1st Black Sheriff Elected Since Reconstruction
Sheriff Lucius Amerson’s fat Colt revolver is scarred and corroded from that night four over decades ago when his patrol car crashed and burned while he chased a stolen vehicle down a winding road in rural Alabama.
His size 16 1/2 shirts, on which he would pin his badge, name plate and “sheriff” in gold letters, are creased and yellowed.
And the 1960s newspaper clippings from across the country noting Amerson’s election as the first black sheriff in the South since Reconstruction are crumbling.
But as these items sit on a table in a museum storage facility in Suitland, they conjure memories of a forgotten figure from the civil rights era, a former Army drill sergeant who strode onto the stage in the segregated South determined to show that a black lawman could provide equal justice for all.
Few people today remember Lucius D. Amerson, who died in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1994 at age 60. But his son, Anthony E. Amerson, 43, of Capitol Hill has donated a trove of his father’s memorabilia to the new National Law Enforcement Museum, scheduled to open on Judiciary Square.
Statements from Museum Officials
A Law Enforcement Pioneer
Lucius Amerson was not only a pioneering figure in civil rights and law enforcement, but a man who saved everything, museum officials said: badges, holsters, belts, handcuffs, whistle, letters, awards, newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, clothing, campaign posters, two file cabinets packed with papers and his battered six-shot revolver.
“He knew that he was making history,” said Laurie A. Baty, senior director of museum programs, adding that Amerson realized “the whole world” was watching.
Amerson was elected sheriff of Macon County, Ala., in 1966, the year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which removed many barriers that had kept blacks from voting.
His election made nationwide headlines. Reporters descended on Macon County. He later received a congratulatory telegram from Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and was summoned to the White House to meet President Lyndon B. Johnson.
He was reelected four times in the rural, predominantly black county and served from 1967 to 1987, during some of the most turbulent days for race relations in the United States.
His son, who has written a book about his father, “Great Courage,” recalls a solid, steady figure who, in an era of intimidation, had no fear.
“He was not scared” of anybody, said Anthony Amerson, a former Army captain and a procurement analyst with the Department of Homeland Security. Lucius Amerson was a compact man who developed a slight stutter when he got angry, his son said.
His favorite sidearm was his booming .357 Colt. “That’s a big gun,” Anthony Amerson said. “When you wear that gun, you don’t have no problems.” The sheriff had few deputies and often was the solitary face of the law in the eastern Alabama county.
“Whatever he did, he did it well enough where he got mad respect from everybody, white and black,” Amerson said.
In a famous case in 1968, a young black man went to the sheriff and said he was beaten and terrorized while being arrested for disorderly conduct by a white Alabama state trooper and the white police chief of a town in Macon County. The man said the two white officers had also ordered him to dance while one fired a gun at his feet.
Doing His Job
A Hard Job as Sheriff
“The whole eyes of the black community were going to see whether this black sheriff was a defunct placeholder or whether he was going to really do his job,” Amerson said.
The sheriff ordered the two arrested. One was taken into custody by a deputy sheriff and the other turned himself in, according to a newspaper account of the day. “It made everybody have respect,” the sheriff’s son said. “It was unheard of.”
Both white officers were later acquitted.
Three years later, Lucius Amerson was accused of beating a black suspect during a fracas at the county jail in Tuskegee.
The suspect, who was being arrested on a drunken driving charge, grabbed a deputy’s pistol and opened fire, driving Amerson, who fired back, and his deputies from the jail. The suspect was subdued with the help of Tuskegee police and charged that he was subsequently beaten by Amerson and one of his deputies.
Amerson and the deputy were acquitted.
“The only thing left for me to do is go back home and do my job,” Amerson said after the acquittal. “And it’s a hard job.”
Anthony Amerson detailed the incident in which his father crashed while chasing the stolen car. His father suffered burns and a broken hip, and the patrol car caught fire, incinerating his cherished .357.
The sheriff planned to get it repaired, his son said, but he never had the chance.
Honoring The Legacy
A museum in Washington D.C. hopes to strengthen relations by highlighting the history of law enforcement and having open dialogues about its future.
On display are the badge, sunglasses, and name plate that belonged to a pioneer in law enforcement and civil rights. Lucius Amerson was the first African American sheriff elected in the deep south since reconstruction.
“Before that a largely African American population in Macon County was not able to vote for their sheriff,” says Rebecca Looney, Senior Director of Exhibits and Programs.
Rebecca Looney is director of Exhibits and Programs at the National Law Enforcement Museum. She says Amerson was an army veteran who became Sheriff of Macon County, AL, in the late 1960's following the passage of the Voting Rights Act. She says many saw his election as a sign of progress for Black Americans fighting for equality and against police brutality.
“It's a big step forward. We say law enforcement needs to reflect our communities,” says Looney.
Sheriff Amerson's story represents a defining moment in law enforcement history. Today police departments nationwide acknowledge that recruiting and maintaining a diverse force is still a challenge. Recent headlines have focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and the lack of trust between police and the public. Craig Floyd, CEO of the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, says he hopes the museum can play a part in easing those tensions.
“We are going to have thoughtful, important conversations between the public and law enforcement,” says Craig Floyd.
Source: Some content on this page courtesy of Missouri Southern State University: Hidden History