The Killing of John Derrick

High Bridge over Harlem River, New York City (Library of Congress)

The long history of law enforcement in the United States is littered with the regular abuse, harassment, and too often murder of Black Americans. The 1950 killing of John Derrick at the hands of New York City police is one such murder that managed to capture the attention of activists in the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the NAACP, as well as political and sports celebrities like Adam Clayton Powell, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jackie Robinson. John Derrick’s case was part of larger campaigns by Cold War civil rights organizers to address police brutality and push for reform at a time when civil rights agitation was often linked to communist agitation. The CRC, a communist adjacent group led by William Patterson, saw the killing as part of a deliberate genocidal effort by American officials to suppress civil rights agitation and contain the Black community.

John Derrick joined the United States Army during World War II when he was seventeen years old. He served in Germany during the war and as part of the occupying forces. He was deployed to Korea where he was wounded and sent back to the United States in August 1950. On December 6, he received his honorable discharge at Fort Dix, New Jersey and traveled to Harlem to celebrate with fellow veteran Private Oscar Farley, and Farley’s childhood friend Zack Milline. After leaving a bar, the three men were stopped on the corner of 8th Avenue and 119th Street by patrolmen Louis Palumbo and Basil Minakotis around 4:00 am on December 7. Milline’s recollection was that the patrolmen ordered the men to put their hands up and shot Derrick at the same time. Palumbo and Minakotis claimed that Derrick had a gun, the supposed justification for the killing. Both Milline and Farley would insist that they were all unarmed. The CRC noted that at the time, Derrick was carrying over $1200 in discharge pay, but only $57 was found on him after the murder. The CRC would later emphasize that New York’s “finest” were the only one’s that had access to Derrick’s body, suggesting robbery as the real motive.

Clarence Taylor argues that the American Communist Party’s involvement in the campaign to end police brutality was part of its larger effort to push back against divisive issues that prevented Black and white working-class unity. Because of this commitment, Taylor notes that the Party and its membership were some of the most active in campaigns to challenge police abuse and push for reform. These efforts should also be examined as an extension of the war-time Popular Front campaigns that emphasized coalition building with progressives. Additionally, Communists were at the front of civil rights campaigns throughout the Cold War and managed to articulate an emancipatory politics because the Party provided a space for some of the most important thinkers in Black Radical thought at a time when those efforts were under constant attack. Leading theorists including Claudia Jones and W.E.B. Du Bois found the Party open to radical political change, while other civil rights organizations grew more insular and defensive to protect themselves and their membership from legal repercussions. The CRC’s efforts on the Derrick case demonstrate the Party’s willingness to push beyond Cold War boundaries and insist that unity was paramount to usher in the revolutionary change needed to emancipate all Americans.

In true Party fashion, the CRC used the language of unity in its calls for action on the Derrick case, proclaiming a coalition of “Negro and white New Yorkers” were organized in their efforts against police brutality. William Patterson released a statement to the press in which he called for the Mayor, Police Commissioner, and the District Attorney to expand an existing investigation into graft in police units to include the “daily police attacks” on Black New Yorkers. Patterson called every police officer an “armed threat” against Black Americans, and he argued that New York was no better than the south in its use of violence to suppress its Black residents. He argued that New York was “leading the nation in police killings,” and listed several individuals, including other veterans, killed by law enforcement. He insisted that it was not geographically isolated to any area in the country and that police violence even superseded the Klan in its attacks.

The Party was also one of the few organizations openly opposed to the Korean War. It believed the war and the larger anti-communist efforts were part of a campaign to silence radical dissent. This was for good reason, since most of the Party leadership would be arrested, indicted, serve time, or be deported during the Cold War. William Patterson would be one of the communists arrested for his activism. The racist motivations inherent in the Korean War did not escape the Party’s notice. Patterson drew parallels between the war and the treatment of Black Americans. He called out the hypocrisy of the so-called police action in Korea that was meant to secure peace there, while officials ignored the regular use of violence against Black veterans at home and abroad. The CRC and Patterson described all of these killings as legal lynching. Patterson and the CRC literature emphasized the killing of veterans since the end of World War II to highlight the regular injustice against Black Americans while the US claimed to fight for democracy abroad.

One case in particular, was cited by the CRC and Patterson as further proof of police efforts to control Black New Yorkers. In February 1946 a rookie police officer, Joseph Romeika, shot Alfonso Ferguson and his brother Charles who had just reenlisted in the Army Air Force. The bullet that killed Charles ricocheted and wounded Joseph Ferguson. The fourth brother, Richard was arrested, charged with disorderly conduct, found guilty only hours after his arrest, and fined $100. Romeika was called to a Long Island coffee shop after Charles accused a tea-room owner in a bus terminal of having a “Jim Crow attitude” for refusing to serve the men coffee. The officer later admitted that he lined the men up and kicked each one of the men in the groin before shooting. Witnesses claimed none of the men were armed. These veteran killings, along with four others including Derrick’s, were cited in CRC literature, and later the CRC’s We Charge Genocide petition, as evidence of a systematic effort by American law enforcement to oppress and silence Black Americans.

The NAACP was also busy looking into Derrick’s killing and sent telegrams to the District Attorney Frank Hogan and Police Commissioner Frank Murphy to investigate the two officers involved. The NAACP charged the officers with planting a pistol on Derrick’s body and stealing his money. A week after the killing, the NAACP reported that it brought witnesses to the District Attorney’s office that could confirm that Derrick was unarmed and may have been carrying upwards of $4000 that night.1

The CRC continued its own campaign and emphasized in its literature that aside from Farley and Milline there were other witnesses. At least one woman, Geneva Swagerty, witnessed the killing from her apartment window. She swore that only three seconds passed between the order to raise his hands and the killing. The CRC also circulated a petition that made five demands — the indictment of the officers, financial indemnity to John Derrick’s family, the investigation of all cases of police brutality, the removal of mounted police from Harlem, and an end to police brutality against Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers. On February 17, 1951, after hearing over 45 witnesses, a Grand Jury decided there was no basis to indict the police officers. The officers’ story, that Derrick did not comply with the order to raise his hands and instead went for a revolver in his pocket, was accepted by the Grand Jury members.2 As with so many cases of police brutality, there would be no justice for John Derrick.

John Derrick’s murder at the hands of police likely does not surprise contemporary Americans. Police brutality of Black Americans is regularly featured in the news, as is the failure of prosecutors to indict and convict police officers who kill. The Plain View Project, a research organization devoted to exposing racist comments and memes on police officer’s social media sites, has prompted several police organizations to investigate their own officers. What they found was that many officers regularly posted racist or inflammatory images and comments. Social media has been instrumental in spreading awareness about police brutality to white Americans but has thus far failed to create any substantive and meaningful reform. John Derrick’s murder, and the CRC campaign, are just one part of a long and continued history of police brutality against the Black community, and as William Patterson would argue, evidence of the willful effort to employ law enforcement to control and terrorize Black people. Perhaps the lesson to draw from John Derrick’s murder and the CRC’s efforts is that police killings are not an aberration but a concerted effort to keep Black America silent.

  1. “Slaying Evidence Cited,” 15 December 1950, New York Times, p. 44.
  2. “Indictment Denied in Death of G.I.,” 17 December 1951, New York Times, 19.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.

Comments on “The Killing of John Derrick

  • Great article. Really helps to contextualize the larger freedom movement. Thank you!

    Reply

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