"The Shame of Our Whole Judicial System": George Crockett Jr., the New Bethel Shoot-In, and the Nation's Jim Crow Judiciary

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Book Chapter

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Publication Title

The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South


In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 30, 1969, in an unused office in Detroit's First Precinct police station, Recorder's Court judge George Crockett Jr. announced that court was in session. A few hours earlier, he had received reports that one white officer had been killed and another wounded in a "shoot-out" outside the New Bethel Baptist Church. Police had sprayed the church with gunfire and arrested all 142 African American men, women, and children inside. Crockett learned that these individuals were being held incommunicado, unable to contact attorneys. Worried that police were denying black Detroiters their constitutional rights, he hurried to the precinct and, right there in the station, assembled habeas corpus proceedings. In the intense weeks that followed, amid much misreporting, Detriot police and news outlets mounted a campaign against Crockett, whom they accused of being an activist judge and impeding police work. An opposing camp of Crockett supporters quickly assembled, including a forty-group coalition called the Black United Front. At stake for both Crockett and his supporters was nothing short of a righteous blow to a criminal court system that claimed color-blindness but enacted highly racialized forms of "justice."
At the time of the New Bethel shoot-in, Crockett had practiced law for thirty-five years, including over twenty years in Detroit, and had served on the Recorder's Court bench (Detroit's criminal court) for over two years. During that time, he watched unequal justice operate as the judicial norm. Such was the necessary effect of a Jim Crow judiciary--a court system that was as old as the nation itself but that had become increasingly visible as African Americans shouldered a disproportionate bulk of the prison time associated with the doubling of crime rates throughout the 1960s. A Jim Crow judiciary aimed less at the social separation codified through Plessy v. Ferguson--that 1896 Supreme Court decision mandating "separate but equal"--and more at creating a two-track system in which the courts maintained the constitutional rights of whites and the economically comfortable while abridging those of poor and black defendants. Indeed, it was the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision that became the more enduring guide for the nation's judiciary: African Americans "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."


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