My Friend Junior
Updated: Mar 11
Featured in the Daily Post Athenian Newspaper
As a young college student, I was tasked with researching something related to the civil rights era. Knowing that I intended to eventually pursue a career in law enforcement, I chose to interview several men who had been police officers during that time period. I wanted to explore what it was like from their point of view, but the project took an unexpected turn. One of my interviewees told me that he had been part of a pilot program which partnered white officers with black officers in an attempt to integrate policing. What struck me wasn’t the integration, but the fact that there were even black police officers during that time in America! Prior to that, I’d never considered the fact that there were black law enforcement officers, during a time when many laws claimed that they were less human than those with different colored skin.
I feel naïve and uneducated when I admit that this was a surprise to me. People of color have worn a badge much farther back than the 60’s (if you want to read a fascinating story, research Bass Reed, a Deputy US Marshal who helped tame the Oklahoma Territory). That being said, I think my ignorance was understandable. It truly is a radical concept to think of. Law enforcement officers are vested with tremendous authority and responsibility. At the same time that many communities were vesting black officers with the authority to enforce the law, these same officers were considered less than fully human by those same laws in many of those same communities. It truly is a testament to the schizophrenic nature of our nation’s historical relationship with racial issues.
Many years later, then a police officer myself, I would have an opportunity to meet one of the very officers who worked under those conditions. Robert “Junior” McCowan was one of the first (or possibly the first) black police officers in Athens, Tennessee. He’s in his mid-90s now, but can still recount the various mishaps and adventures of his days as a lawman. He first pinned on a badge sometime in the 60’s. As he relates it, he wasn’t allowed to eat his food inside the café across the street from the police department. He was supposed to go around back, where black patrons would be served through a window. His unofficial orders, he says, were to refrain from arresting white people. To hear Junior tell it, he quickly ignored both conventions. Like any older officer, he reflects fondly on the many adventures he had. But his time in uniform was not without challenge or heartache. He certainly experienced hate and discrimination, but even those stories are usually followed by heartfelt anecdotes of forgiveness and the grace of God. Our story sessions always devoted as much time to fellow Athenians who treated him as an equal, as they did to the dark nature of racism.
Despite our age differences and admittedly different backgrounds, Junior and I became friends. In many ways, he became a mentor to me. There were many times that he’s provided wise advice; not only as a fellow lawman, but as a fellow father and husband as well. Junior may be my friend, but his legacy belongs to the entire law enforcement profession. In many ways, it belongs to the nation as a whole. In a time when Jim Crow said black people were less human than their fellow man, Junior (and others like him) took on a role of civic responsibility. Refusing to cower to the biases of their day, they put on their uniforms and came to work each morning. This simple action, this willingness to defy convention, no doubt went far toward changing the hearts and minds of a nation. Prejudices, you see, lose their power in the light of reality. It’s easy to assume something about a group of people when you are never actually around them.
That’s why it was so necessary for the lie of “separate but equal” to be vanquished. As many parts of society were claiming that Junior’s darker skin made him less of a man than his white counterparts, he showed up and did his duty. He put his heart and soul into his job. Like so many, he voluntarily took on the pain, hardship and heartache inherent to the profession. He refused to retreat; to hide and avoid the pain that surely came with being around people who might despise what you represent.
While he may not have marched or waved a sign, the simple action of pinning on his badge and showing up each day forced those who saw him to confront the irrationality of their own prejudices. It is easy to think of history in terms of world-altering, landslide-type events. The reality, though, is that many things change slowly; one heart at a time. We can never truly know the difference that one life makes, but I’m willing to bet the impact made by Junior McCowan’s is vast.