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History PhD candidate uncovering full story behind integrated Alabama law enforcement

Chase Stephens

Chase Stephens, Auburn University PhD candidate and instructor, is among a renowned group of civil rights researchers in the Department of History. With his dissertation, Stephens hopes to add to the conversation around the impact of Bloody Sunday, specifically on state law enforcement.

"In digging through prominent works on the civil rights movement, prominent works on Bloody Sunday, I noticed no one talks about the aftermath," Stephens said. "The advancements you get in the '60s and early '70s with Black men increasingly becoming police officers, it's not possible without the civil rights movement. It's not possible without the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act."

Stephens' research centers around NAACP v. Allen, the lawsuit that would lead to Alabama’s integrated state police force. In 1972, Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. – the civil rights champion behind school integration – found discriminatory hiring practices in state law enforcement.

Johnson ordered the Alabama Department of Public Safety to hire one Black state trooper for every white state trooper hired until the force was made up of 25% Black troopers. The state resisted the quota for years, arguing that Black applicants weren't qualified, and that the quota discriminated against white troopers.

The lawsuit eventually appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, which upheld Johnson's ruling. Meanwhile, Stephens said the hiring quota allowed Black Alabamians to represent their community, contribute to society and pursue new economic opportunities.

"Denying them access to law enforcement positions either through elected positions like a sheriff, or employment positions like a local beat cop, or even in the state police, they were denied a chance and therefore, denied true equality," Stephens said. "When it comes to labor, nobody's doing these jobs because you're going to make a six-figure salary with all the benefits. But it's an economic opportunity that offered some upward mobility that was not found in manual labor positions or custodial work in the state government, jobs that had been historically almost reserved for Black laborers."

For more than 20 years, various judges reinforced the hiring quota and expanded its scope so that Black troopers would be promoted to leadership positions at the same rate as their white counterparts.

NAACP v. Allen also paved the way for another lawsuit, Mieth v. Dothard, which abolished the height and weight requirements to apply to be a state trooper. Previously, a state trooper had to be at least 5'9" and weigh 160 pounds. The court ruled that this requirement discriminated against women, and within a couple of years, women started becoming state troopers.

By 1995, the Alabama State Troopers reached a 25% Black force.

"Alabama, by the early 1990s, had one of the most diverse state police forces in the nation. To this day, there is a high level of diversity within the state police system, with Black men and women in high-ranking positions," Stephens said. "This doesn’t eliminate any issues within law enforcement, but it provides representation and it's not just white men in blue uniforms who you would associate with brutality and oppression."

Through his dissertation, Stephens hopes to map a more complete civil rights history by including conversations about labor, law enforcement and the relationship between state and federal government. His research thus far includes uncovering hidden patterns of resistance, interviewing state troopers who served during the hiring quota and exploring the aftermath of Bloody Sunday for law enforcement officers.

Stephens said despite its complicated history, Alabama's story of law enforcement integration should inspire.

"With my work and my research, it's not a declension narrative. It is a positive story," Stephens said. "It shows the government resisting and fighting every step of the way, almost. But at the end of the day, the naysayers and the Jim Crow leftovers, they lose, and a positive change does come about."

Find more information about the Department of History at the College of Liberal Arts website.

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