donation drive to rebuild the burned churches. Indeed the destruction of the black churches struck the emotions of whites as well as blacks. Outrage over the burnings spread all the way to the nation’s capital, where President John F. Kennedy called them cowardly. “I don’t know of any more outrageous action which I’ve seen occur in this country for a good many months or years than the burning of a church—two churches—because of the effort made by Negroes to be registered to vote,” Kennedy said.
Eugene Patterson, the editor of The Atlanta Constitution, initiated a donation drive within the pages of his paper to rebuild the churches. He specifically requested no donations from black Georgia residents. Patterson, a white man, believed that white people had probably burned the churches and so white people should be the ones to rebuild it.
Terrell County’s white community hastened to defend its members against allegations of violent racism. Carl Rountree, Dawson’s mayor and the editor of The Dawson News, the main local publication, defended his white constituents in a September 13 page-one editorial, titled “Who Profits Most?” He argued that the “good white people” of Terrell County were too wary of breaking the 1960 injunction against intimidating blacks and bringing more bad publicity to the area to have burned the churches. He answered the question posed in the title of his editorial by pointing at the victims: “The negroes know their churches were old. They know that they are going to be rebuilt larger and better. Let us hope that these new churches will be used for the purpose for which they are intended—the worship and glorification of God—not the vilification of man.”
Sheriff Mathews also placed the blame elsewhere. “The people are disturbed about the outsiders,” Mathews had told reporters after the church burnings. “If they’d leave, things would quiet down again.” On September 14, one such outsider, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., visiting from nearby Albany and held a vigil on the site of what had been Mt. Olive Baptist Church, with the support of both blacks and whites from across the state. An African-American SNCC worker, Prathia Hall, the daughter of a Baptist minister, gave a speech. According to SNCC worker Faith Holseart, her theme was “I have a dream”—a theme that may have stuck in King’s memory.
Three days later, I Hope Baptist, the site of James Brazier’s funeral four years earlier, burned. Unlike the first two incidents, however, investigators quickly caught the perpetrators—three local white men, who, along with a white teenager, confessed and were each sentenced to seven years behind bars. “We sat around talking about segregation and the burning of the churches at Sasser and Chickasawhatchee,” said one of them, a thirty-one-year-old construction worker named Marvin Milner, whom The Dawson News named as the group’s ringleader. “I got mad. I don’t want my children going to school with Negroes. So we decided to burn the church.”
The destruction of a church by local whites pushed the Terrell County white community into mimicking Patterson’s campaign. The Dawson News and local officials established a fund to rebuild I Hope Baptist. The paper insisted in an editorial that Terrell County whites were not seeking outside contributions to their local donation drive to rebuild the church. “We think this is our job,” the editorial said.
But while SNCC workers continued to canvass and hold meetings under a tent where Mt. Olive had once stood, no more black pastors in Terrell County would allow SNCC workers to use their churches for meetings. SNCC workers found that by the time of Hattie Brazier’s civil suit, the fires had sparked a fear in local African-Americans that caused them to retreat rather than unite.
Nearly five years after James Brazier was carried from the Terrell County jail, bloodstained and comatose, Hattie Bell Brazier faced the law enforcement officials responsible. From February 4 to 8, 1963, in the federal district court of Americus, Sumter County, the African-American civil rights attorneys Hollowell and King sparred with the white supremacist lawyer Bloch to prove that the defendants had, under color of the law and because of the color of his skin, illegally arrested James Brazier and used unnecessary force against him. The attorneys asserted that officers Weyman Cherry and Randolph McDonald had targeted James Brazier, and that Sheriff Mathews—who was in charge of the county jail—had knowingly allowed the violence to happen.
Attending the trial were members of SNCC’s Southwest Georgia Project. The young men and women were expanding the project into Sumter County that month, but had taken a break from canvassing to watch Hattie Brazier’s stand against the men who reigned over Terrell County. According to Faith Holseart, the courtroom gallery was nearly full with activists and local men and women. Attendance, she noted, was something of an act of courage in Americus, because “people could take your name down and retaliate.”
Judge J. Robert Elliott, who had dismissed the injunction against Sheriff Mathews’s intimidation of black voters, was presiding over the case. The jury had initially had two black members, but Bloch struck them from the panel. The jury would be all white.
Hollowell and King were missing a key piece of their defense before they even stepped foot in the Americus courthouse: Marvin Goshea, the young black man who had been in the Terrell County jail cell with James Brazier. Goshea had not been able to give his testimony to the federal grand jury in 1958 because Cherry had locked him up. And now, he would be unable to give his testimony in 1963 because he had been found dead two years earlier from apparent asphyxiation. The FBI investigated his death, but agents determined there was no evidence of foul play.
Another witness from that night in the jail, Irene Gladden, had also since died under unknown circumstances. A female black prisoner, she had recognized James Brazier that night, calling him by his nickname, “Bubber,” when the officers took the man to the woman’s side of the prison. Gladden had called out to an unconscious James Brazier through the cell walls.
The only eyewitness for the plaintiffs who was available was Mary Carolyn Clyde, who had been Gladden’s cellmate that night in 1958. At the time, Clyde, at nineteen and with a fifth grade education, had been in jail since October 1957 for spousal homicide. When FBI agents first investigated James Brazier’s death in spring of 1958, Clyde told them the only time she had seen Brazier was when he was walking, unsupported and healthy, to Mayor’s Court the next morning. But later, Clyde smuggled a handwritten letter through the prison’s cook to the NAACP that told a different account: “Please don’t you all call my name and I want you all to help me if you all can,” she scrawled in almost illegible, hurried characters. Clyde wrote that she had seen James Brazier arrive in the jail cell next to hers. She later saw officers take him out of that cell. When they returned the prisoner, she said, he was wrapped in a bloody blanket and would not answer when officers called his name.
She later told representatives of the NAACP that she could not tell the truth in her first FBI interview because an eavesdropper had been stationed on the porch near where they were sitting. That eavesdropper, Eugene Magwood, was the black prisoner trustee—a selected prisoner given special privileges and freedoms in exchange for helping the sheriff with jailhouse duties. Clyde told NAACP officials that officers threatened to kill her if she told anyone what she’d seen, and that they also bribed her to keep her mouth shut. According to her new testimony, when she had first met with FBI agents and told them her more benign account of that night, Mathews had pushed back Clyde’s interview time so that he could wash the blood from the cell floor where James Brazier had lain.
Clyde subsequently told Hollowell her more complete story and agreed to testify in court against the officers. But when Clyde stepped onto the witness stand in 1963, she became visibly fearful. In the five years between the federal grand jury sessions and the civil suit, the twenty-four-year-old woman had been released from jail. She still lived in Bronwood, Terrell County with her father—less than seven miles from the county jail.
As she sat in the witness chair, staring into the faces of the three law officers who had controlled her life behind bars, Clyde wrung her hands and frowned. Stuttering and mumbling, she denied knowing anything about that night in jail—anything at all. She told the courtroom she had been asleep the whole night and did not see James Brazier until the next morning. “Every time she would tell a lie for them she would close her eyes,” a spectator at the trial later told a journalist for the Afro-American newspaper. “You could tell she was afraid by the way she gripped the chair and the way she could not control the trembling of her body and legs.”
Because of Clyde’s changed behavior, Hollowell, who did most of the questioning, took the unusual step of leading his own witness. Hollowell reminded her that she had confided in him that she was afraid because people were “getting hurt.” She had specifically mentioned Gladden and Goshea. But Clyde continued to deny everything on the witness stand. Frustrated, Hollowell asked the judge to declare her a hostile witness.
Another witness, Frank Hunter, also denied knowing anything about James Brazier’s death. Hattie Brazier’s mother had told investigators that Hunter, night watchman at the Dawson Compress and Storage Company, had confided in her that he had seen the policemen drag James Brazier to his job site to savagely beat him.
Other members of the Dawson community, both black and white, appeared before the court to frustrate Hollowell’s case. One white woman claimed she had seen James Brazier walking to Mayor’s court unsupported and still in his Sunday suit. Bloch spent much of his questioning trying to paint James Brazier and his father Odell to the jury as drunkards, and to characterize the deceased Brazier as a domestic abuser. A black storeowner with a record of illegally selling whiskey said, with contradictory evidence, that James Brazier had been a frequent customer of his and that he had frequently broken up physical fights between the Brazier couple.
One of the tallest obstacles in Hollowell’s path, however, had nothing to do with witnesses or testimony: Judge Elliott, who was perhaps best known as the judge who, during the height of the Albany movement, had placed an injunction on the demonstrations led by Martin Luther King Jr. in the city. Elliott appeared to have very loose control over his courtroom—at least as far as the defense was concerned. According to the trial transcript, Hollowell stopped the trial at one point by objecting to the defense’s courtroom behavior. Bloch’s associate, James Collier, was shaking his head and gesturing at a witness on the stand. In another instance, Cherry appeared to be coaching a different witness. When Hollowell objected, Elliott allowed the behavior.
On the night before the last day of the trial, seventy-five SNCC workers and local blacks gathered in a nearby Baptist church. Many of them had been attending the Brazier trial instead of registering Sumter County voters. They sang a freedom song, praying for a victory for Hattie Brazier: Guide my heart, while I run this race/Cause I don’t want to run this race in vain.
At the end of the trial, when all voices by either side had been heard, Elliott spent two hours giving the jury instructions. He charged them with deciding if officers Cherry and McDonald had arrested James Brazier with illegally brutal force, leading to his death.
After five days listening to evidence and two hours listening to instructions, the jury deliberated for less than an hour and a half. They decided in favor of the defendants.
Faith Holsaert, the young white woman working for the Southwest Georgia Project, declared in a field report that the jury’s decision to be “a bad blow, very bad” to SNCC’s efforts in the region. She noticed that many people “were moved and angered, but simply discouraged, not rededicated.” Holsaert voiced her frustrations with the ruling in a letter to the Voter Education Project: “If one ever had the naïve hope that the system had disappeared, the Federal Court sitting in Americus has made quite plain the fact that the system is quite alive, and fostered by some of the ablest minds around.”
Still, after the trial Hattie Brazier addressed members of the black press and expressed some optimism. “If I never get a penny out of it, I think this case has done some good,” she told the reporters. “It has exposed the way police in this part of Georgia operate and what they can do without being punished.”
The story of the case had touched people outside of Terrell County. While working on the case, Hollowell received a letter from an anonymous white person who had heard that Hollowell was helping Hattie Brazier. The person wrote that his or her father had been a police officer in a small Georgia town similar to Dawson. “I loved him, but he was cruel to Negroes,” the writer said. “I have seen it and it has affected my whole life.”
The author wrote that his or her father was not the only police officer responsible for cruelty to blacks in the small town: “The Negroes never had a chance. There seemed to be an unspoken [sic] of law among police officers that Negroes were to be kept in complete subjection. [sic] They were too, or they were found to be ‘missing’ or beaten and nothing was ever done.”
The letter writer remembered that even as a child he or she had known that the oppression of blacks was “terribly wrong.” “Thank God for people like you,” the author told Hollowell, “who will help these people.” And the writer explained why he or she would not sign the letter. “I’m not brave like you,” the writer said. “I’m a coward.”
Hattie Brazier’s civil suit was an act of defiance against the law enforcement officials who represented and enforced the legally sanctioned oppression of African-Americans in southwest Georgia. Her case drew the hopes of the two-thirds of Terrell County’s population who were denied social, economic, and political representation because of the color of their skin. But the jury’s decision affirmed the hold of white supremacy on Terrell County and, by example, Georgia’s Black Belt.
In 1966, Hattie Brazier wrote to Donald Hollowell asking for her husband’s bloody clothes and photographs back, which had been taken as evidence for the civil suit. She was moving from Georgia to New Jersey to live with her extended family and her daughter Verda. The last time Hattie had seen or heard from Hollowell or C.B. King was on the steps of the Americus courthouse on February 8, 1963. The lawyers had then assured her that they would pursue a new trial, but she had not heard anything about it since.
The two lawyers had filed a motion for a new trial a week after the jury’s decision. They asserted that the verdict was contrary to the law and the weight of the evidence on both sides. Hollowell and King also maintained that Bloch introduced evidence solely to paint a negative image of James Brazier’s character, and that Judge Elliott should have declared a mistrial when it appeared that the defense was coaching witnesses.
Elliott denied the motion for a new trial that September. Hollowell and King filed another appeal, but nothing ever came of the action and the two soon became consumed in their other civil rights-related legal work. In 1964, King became the first African-American since Reconstruction to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, though his run was unsuccessful. The Albany Movement, which had catapulted the two attorneys to regional prominence, had formally ended in August of 1962, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC transferred their nonviolent protest campaign to Birmingham, Alabama, leaving the movement in Albany with unrealized goals.
The Southwest Georgia Voter Registration Project continued in Terrell and other counties, but SNCC workers found that in Terrell County, at least, the black community’s enthusiasm for the project deflated after the church burnings and the Brazier trial. Voter registration continued, hesitantly, until December 1963, when nightriders shot and bombed the Dawson home that served as the center of SNCC work in the county. After that, attendance at meetings dropped by half.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which instituted a federal referee to monitor voter registration in the county and made restrictive literacy tests illegal, resulted in more black voters in the county, but blacks would still remain a political minority for decades. The “atmosphere of fear” that Dawson blacks had experienced in 1958 still lingered years later, when Hattie Brazier prepared to migrate north.
In her 1966 letter, Hattie Brazier told Hollowell that she had visited Dawson since the trial in Americus. She had found that in the three years since her suit, five more blacks had become victims of police brutality. The widow believed her legal efforts, which had come at a high financial and emotional cost, didn’t seem to have changed the town at all. “The only thing I believe will stop them is the Lord,” she wrote in reference to the law officers. “He got time set for every person that do each other wrong.”
Indeed, Sheriff Mathews ruled Terrell County until his retirement in 1969 and Weyman Cherry remained Dawson’s chief of police until he died in a car crash in 1970. The county would not have a black government representative until 1979.
Hattie Brazier eventually remarried and became Hattie Watson. She died in 2005.
Terrible Terrell did resist change, but it did, finally, change somewhat. Local black citizens, with the help of federal legislation, eventually transformed the small rural county. Today, the county’s sheriff and the county seat’s mayor are both black. The year 2013 marked the county’s first black history program in local schools, in which local civil rights leaders talked about their experiences during and after the “King years.”
The Brazier family, whose loss had inspired and symbolized civil rights action in the county in the 1950s and 1960s, harbored bitter feelings about Dawson more than fifty years after James Brazier’s death. Hattie’s daughters, Hattie Brazier Polite and Verda Brazier Bush, who survived their mother as well as their two brothers, said in a 2013 interview that they tried to avoid visiting their hometown because of the memories associated with it.
The sisters had received a letter from the FBI in 2009. The FBI began what was called the “Cold Case Initiative,” which identified and investigated racially motivated cold case murders from the Civil Rights era, in 2006 with the eventual partnerships of the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Urban League. James Brazier’s case, like dozens of others, was reopened and quickly re-closed. FBI sent letters to the remaining family of the victims informing them of the reopened investigations. But the letters were often reminders of tragedy rather than heralds of justice.
It was tough going. In a 2013 article reviewing the Cold Case Initiative, The New York Timesreported that it faced obstacles of “the limited federal jurisdiction in some cases, the statute of limitations in others, and, of course, time’s passage,” as well as what critics called a lack of time commitment to these case.
In 2009, like most of the families whose loved ones were victims in these civil rights cases, the two daughters of James Brazier were told by the Department of Justice that their father’s fifty-year-old case was officially and finally closed—still with no resolution. Paige M. Fitzgerald, the deputy chief in charge of the Cold Case Initiative, wrote that since both officers Cherry and McDonald had died, the department had “no choice but to close the investigation.”
“We regret that we cannot be of further assistance to you,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Although Verda Brazier Bush recalled that her brother, James Brazier Jr., carried “a lot of hatred in his heart” about their father’s murder until his own death six decades later, she said she felt she had to move forward. “It’s hard, it’s difficult, when you start to think about it,” she said of her father’s death. “It’s hard. What can you do as a child? And here I am, almost seventy years old.”
Verda lived in New Jersey and New York for more than forty years, raising a child and building a career, before moving back to Albany in 2008. Time, she said, has changed her perspective on her father’s death. “It makes a difference in the way you think, in the way you feel about people,” she said. “You don’t hate as much as you used to hate because time changes things as you mature.”
James Brazier’s name is one of seventy-four enshrined in a display at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The display, which also names Willie Countryman, bears the label “The Forgotten.”
Yet nearly sixty years after it happened, James Brazier’s death remains unjustified and unsettled. But it is not forgotten.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.