| Compiled from student research and reports |
James C. Brazier, a husband and father, a 31-year-old striver who worked two and sometimes three jobs, spent most of his Sunday, April 20, 1958, as he usually did: with his extended family, in church, in Terrell County in rural southwest Georgia. The Brazier family started the day at I Hope Baptist Church in Dawson, then drove 20 miles past cotton and peanut fields to Mt. Mary Baptist Church in Sasser.
Late that afternoon, when the day-long services ended, James Brazier got behind the wheel of the 1958 blue and white Impala he had bought at the Chevrolet dealership where he worked, and shuttled family members to their homes. His father, Odell Brazier, got into the 1956 Chevrolet that James Brazier had purchased a couple of years earlier and did the same.
After dropping off family members at their homes, James Brazier was driving through Dawson on his way home to his wife and four children when he saw a sight that was both familiar and dreaded in the Jim Crow South: A white police officer roughing up a black motorist. James Brazier had a special reason to fear that scene. Dawson Police officers, all of them white, had arrested Brazier, an African-American, seven times in the previous four years. They had charged him with speeding, contempt, disorderly conduct, drunk and disorderly conduct, and DUI and speeding. Most of the fines had run $10 to $15.
Trapped in the web of a ruthless routine
As Emory student papers show in the stories on this website, the police targeting of James Brazier had accelerated in recent months – and the raw rationale for the police behavior had begun to reveal itself. In November 1957, when James Brazier was driving his new 1958 Chevrolet Impala, Dawson Police Officer Weyman Burchle Cherry had stopped him, charged him with DUI and speeding, and arrested him. When Cherry took him to jail, Brazier would later tell his wife, the officer hit him so hard in the back of the head that Brazier fell to the ground. “You smart son-of-a-bitch,” Brazier recalled Cherry saying, “I’ve been wanting to get my hands on you for a long time.”
“Why you want me for?” Brazier responded.
“You is a nigger who is buying new cars and we can’t hardly live,” Cherry explained. “I’ll get you yet.” He hit Brazier again, then stomped him in the back so hard, Hattie Brazier would later say, that she could see Cherry’s shoeprint on her husband’s back when he was returned home, vomiting and with blood coming out of his ear.
That flare-up of racial resentment had occurred only five months before the Sunday in April when James Brazier saw that Dawson Police Officer Randolph Ennis McDonald had pulled a black motorist to the side of the road. As Brazier drew closer, he could see the motorist was his father, Odell Brazier. The elder Brazier and McDonald were engaged in an argument. McDonald had said Odell Brazier was weaving in his car and had been drinking; Odell Brazier had insisted he had been in church all day, had not been drinking, and was driving safely. McDonald, with another white man who arrived on the scene, were trying to push Odell Brazier into the police car. When the elder Brazier resisted, McDonald pulled out a slapjack and, Odell Brazier would later say (and his damaged eye would seem to corroborate), hit him across his eyes and the bridge of his nose. James Brazier, seeing his father’s struggle, got out of his car and walked quickly toward McDonald and his father. “Don’t hit my daddy,” he said to McDonald, then offered to help get his father in the patrol car.
At that moment, James Brazier’s tragic fate was decided. As the Emory student papers that follow show, James Brazier, by driving up to the scene in a new automobile that upended and offended white supremacists’ insistence on economic advantage, then by uttering an imperative to Dawson police officers (“Don’t hit my daddy”), even while offering to help, had become snared in the maddening, inescapable web of the Jim Crow South. The Emory students’ research revealed that James Brazier, working three jobs, in fact did make more money than the police officers. But the numbers would not have mattered; the students, who examined the role of automobiles in race relations as well as the state of black consumerism in the last 1950s, found that James Brazier’s display of middle-class comfort was sufficient.
The Dawson confrontation in Spring 1958 came amid rising tensions in the South — four years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board decision of 1954, less than three years after Emmett Till was killed in the Mississippi Delta, a little more than a year after the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott ended, and seven months after the showdown in Little Rock over the integration of Central High.
The message from the top: Resist at all costs
Georgia’s political leadership in 1958 was not merely passively segregationist. Gov. Marvin Griffin, Attorney General Eugene Cook, and former House Speaker Roy V. Harris were in the South’s vanguard of white supremacist politicians who added muscle, vitriol and open encouragement to the massive resistance movement spreading over the South. Their influence went beyond Georgia’s borders. In the fall of 1957, days before Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus was to fulfill his longstanding promises to steer Little Rock peacefully and safely toward school integration, Gov. Griffin and Roy Harris showed up at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion. They had a message for Faubus: If he allowed black students into Central High School, he would go down in history as a traitor to his white race and certainly would not be reelected in Arkansas. Faubus, viewed as a racial moderate, stunned his state by buckling under to last minute pressure and calling out the National Guard to stop nine black students from enrolling at Central High. 
Under Griffin, Cook and Harris, white supremacists in Georgia, including those in law enforcement, felt they had sanction to push hard and violently to stop racial integration. In 1955, Attorney General Cook, who would later serve on the Georgia Supreme Court, gave a speech to Georgia law enforcement officers calling the NAACP communist-led and “un-American.” He announced his plan to “totally disrobe the NAACP and to present this sinister and subtle organization in all its nakedness.” Roy Harris would later praise whites who rioted in a failed attempt to stop the desegregation of the University of Georgia in 1961.
The impact of that invective from political leaders resonated across the state. In the everyday relationships between white police officers and black residents of far-flung towns across Georgia, few of the messages coming from the political leaders counseled restraint in the use of force to maintain white supremacy and black subservience.
James Brazier, who had no involvement in civil rights activity, was about to receive that message in the most brutal way.
Bush, Verda Brazier, Sara Brazier and Hattie Brazier Polite. Interview by Brett Gadsden, Hank Klibanoff and Mary Claire Kelly. Personal Interview. Dawson, Georgia, August 16, 2013..
Testimony of Randolph McDonald, Hattie Brazier v. W. B. Cherry, Randolph McDonald, Zachary T. Matthews [sic], et al., C.A. 475, M.D. Ga. (hereafter cited as Brazier v. Cherry), February 8, 1963, The National Archives at Atlanta;
Deposition of Odell Brazier, Brazier v. Cherry, November 24, 1962;
Testimony of Odell Brazier, Brazier v. Cherry.
“Roy V. Harris”, New Georgia Encyclopedia, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/roy-v-harris-1895-1985