Video of Phoenix police threatening a black couple revives memories of Arizona’s racism
Three American Legion posts stand within miles of each other in central Phoenix, a curious reminder of how segregation once ruled the U.S. Southwest as well as the Deep South.
Soldiers returning after World War I in 1919 chartered one of the first posts of the U.S. veterans’ organization near downtown. But when black and Mexican American men returned from World War II, they opened their own posts, in their own neighborhoods farther south.
Decades later, tensions in Phoenix’s minority communities remain, spilling over this summer after video of police officers pointing guns and cursing at a black couple revived disturbing memories of the days of segregation, when black and Hispanic residents recall commonly being mistreated by police.
The couple in the cellphone video filed a $10-million claim against the city, and the Police Department launched an internal investigation.
Minority residents, meanwhile, packed meetings at a church and City Council chambers to express distrust and resentment of police, who they complained have historically meted out harsh treatment in their neighborhoods.
“That has long been a reality for African Americans, to not be treated fairly by the police,” said the Rev. Warren H. Stewart Sr., pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix. “Segregation has been outlawed, but the remnants of systemic racism and discrimination remain.”
His son and fellow pastor Warren Stewart Jr. encouraged hundreds at a downtown gathering in June to help heal the community.
“Over 20 years ago we didn’t have a King holiday, and we fought and won that,” the younger Stewart said. “In Phoenix, we will be the initiators of that change.”
Arizona was among the last states to make Martin Luther King Day a paid day off in 1993, after the NFL pulled the Super Bowl out of Phoenix because voters rejected an initiative to create the holiday.
Confederates from Southern slave states settled much of the Southwest, and Civil War skirmishes were fought here, including the Battle of Picacho Pass, south of Phoenix. More than 350 combatants from both sides were killed in the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico.
“Phoenix was as much a southern city as a western city into the 1960s,” journalist and historian Jon Talton said.
Real estate covenants barred black and Hispanic people from buying or leasing homes north of downtown Phoenix, according to Thomas Sheridan’s book, “Arizona: A History.”
As late as 1960, half of the African Americans in Phoenix lived south of downtown. Until the 1960s, nearby Tempe was a “sundown town.” Black people could work there during the day but were encouraged to live elsewhere.
Princess Lucas-Wilson, of the Maricopa County NAACP, said her family left Texas after burning crosses appeared around their neighborhood, but things were not much better in Phoenix.
“I remember a Mexican restaurant refusing us service,” said Lucas-Wilson, 64. “I also remember a black doctor who moved to Scottsdale and had both arms broken by white adolescents who said he shouldn’t live there. He refused to move.”
Before the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans like well-known funeral home owner and former Tuskegee Airman Lincoln Ragsdale Sr. protested outside the Arizona Capitol for the desegregation of public places.
Phoenix public schools like the all-black Booker T. Washington Elementary were segregated for decades before Arizona state courts declared the practice unconstitutional in 1953, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding the desegregation of U.S. schools, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. Still, Tucson took longer to integrate, and partial compliance wasn’t reached until last fall in a federal court case overseeing the desegregation of black and Hispanic students at Tucson schools that has dragged on more than 40 years.
Schools were also segregated in some eastern New Mexico cities including Hobbs and Clovis near the Texas state line. Charles Becknell Sr., 77, of Rio Rancho, N.M., grew up in segregated Hobbs and recalls entering some restaurants with his family from the back because only whites could enter from the front. He also attended sit-ins at restaurants where blacks were not allowed at all.
“Even our high school football games had segregated seating,” recalled Becknell, who said close friends of differing races would sit on each side of a dividing rope on the bleachers so they could watch a game together.
As a U.S. Air Force colonel, conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona was among those who pushed the Pentagon to end segregation in the military in 1948.
Still, minorities returning to Phoenix after World War II encountered the discrimination they always knew.
Mexican Americans formed Post 41, which Tempe historian Jared Smith said helped Hispanics gain access to the once-segregated Tempe Beach pool beginning in 1946. That post now serves menudo Sunday mornings at a building painted with a mural of service members under the words: “America’s Hispanic Heroes.”
Post 65, meanwhile, draws a largely black crowd.
“It’s affordable, and there is camaraderie,” said activist Lawrence Robinson, 37, who attends legion events with friends.
That post was founded by the late real estate developer Travis L. Williams. His son Cody is a justice court judge married to Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams, who was caught up in the outrage over the video. Williams, who is black, and Mayor Kate Gallego have apologized to the community over how officers handled the encounter, and they have promised more meetings to work on improving relations between the police and minority neighborhoods.
Patrick Mays, a past commander of Phoenix’s first American Legion post, said the creation of the other two posts had to do with “self-imposed segregation” and the makeup of the city’s neighborhoods.
Mays said shifting demographics in Phoenix, now the fifth-largest U.S. city, brought diversity to his post, which hopes to preserve the group’s headquarters inside a planned development at the site that will include veteran services and housing.
The changes played out over the 1960s as white schools were opened to minorities, sparking white flight to the suburbs. By 1970, the once all-white student body at Phoenix Union High had fallen to less than 20%, according to the book “Phoenix: The History of a Southern Metropolis.”
Black and Hispanic residents are now scattered around Phoenix, with more young whites downtown and a south Phoenix development boom attracting white families and empty nesters to homes priced as high as the mid-$600,000s. Black people now account for 6.9% of the city’s population, while Hispanics make up 42.5%, according to U.S. Census estimates.
Minorities in Phoenix today say they remain wary of law enforcement because of racial profiling under former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He was convicted of contempt of court in 2017 for ignoring an order to stop patrols targeting Hispanics; President Trump pardoned him.
And despite changing demographics, tensions between minority neighborhoods and the police are “huge and historical,” said Lucas-Wilson, of the local NAACP’s criminal justice committee. “We need to work together to do what we can.”
Snow writes for the Associated Press. AP writer Russell Contreras in Rio Rancho, N.M., contributed to this article.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.