This summer’s news headlines have contained numerous stories about white policing in African-American communities. Eric Garner in New York died after being placed in a chokehold by white New York Police Department officers. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was shot dead by a white police officer, allegedly while his hands were held up in the air. Closer to home, there was the dismissal of the case against Josh Hastings, a white Little Rock Police Department officer, who killed 15-year-old Bobby Moore in 2012. Such incidents are just the latest episodes in an all-too-familiar story of conflict between white officers and African-American men that have proved highly contentious flashpoints in the ongoing struggle for racial justice.
A historic case in Arkansas helps inform and contextualize contemporary events. The story begins on Memorial Day afternoon, May 31, 1971, when 24-year-old Carnell Russ was driving back to his hometown of Monticello after visiting his in-laws in Benton. In the vehicle with him was his wife, Clementine, six of their nine children, and Clementine’s cousin Denton Lambert.
Around 5:45 p.m., as they were traveling on Highway 81 (now U.S. Highway 425) through Yorktown, six miles north of Star City, Arkansas State Trooper Jerry Green pulled Russ over for allegedly driving 75 miles per hour in a 60-miles-per-hour speed zone. In a routine stop, Russ halted the car and tendered his license. Green told Russ to follow him to the Star City Jail to post bond.
Green radioed ahead, and Charles Ratliff and Norman Draper met them at the jailhouse. Ratliff was a Star City policeman recently arrived from Shannon, Miss., and had been on the job for just four months. Draper was preparing to begin his job as a city policeman the following day. At the jail, Russ was advised that his required bond was $23. He asked if he could be released on his own recognizance, since his father knew Lincoln County Sheriff Billy Bert French. Ratliff unsuccessfully attempted to contact French. Russ was unable to reach his father. Ratliff told Russ he could not leave without posting bond. Russ asked if he could pay by check. Ratliff said he needed cash. Russ then went out to the car and Clementine gave him the bond money.
Back inside, Russ asked if he could have a copy of the speeding ticket. Green told him no, that the ticket would be retained for the local court. Ratliff said he would issue him a receipt. Russ insisted that he would not hand over the bond money until he had a copy of the ticket, which he was entitled to under state law. Ratliff told Russ that he was going to lock him up for refusing to pay. He placed his hand on Russ’ left elbow. Russ drew back and assumed a fighting posture.
Exactly what happened next elicited different accounts from the survivors. According to Ratliff, Russ exchanged a number of blows with him. Then, Ratliff said, “I didn’t have a slapper and didn’t have no gas, and I wasn’t paid to stand and fist fight nobody so I used my gun as a slapper.” Ratliff said that he hit Russ in the head with his gun and that it accidentally discharged in the process, shooting Russ in the forehead. Draper told a similar story, though he claimed it was all over in “a very few seconds.” State Trooper Green testified that “no licks” had been exchanged and that Ratliff had extended his arm and had shot Russ in the head.
Green left the building to contact his superior officer. Ratliff phoned for a doctor and an ambulance. Russ’ wife, children and cousin watched Green pull away in his police vehicle but thought nothing of it. It was not until around 35 minutes later when an ambulance pulled up that they were first aware that something was wrong. Green, who had also just driven back, told them that Russ “had been killed.”
But Russ was not dead. Barely hanging on to life, an ambulance took him to University Hospital in Little Rock. No one told Clementine that her husband was still alive until several hours later. She immediately rushed to Little Rock where she was able to see him, albeit still comatose (he never recovered consciousness after the shooting), for a short time. He was pronounced dead at 2:20 a.m.
As news of the shooting spread through the local African-American community in Star City on Monday evening, around 50 to 60 blacks congregated on the courthouse lawn to express their concern to Sheriff Billy Bert French. They dispersed around 9 p.m. after French assured them that “justice would be done.”
On June 3, a 16-member Lincoln County grand jury comprised of 14 whites and two elderly blacks convened. Around 100 local African Americans kept a vigil in the courtroom. Others sat on the courthouse steps or leaned against their vehicles in the parking lot waiting to hear the decision. One told a reporter, “We’re just waiting to see what the grand jury does. We want dignity and justice; we don’t want no violence. We pay taxes and live here, too, you know.”
At 3:15 p.m., the jury returned a true bill of voluntary manslaughter. Ratcliff stuck to his story that Russ “attacked me” and that it was “a complete accident all the way.” NAACP officials, whose help in the case had been requested by the Russ family, were disappointed. Arkansas NAACP legal counsel George Howard said, “The thinking is here that it was an under-indictment. It should have been murder.” Howard further pointed out, “In a county where the population is 50-50 black and white, there should have been more black people on the grand jury.”
Arkansas NAACP state president Dr. Jerry Jewell sent a telegram to the U.S. Justice Department asking for a federal investigation of the shooting, insisting that, “The state NAACP feels this manner of handling violent action shows complete disrespect for the man’s family … and rights.” No directive to the local FBI to investigate was forthcoming. Jewell later wrote to U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell requesting a federal investigation. “Our information suggests that Mr. Russ was the victim of police violence,” Jewell said. “It is imperative that there be a prompt investigation of this tragedy by the Department of Justice and the guilty parties prosecuted.” Again, federal authorities took no action. In January 1972, it took an all-white jury less than eight minutes to return a verdict of “not guilty” against Ratliff.
On the second anniversary of Russ’ death, May 31, 1973, his widow and her nine children began a “wrongful death” civil lawsuit seeking damages totaling $1 million. The suit alleged that Ratliff had denied Carnell Russ his civil rights by shooting him and that Draper and Green “took no steps” to prevent the “violent conduct resulting in his death,” even though both had been “present at all times and in the immediate presence and vicinity of Russ.” It accused the mayor and aldermen of being “negligent and careless” in hiring Ratliff in the first place, an officer who, it was alleged, had “established a record and reputation for … violence and maltreatment of persons arrested by him.”
The presiding judge, Oren Harris, was not the most sympathetic for a civil rights trial. After serving as an Arkansas congressman for a quarter of a century, Harris was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson for a federal judgeship in 1965. While in Congress, Harris had signed the Southern Manifesto against the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown U. Topeka Board of Education school desegregation decision and had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “He was not considered a strong supporter of civil rights,” notes his entry in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. The trial began at 9:35 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1975, when an all-white jury of seven women and five men were selected to hear the case. This was after seven African Americans were discharged from the jury because of preemptory challenges from the defendant’s attorneys. Three days into the trial, Judge Harris ordered a directed verdict from the jury to drop the mayor, the six aldermen, and Norman Draper from the case. He ruled that they were not responsible “in any way” for Russ’ death. The mayor and aldermen had not been present when Russ was killed, and Draper was still a trainee at the time of the shooting.
On the fourth and final day of the trial, the jury deliberated for three hours before acquitting Ratliff and Green on all charges. NAACP lawyers took the case to the 8th Circuit Appeals Court, which upheld the dismissal of the mayor, the aldermen and Draper, and the verdict acquitting Green. It did, however, order a new trial for Ratliff on the grounds that, “under any version of the incident [Ratliff] must be held to have used excessive force on his prisoner.”
In April 1979, almost eight years after Carnell Russ’ death, a jury awarded the Russ family a total of $288,000 in damages. It had little practical effect. Ratliff had since absconded from Arkansas and, even if found, had little prospect of ever paying out.
In July 1980, Clementine Russ filed a $330,000 wrongful death claim against the state of Arkansas. She maintained that it was liable for her husband’s death since, “As a result of the policies of the state of Arkansas, a black American citizen was shot and killed, wantonly, recklessly and intentionally by a law enforcement officer of a municipality created by the state of Arkansas.” The claim came to nothing.
From blatantly hostile and aggressive policing, to skewed all or mostly white juries, to the lack of black police and black jurors in heavily black areas, to less than impartial judges, to unconcerned federal agencies, to the procedural intricacies and bureaucracy of the criminal justice system that seem designed to block rather than to ensure equity, Carnell Russ’ case vividly illustrates the reasons why many African Americans today are skeptical that color-blind justice can exist in the United States. Although some problems have been fixed in some places, many of the themes in Russ’ case still remain painfully evident today, over 40 years later.
The Russ family has never given up its fight for justice and has never forgotten Carnell Russ’ tragically short life. Through their efforts, the Lincoln County NAACP branch was renamed the Carnell Russ branch, the only one in the state named after an individual. Four years ago, Leatrice Russ-Glenns, Carnell Russ’ sister, successfully helped to establish Carnell Russ Day Community Unity Festival in Star City. Supported by the office of the mayor, the day offers a series of events to bring together the black and white communities. It is underpinned by Russ-Glenns’ conviction that an honest reckoning with the past can provide a valuable lesson for today, and help to lay the groundwork for community reconciliation and the hope of a brighter future. If that can happen, she believes, there may yet still be a positive legacy for her brother’s death.
Carnell Russ Day Community Unity Festival will be held on Saturday, Oct. 11, at the Star City Civic Center, 201 Lincoln Ave., from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It’s free and open to the public.
John A. Kirk is George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His new book, an edited collection of essays, “Race and Ethnicity in Arkansas: New Perspectives,” will be published by the University of Arkansas Press in December.