Walking the Beat in Segregated Atlanta

After more than a year riding along with Philadelphia policemen, getting to know their beats and routes through the City of Brotherly Love, Jonathan Rubinstein ...

After more than a year riding along with Philadelphia policemen, getting to know their beats and routes through the City of Brotherly Love, Jonathan Rubinstein described in a milestone book how the work, from mundane patrols to criminal investigations, depends on officers using “territorial knowledge”—familiarity with city geography as well as with residents, businesses, and rackets within their precinct’s boundaries.1 Correspondingly, fictional police procedurals not only depict cops applying territorial knowledge to investigate crime, but also require their creators to acquire some territorial knowledge of their own, and ultimately to demonstrate their familiarity with the distinctive rhythms and characteristics of the cities they portray.

Thomas Mullen’s Lightning Men extends this paradigm further. A historical police procedural, the novel explores how shifting demographics and neighborhood borders in 1950 Atlanta stoked racial tensions and fostered certain kinds of crime in the segregated metropolis—a special challenge for the Atlanta Police Department’s first cohort of black officers. Lightning Men shows how fostering territorial knowledge among readers can increase historical literacy about Atlanta and American cities like it, focusing our attention on the ways systemic racism as well as trends and developments in crime and policing in the United States manifest themselves, first and foremost, on the municipal level.

A sequel to 2016’s Darktown, Lightning Men is set two years later in the lives of Mullen’s series protagonists, black officers Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith and white officer Dennis Rakestraw. Like Darktown, Lightning Men sheds light on the racial discrimination black officers faced within the police department, the force’s role in implementing Jim Crow laws, and individual officers’ participation in white supremacist organizations. Like its predecessor, this installment in the series asks whether the police ultimately enforced not the letter of the law so much as the implicit laws of racial hierarchy, even as the work of black officers signaled what appeared to be a positive change on the force. Thematically, Lightning Men continues Darktown’s exploration of “procedural racism.”2

However, the two novels have different relationships with the police procedural genre. Darktown alluded to landmark works of American detective fiction and constructed a murder plot in which institutionalized racism within the Atlanta PD, itself linked to the racial history of the nation, hinders Boggs and Smith’s investigation of a murder. With respect to its own thickly plotted crime narrative, Lightning Men is less interested in the story of an investigation or even the detective genre than in the premise of the crimes it depicts. And that premise is an important lesson borne from territorial knowledge: city geography and racial prejudice are imbricated.

Mullen emphasizes that social concerns that seem to be economic are actually racial in the final analysis.

The main conflicts in the novel all stem from the reality that many whites, across socioeconomic strata, resented the rural African Americans relocating to Atlanta and the black Atlantans moving into previously all-white parts of the city. Rakestraw investigates the theft of money raised by a white community to buy out black families purchasing houses in “their” neighborhood. (Though it’s his own community, he rejects the scheme.) Boggs and Smith intervene in a deadly turf war that emerges among black and white moonshiners and marijuana dealers who are also negotiating the impact of demographic changes on liquor and drug markets. Rakestraw looks into the killing of a Klan member amid brewing tensions between the KKK and another hate group, the Nazi-sympathizing “Lightning Men” (also known as the Columbians), both of which were energized in their opposition to racial integration in Atlanta neighborhoods. Boggs and Smith interrupt the pot and “white lightning” markets while taking flak for arresting a white citizen—“the most serious offense that a black officer could commit in the South,” according to one police historian.3 That’s not to mention the subplots.

Mullen weaves a Gordian knot, with the narrative strands tied together by the social dynamics of the time and place. When Lightning Men depicts territorial knowledge as most police procedurals do, the trope assumes a deeper significance in mapping the intersecting histories of urbanization, race, crime, and law enforcement. Mullen is not simply establishing setting when he describes Boggs and Smith busting a bootleg supplier trade “two blocks south of the tracks, an industrial corridor of Cabbagetown where trucks pulling in or out would not be viewed as suspicious.” It’s an impoverished white section of town that also happens to be near “the haunted graveyards of Oakfield Cemetery, which held legions of Confederate dead.”

Likewise, when readers follow Sergeant McInnis, the black police unit’s white commanding officer, to “an alley off Butler Street” as he intercepts a corrupt white officer embroiled in the “reefer and shine” racket, those who know Atlanta history might consider that Butler Street (now Jesse Hill Jr. Drive) housed the YMCA where Atlanta’s black leadership frequently strategized. At one point, Smith evocatively complains that crime news articles are “cursory and written with little understanding of how the city actually worked.” Mullen’s novel aspires to represent the total antithesis.

Furthermore, Lightning Men demonstrates how housing markets themselves are shaped by antiblack racism. Middle-class white characters feel anxiety over integration contributing to declining property values. Rather than apologize for segregationist views, however, Mullen emphasizes that social concerns that seem to be economic are actually racial in the final analysis.


Who Segregated America?

By Destin Jenkins

Of course, Mullen is not breaking new ground. Lightning Men repackages historian Kevin M. Kruse’s arguments in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005) in fictional form. In fact, Mullen mentions White Flight in his acknowledgments. In the 2010 best seller The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander relates 20th-century crises over segregation and integration, especially in the urban South, to the development of the prison-industrial complex and the mass incarceration of African Americans. Mullen employs Alexander’s reminder that “racism is highly adaptable” as an epigraph. Mullen expressly uses his police novel to rearticulate, or illustrate, these sociological critiques.

In large measure, teaching these critiques is patently the main objective of Lightning Men. Mullen presses into service an intrusive third-person narrator and mostly unambiguous characterizations of heroes and villains in order to instruct readers in American racial history, alert them to its continuities with the present, and motivate them to be actively anti-racist. If the novel could be reduced to a central claim, as with a roman à thèse, it might be this: racial prejudices that prevent people from sharing spaces with one another are intrinsically senseless and inherently destructive.

On the official and unofficial borders drawn within cities like Atlanta in response to issues like property values, Mullen’s third-person narrator tells readers that “lines are only ideas people dream up, to govern what should be possible, to keep you from moving toward the forbidden.” Sometimes speaking through his characters and sometimes over them, Mullen ultimately warns Americans not to let economic explanations serve as a smoke screen distracting us from racism, which carries material effects and also informs how law enforcement functions. When Boggs’s family is denied a home loan, the narrator quips, “Simple market economics. … Nothing unfair or prejudiced about it, other than the fact that thousands of houses remained off limits to the Boggses due to their skin color and dislike of bombs thrown through windows.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates made the same point in essay form to argue for reparations.4 In any case, Mullens suggests that the public should cultivate just that sort of territorial knowledge. In this vein, Rakestraw, at once a policeman and a resident of Atlanta, comes to see “the big picture … the tectonic shifts under his feet that determined which orders he was given,” where in the city, and why.

However, in Mullen’s mosaic of Atlanta, at least one tile fits imperfectly: the city’s Jews. Lightning Men briefly evokes the Jewish people in its condemnation of right-wing extremism, when the novel might have instead situated them more fully in its critique of racial dynamics in the urban South. Boggs and Smith walk by the site of “a sensational crime for which a Jewish man was later lynched”—that is, the 1915 murder of Leo Frank by a white mob. By writing that the black policemen “passed through” (not just “passed”) this spot—the pencil factory Frank superintended—Mullen encourages readers to inform themselves about Frank’s death and perhaps other instances in which bigots committed violence against Jewish Americans, as they did all too frequently against African Americans.

Yet Mullen’s passing reference overlooks how this case heightened both solidarity and animus between African Americans and white-passing Jews.5 Later in the novel, Mullen mentions white housewives gossiping about “who might actually be Jewish.” The fact of the matter is that some of Atlanta’s Jews did change their names or conceal their identities, whether they were Holocaust refugees or just residents and business owners tired of “soft” discrimination by White Citizens Councilors or anti-Semites in service and hospitality industries, on bank staff, and on the police force.6 Mullen merely gestures toward these circumstances.

In Mullen’s mosaic of Atlanta, at least one tile fits imperfectly: the city’s Jews.

Jews, not only as an ethno-religious group, but also rhetorically deployed as a concept, likewise figure in the novel’s depiction of far-right ideology. Mullen peppers Klansmen’s and Columbians’ anti-leftist rants with grumblings about “Jews” and FDR’s “Jew Deal.” He summarizes the central tenet of American fascism: “blaming the hard times on the coloreds and the Communists, the Papists and Jews.” We could put pressure on the way these lines list anti-Semitism as just one of a litany of ethnic and religious hatreds; African American civil rights strategist Eric K. Ward, for one, has argued anti-Semitism is the ideological basis, rather than a mere component, of modern white supremacism.7

Mullen nudges readers to learn the basic lessons of 20th-century anti-Semitism, from Atlanta to Dachau, and grasp the stakes of tolerating Nazism in the United States. Those are good notes to hit. But Jews are absent presences in Lightning Men—dead, hypothetical, or rhetorical. In truth, they have been part of Atlanta at least since the antebellum era. However small in number, especially compared to the Jewish population in some other American cities, they contributed to Atlanta’s development in the early 20th century.

The Jewish Educational Alliance building, erected in 1910, was notable for the resources it brought to the community and immigrants more broadly. Then nearly half of the city’s Jewish population left Atlanta after Leo Frank’s lynching, overlapping with the African American Great Migration. Still, Jewish-owned factories such as Otto Schwab’s Southern Spring Bed Company and Jacob Elsas’s Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill put down roots in Atlanta. As the civil rights movement gained traction, some religious leaders supported desegregation and faced racists’ wrath; that is why The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest shul, was firebombed in 1958. Jewish communities factored into the demographic shifts and sociopolitical dynamics on which Mullen has trained his pen. Mullen missed an opportunity to explore this facet of Atlanta history.

We can also imagine a more fundamental objection to Mullen’s work: does this kind of police novel have a leg to stand on? Ideologically, most procedurals take the legitimacy of law enforcement as a first principle. In fact, we read in Lightning Men that while African American officers regrettably enforced the same discriminatory city codes against black citizens as did white officers—and although some white officers disagreed with them, they were duty-bound to uphold them—recruiting black cops to the force bolstered the department’s legitimacy. Though barred from promotions and denied resources, black officers helped improve police-community relations by reducing police brutality and more effectively tackling petty and major crimes in often neglected black neighborhoods.


The Big Picture: Jews and Trump

By David Henkin

Some criminologists might argue this novel reflects the “myth of liberal policing,” which underestimates the police’s oppressive powers in favor of its protective capabilities.8 However, Lightning Men preempts police-abolition arguments by presenting policing as inevitable. Neighborhood watch groups form, including the Collective Association of Hanford Park (CAHP, sounds like “cop”—get it?), through which Rakestraw’s neighbors and even his wife surveil prospective black homeowners. There is not just the Klan acting as a vigilante organization, but also the Klavalier Klub, the Klan’s internal police. Thus, aiming to create a municipal police force that adheres to American criminal procedure is more prudent. For Mullen, it’s better that Boggs “wanted to believe that proceeding by the book would increase [his] chances of seeing some modicum of justice.”

Another objection might have to do more with the novel’s heavy-handedness; however, maybe police fiction today should be as pedagogical and explicitly reform-minded as American anti-racist fiction has typically been. Marah Gubar has recommended Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2017), about a fatal police shooting of a black teen, because the story offers an “education” in “the larger structural forces that have contributed to the decimation of poor neighborhoods nationwide,” including law enforcement’s part in the “War on Drugs.”9 For Kinohi Nishikawa, the takeaway from Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) is that “stories justifying police brutality have themselves become a genre following familiar rules.”10 Lightning Men is of a piece with these novels, while confronting the added complexity of black police officers’ role in the historical trajectory of law enforcement.

Moreover, Lightning Men reminds us that the national is actually municipal; American life happens on the local level first, and its progression and regression is determined by city dynamics. Mullen’s novel also dovetails with recent studies like Mark Pendergrast’s City on the Verge, which discusses how Atlanta “remains one of the most racially segregated” American cities and “remains a work in progress.”11 Lightning Men therefore furthers the case for municipalism more broadly—which emphasizes that democracy happens, and American lives take shape, through municipal services and city organization, including neighborhood layouts and the police tasked with understanding them.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

  1. Jonathan Rubinstein, City Police (1973; Hills & Wang, 1993), pp. 129–173.
  2. For my review of Darktown, see Joshua Benjamin Leavitt, “Procedural Racism,” Public Books, May 9, 2017.
  3. W. Marvin Dulaney, Black Police in America (Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 55.
  4. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
  5. Jeffrey Paul Melnick, Black Jewish Relations on Trial: Leo Frank and Jim Conley in the New South (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). On 19th-century lynchings of Jews, especially of those who supported African Americans, see Paul Berger, “Untold Story of the First Jewish Lynching in America,” Forward, December 8, 2014.
  6. Eli N. Evans, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), pp. 282–284.
  7. Eric K. Ward, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” Political Research Associates, June 29, 2017.
  8. Alex S. Vitale, “The Myth of Liberal Policing,” New Inquiry, April 5, 2017.
  9. Marah Gubar, “Empathy Is Not Enough,” Public Books, July 19, 2017.
  10. Kinohi Nishikawa, “Police Brutality, a Horror Story,” Public Books, December 15, 2016.
  11. Mark Pendergrast, City on the Verge: Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Future (Basic Books, 2017), pp. 83, 288.
Featured image: Clinton High School, Clinton, TN, the first high school in the South to be integrated after the Brown decision (1956). Photograph by Thomas J. O’Halloran / Library of Congress