A growing group of Illinois sheriffs are suggesting that they will not enforce the state’s new assault weapons ban, leading to a stand-off with Governor J.B. Pritzker and highlighting national fears over sheriffs who are claiming that the Constitution grants them ultimate authority. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “The ‘Constitutional Sheriff’ Myth,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman explored past rogue sheriffs, from the lawmen-outlaws of the 1892 Johnson County War to Dallas County segregationist Jim Clark’s violence surrounding the 1965 Selma Protests. One of Clark’s colleagues in enforcing white supremacy in the South was Z.T. Mathews, the sheriff of Terrell County, Georgia, who offers a glaring portrait of the human cost of law enforcement officers who claim to be above the law.
As the 1960s dawned, Southwestern Georgia’s Terrell County was already a locus of voting registration advocacy. A small, rural county northwest of Albany, Georgia, Terrell was the location of the first federal voting suit filed under the 1957 Civil Rights Act. The Terrell order eventually – and largely unsuccessfully – compelled county authorities to approve the registrations of qualified Black residents.
At the time of the order, 95% of the county’s eligible white voters were registered. By comparison, only 1.3% of Black residents were registered – a total of 51 people.
A primary defendant in the voting rights cases was the Sheriff of Terrell County, Zachary Taylor “Z.T.” Mathews (in some sources spelled “Matthews”). Around 70 years old in 1960, Mathews had enforced white rule in Terrell since the early 1940s. His nephew, M.E. Mathews, also a defendant, served as Chief Registrar of the county and as a Deputy Sheriff.
Even before the 1960 voting suit, Sheriff Mathews was under scrutiny for his potential involvement in a fatal act of police brutality. In April 1958, Terrell County deputies and officers from the local town of Dawson arrested James Brazier, a Black man who had allegedly interfered with his father’s DUI arrest.
Five days after he was arrested, Brazier died from brain damage and a fractured skull. It was unclear when the fatal blows were struck, but they were likely on the first night that Brazier was in custody, where inmates alleged that they heard Brazier carried out of his cell, saw him bloodied upon return, and heard Mathews asking officers excitedly about the beating.
Brazier’s widow Hattie claimed that local law enforcement had been after Brazier ever since he had purchased a Chevrolet Impala, and that officers had pulled him over routinely and even beaten him before.
In a June 1958 Washington Post story on Brazier’s death that introduced many national readers to Terrell County, Mathews openly espoused his belief in intimidation as an effective means of quelling moves toward racial equality: “There’s nothing like fear to keep n___ in line. I’m talking about ‘outlaw’ n___. And we always tells them there are four roads leading out of Dawson in all directions and they are free to go anytime they don’t like it here.”
The U.S. Commision on Civil Rights investigated Brazier’s death and took testimony from Hattie that Sheriff Mathews had threatened her when she asked questions about her husband’s death. “I oughta slap your damn brains out,” Mathews said, according to Hattie’s testimony. “A n___ like you I feel like slapping them out…I’m gonna carry the South’s order out like it oughta be done. ”
As questions continued to swirl around Mathews in Summer 1961, activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrived in Southwestern Georgia to orchestrate a plan for Black voter registration.
The drive was spearheaded by 24-year-old Charles Sherrod, a preacher fresh off serving 30 days in a Rock Hill, South Carolina jail for organizing sit-ins.
Sherrod initially focused his efforts in Albany, organizing a high-profile sit-in at the city’s bus depot and teaming up – albeit with some tension – with Martin Luther King, Jr. to formalize an “Albany Movement” designed to fight against all forms of municipal segregation. By December 1961, more than 500 activists had been jailed.
As Sherrod intensified his efforts in Albany, he also began to lay down roots in Terrell County. In November 1961, Sherrod began organizing prospective Terrell voters while staying at the Dawson home of a young Black beauty parlor manager named Carolyn Daniels.
In December 1961, Sherrod had his first encounter with Sheriff Mathews. After being arrested during Albany-based protests, Sherrod was transferred to the Terrell County Jail, where he led fellow detainees in spirituals. Mathews appeared and declared, “There’ll be no damn singin’ and no damn prayin’ in my jail. I don’t want to hear nothin’ about freedom!”
Sherrod responded, “We may be in jail, but we’re still human beings and still Christians!” Mathews struck Sherrod in the face and transferred him to a private cell.
Sherrod was released, and in April 1962 more SNCC activists, including organizer Prathia Hall and – in a move that particularly irked Mathews – white Trinity College students Jack Chatfield and Ralph Allen. Other activists, like the 18-year-old white Swarthmore freshman Penelope Patch, was also in close communication.
On July 25th, 1962, about 40 activists and allies met for a voter registration summit with Sherrod, Allen, and Patch at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County’s small town of Sasser.
From near the start of the meeting, the attendees were conscious that a group had assembled outside. Sherrod, leading the worship service, read a scriptural prayer from Romans 8:31: “If God be for us, then who can be against us?”
As Sherrod prayed, Sheriff Mathews, accompanied by around fifteen deputies and officers, barged into the church and lined up on the back wall. Many of the men were armed.
“Give us the wisdom to try to understand this world,” Sherrod continued. “Oh, Lord God, we’ve been abused so long; we’ve been down so long; oh, Lord, all we want is for our white brothers to understand that in Thy sight we are all equal. We’re praying for the courage to withstand the brutality of our brethren.”
The group went on to sing a hymn popular in the larger Albany Movement, “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
Sheriff Mathews soon addressed the group, saying, “I have the greatest respect for any religious organization but my people is getting disturbed about these secret meetings.”
Mathews then asked a series of leading questions designed to suggest the superfluity of the meetings. The attendees, however, pushed back against his assumptions.
“Are any of you disturbed?” Mathews asked.
“Yes,” the group responded.
“Can you vote if you are qualified?” Mathews continued.
“No,” the group responded.
“Haven’t you been getting along well for a hundred years?” the Sheriff continued.
The Sheriff’s nephew, the registrar and Deputy Sheriff M.E. Mathews, then turned to the white activist Ralph Allen and argued that he should leave the county. “I don’t think he’s got any business down here, to tell you the damn truth,” Mathews cursed at Allen. “You couldn’t get a white person to walk down the street with you.”
As he left the meeting, Mathews turned to Sitton and asked, “What are you?”
“I’m an American, sheriff,” Sitton responded. “What are you?”
Mathews told them who he was: “We are a little fed up with this voter registration business…We want our colored people to go on living like they have for the last hundred years – peaceful and happy,” he explained.
He also added a dose of Cold War-tinged racism: “These n___ don’t know anything about voting. Some of these n___ down here would just as soon vote for Castro and Khrushchev.”
When meeting attendees headed to their cars, they found that the Mathews posse had poured sand in the gas tanks of some attendees’ cars and let the air out of their tires.
On July 27th, 1962, the front page of the New York Times carried Sitton’s article, entitled “Sheriff Harasses Negroes at Voting Rally in Georgia.” In addition to quoting Mathews’ outburst extensively, Sitton recreated the scene at the church with a decidedly lyrical tone, writing, “Outside in the black night, angry voices drowned out the singing of the crickets as men milled around the cars parked in front of the little church on the eastern edge of this hamlet in southwestern Georgia.”
Both President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were shocked by the Sitton piece and promptly instructed the Department of Justice to ramp up investigations into Terrell’s voter suppression.
Despite the renewed pressure, Mathews remained defiant, blaming the SNCC workers – and their habitation at the Daniels home – for the unrest. He told the Atlanta Constitution on July 28th, “It is an established fact that white agitators from outside of our state have been and are at the present time living with Negroes in the city of Dawson. This is not conducive to good race relations or good order.”
Two days later, on July 30th, Mathews arrested Sherrod and Allen. When the activists asked the charge, Mathews replied, “Investigation, vagrancy, and all that crap.” Mathews refused to show the warrant to reporters.
In late August, the Mount Olive Baptist Church, the site of the Mathews confrontation, was burned to the ground. Another church, Mount Mary Baptist in nearby Chickasawhatchee, also burned. Two other nearby churches were burned in the surrounding weeks.
“A lot of people don’t like that race mingling. We don’t do that here,” Mathews told the press outside of the county jail in Dawson as a means of explaining the arson. Days later, a drunk Dawson farmer attacked an investigating FBI agent at Mount Mary.
Jackie Robinson, the legendary first Black Major League Baseball player and chairman of the National Association for the Advancement Colored People Freedom Fund Drive, visited the ruins of Mount Olive on September 8th and offered to chair a fundraising drive. “It really makes you want to cry, deep down inside your heart,” Robinson told the Atlanta Constitution while viewing the charred remains of the church.
Atlanta’s SNCC voter registration committee chair, Charles McDew, wrote to President Kennedy, asking him to “stop the Nazi-like reign of terror in Southwestern Georgia.”
Meanwhile SNCC’s Executive Secretary, James Forman, wrote to Attorney General Kennedy, urging more federal enforcement: “We hope your department will act quickly to restore order in terrible Terrell.”
In another Claude Sitton piece in the New York Times on September 10th, 1962, Mathews again blamed the housing arrangement of the SNCC workers in starkly racist terms. “It’s unusual for white folks to go down there living with n___ – pretty unusual. The n____s are upset about it, too – the better n___.”
And Mathews elaborated along similar lines to the Constitution: “People here are disturbed because some of these white boys are living with Negroes. I think that has more to do with the fires than this voter registration business. People here know that the Negroes just don’t care anything about voting.”
Despite the press coverage and a rapidly-growing set of federal litigation, including a wide-ranging suit to protect SNCC volunteers and to register Black residents signed by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, the violence continued. Shortly after the church burnings, the home of Carolyn Daniels – the young Black woman who had housed the SNCC volunteers – was shot up.
And in early February 1963, a federal court jury in nearby Americus, Georgia dismissed a $170,000 civil suit filed by Hattie Brazier, effectively ending her legal recourse in the death of her husband while in Mathews’ custody five years earlier.
In a letter to SNCC volunteers amid the continued frustration with Mathews’ impunity, Sherrod expressed his belief that accountability was paramount to the cause of voting rights: “A white man must be punished for doing harm to a black man, a white man with a badge on must bow to justice. And this is different. The officials in Terrell think that they can put on a badge and do anything they like and the black men of this section think that the badge is magic too.”
Sheriff Mathews faded into obscurity and died in the mid-1980s, while Sherrod opened one of the nation’s most successful cooperative farms, nearby in Albany. He died in October 2022.
In a 1997 interview with historian Angela L. Brown, Sherrod reflected on how Sheriff Mathews stood in for the larger widespread resistance to Black voting rights in the South:
“Zeke was a model southern sheriff, with all the power and glitter and fear-a fear producer. That went along with his office. He was feared by both black and white…I think he would just soon kill a white man as a black man that got in his way. Most of the sheriffs were like that…Everything was supposed to go his way. It was his way or the highway.”
For more on the Albany Movement and Sheriff Mathews, read Howard Zinn’s riveting contemporaneous pamphlet, the 1962 Albany: A Study in National Responsibility. And for a closer look at the interplay between activists and law enforcement in Georgia, read historian Stephen G.N. Tuck’s 2001 Beyond Atlanta The Struggle for Racial Equality in Georgia, 1940-1980.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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