The historiography of police brutality usually frames the phenomenon in urban settings, one that has existed since the first police forces of the antebellum period and was given its ultimate succor in the development of ethnic enclaves policed by white cops in the throes of the Great Migration and proliferating in the aftermath of World War II. This analysis interprets police brutality as a function of the structure and culture of policing. The violence of southern policing is in no way ignored by historians but is framed less as a function of racism in policing and more as a function of southern racist culture, of which policing is a constituent part.

But the systematic police brutality that existed in the small-town South in the decade following World War II was a brutality that was fundamentally dependent on a racist culture in the police force and carried out by white officers who abused the rights of Black citizens, assuming that their status as policemen and the racial assumptions of all-white juries would protect them. Such was the case in Valdosta. The murder of Willie Watson, featured in this article, would bring federal charges and national attention, but it did not exist in a vacuum. It was part of a culture of racist postwar police brutality that existed in Valdosta and southwest Georgia.

Police brutality in places like New Orleans and Birmingham is significant for understanding the evolving postwar demographics of the urban South, but the region was still predominantly rural at World War II’s close, relying on more moderately sized cities as cultural and economic hubs. There were, in other words, far more Valdostas in the postwar South than there were New Orleanses, making the smaller southwest Georgia city a better representative model for the broader postwar southern experience with race and policing. It also serves as a representative model for the trajectory of responses to police brutality more broadly, as the traditional civil rights narrative places responses to the violence of law enforcement as an outgrowth of new Black militancy later in the movement, a northern phenomenon and creature of the mid- to late 1960s.

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