Opinion: Ga.’s citizen’s arrest law a Jim Crow relic

August 17  2015 Atlanta: For File use anytime.  Goethe State Capitol.  Gold Dome. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
August 17 2015 Atlanta: For File use anytime. Goethe State Capitol. Gold Dome. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

From 1877 to 1950, at least 594 Black people were lynched in Georgia.

The true number is likely much higher, given how the stories of violent white vigilantism during the Jim Crow era often went untold. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, only in Mississippi were more people lynched during that period.

These 594 people were murdered for any number of reasons. Mack Brown was lynched in Fulton in 1936 for kissing a white woman on the hand. Warren Powell, just 14, from East Point was lynched in 1889 for “frightening” a white girl. Robert Mallard was lynched in Lyons for exercising his right to vote in 1948 – the same right that thousands of Black Georgians exercised to elect their first Black senator 72 years later.

Delvin Davis
Delvin Davis

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

In post-Civil War Georgia, as across the South, white supremacist politicians enacted a great number of laws – the Black Codes followed by Jim Crow laws – solely for the purpose of subordinating the existence of Black people and ensuring a white-dominated, segregated society. Policies prohibiting Black people from using public facilities reinforced a culture of white superiority. Black people could not watch a movie, ride a train, eat in a restaurant, play in a park, go to school, or even die in a hospital within any proximity to white people. Even after death, they were laid to rest in segregated cemeteries.

Any Black dignity that these laws did not criminalize, Jim Crow culture sought to cripple. This culture demanded a racial etiquette where Black people did not dare look white people directly in the eyes and had to address them as “sir” or “ma’am,” regardless of their age or stature. Any breach of the social order was liable to be disciplined by the threat of lynching – or actual lynching.

Even today, a legal remnant of these statutes remains in Georgia – the citizen’s arrest law, first implemented in 1863.

Isabel Otero
Isabel Otero

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

On paper, the citizen’s arrest law allows a person to “arrest an offender if the offense is committed in the presence or within his immediate knowledge.” In practice, it allows for the same kind of armed vigilantism that has been historically used against Black people. In 1863, the law deputized any white person to incarcerate any Black person according to bigoted rules that should have never existed. In today’s Georgia, while many of the rules have changed, the law still allows people to act on preconceived notions of Black criminality and to take violent measures to enforce those notions.

In 2019, police say an attempted citizen’s arrest in Clayton County turned a simple fender-bender into the murder of Kenneth Herring, a 62-year old Black grandfather of three, by a white woman who, police say, decided to aggressively chase him down in her vehicle and shoot him. Nine months later, in Brunswick, a citizen’s arrest would lead to the death of Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of white men in an eerily similar fashion – except this time it was caught on camera for the world to see.

Neither Herring nor Arbery were dangerous criminals. In the eyes of Jim Crow, being Black was enough for suspicion, ire and swift civilian “justice.” Citizen’s arrest murders remind us that the threat of racial violence did not die with our Civil War ancestors, nor was this vigilantism resolved by the civil rights laws passed in the 1960s.

In this year’s State of the State address, Gov. Brian Kemp spoke of Arbery’s story and referred to his murder as “a vigilante-style of violence” allowed by “an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse and enables sinister, evil motives.”

A full repeal of citizen’s arrest is the only way to start to turn away from the violence against Black people that was legally sanctioned in an era of white supremacy. A full repeal is the only solution for change in Georgia – even if it is tardy by more than 150 years. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously noted, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

We urge Kemp to live up to his commitment to a Georgia resembling Dr. King’s vision.

Delvin Davis is a regional policy analyst focused on criminal justice reform at the SPLC Action Fund. Isabel Otero is a policy associate for the SPLC Action Fund in Georgia.

In Other News