In the years after the Civil War, as the South braced for the withdrawal of Union soldiers, the protection of former slaves fell to often-hostile local police officers. Riots erupted in Memphis in 1866 following a clash between a group of black soldiers and white police officers, with police and civilians storming black neighborhoods to rob, rape and kill. The chaos lasted three days.
“There will prevail in the South for a long time to come a good deal of envy, hatred, and malice towards the colored population,” Nation co-founder E.L. Godkin wrote in his article in the aftermath of the Memphis riots, foreshadowing the difficult road ahead for African Americans. In the riots, Godkin says, “the officers of the law…took a leading part in it, and we now have very little doubt that, were any similar outburst of popular prejudice to take place tomorrow in any other town in the South, the local police, if they interfered at all, would interfere in the same way.”
Credit: Harper’s Weekly / Library of Congress