Before dawn on March 7, 1952, 46-year-old subway operator Francis Galatis walked briskly across the Forest Hills Station in Queens. He was on his way to Brooklyn. It was only a few stops away and, having made the trip countless times before, he knew the line well. A Belgian by birth, Galatis moved to New York and took a job as a subway motorman in 1936. There was not much he hadn’t seen.
On Galatis’s train was Officer John Brullman. Brullman was younger than Galatis, only thirty, but had already clocked six years as a patrolman for the New York Police Department. He had a decorated career. A few years prior he rescued several people from a burning building, suffering severe smoke inhalation in the process. Brullman lived with his wife in Astoria, only a short ride from the Forest Hills station.
It is unclear how the fight started. Galatis claimed he saw Brullman “tampering with the door mechanism between the cars.” Brullman, on the other hand, argued that he was nowhere near the connecting doors. Rather, he recounted, Galatis knocked his feet off on an adjoining seat and “was rude when he showed his shield.” Regardless of how it started, the incident left Galatis with a fractured rib and several contusions and abrasions to the face.
Galatis charged Brullman with assault. His union, the Transport Workers Union, protested along several lines and threatened a “slowdown demonstration.” Thanks to these efforts, the Queens Magistrate Court agreed to hear Galatis’s case. After seven attempts to secure an assault charge—and a judge’s order that the assault charge against Brullman be reduced to “disorderly conduct”—Galatis accepted a settlement of five-hundred dollars for medical bills and lost time. His union-appointed lawyer, Asher W. Schwartz, told reporters that his client was “fed up by the case” and just wanted it to be over.
But then, the federal government got involved. US Attorney General Herbert Brownell noticed that despite being a clear abuse of police power, New York courts repeatedly failed to take the Galatis case seriously. At the end of February, he summoned a federal grand jury in Brooklyn. Two weeks later the grand jury indicted Officer Brullman for an “alleged violation of the civil rights act.” Finally, on November 5, 1953, a jury found him guilty of depriving Galatis of his “rights, privileges and immunities” as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. With that decision, John Brullman became the first Northern police officer of the post-war era to be accused of police brutality and convicted of violating the civil rights act.
Black New Yorkers struggled for anyone in the city, state, or federal government to acknowledge that their home had a policing problem that specifically targeted people of color.
That was the story I was originally going to tell. A tale of how a coalition led by a progressive trade union concerned itself not only with wages and worker rights, but also with police brutality. How the attention the union brought to the beating of Francis Galatis prompted the federal government to intervene and perhaps even set a new precedent for federal intervention in investigating police misconduct. But that was not the story I ended up with. It ended up being a much longer story, but one that was worth writing.
An important question remained unanswered. Why was Galatis, a working class white immigrant living in Queens, the subject of a federal civil rights probe? While it was still more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which formally ended public segregation and discrimination based on race, sex, or religion, the term “civil rights” was very much racially coded. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was universally understood to grant equal rights to formerly enslaved black men. Furthermore, the 1948 Democratic Party platform referred to all efforts in promoting equality regardless of “race, creed, or color” as part of a “civil rights plank.”
Though he never intended it, Galatis’s case became intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement. Brullman’s conviction came as the result of years of activism by black New Yorkers and their allies across the nation. These men and women struggled for anyone in the city, state, or federal government to acknowledge that New York City had a policing problem that specifically targeted people of color. They tried repeatedly to get rulings on the countless complaints of violence leveled against the NYPD that had gone unanswered. But when the federal government finally did intervene, it did so on behalf of Francis Galatis.
Part I: Justice for John H. Derrick
It was an earlier shooting that gave Galatis his day in court. Around 4:00AM on December 7th, 1950, John H. Derrick left a bar in Harlem with two friends. Derrick, who was medically discharged from his army posting at Fort Dix just a few hours earlier, was celebrating in Manhattan before trekking back to his parents home in Augusta, Georgia—he was still in uniform. Two NYPD officers, Louis Palumbo and Basil Minakakis, stopped the trio for “acting suspiciously.” Only a few moments later, Palumbo and Minakakis shot and killed Derrick.[i]
Harlem exploded. While overt discrimination was not uncommon in post-war New York, the shooting of a black GI in uniform was. Relations between Harlemites and the city government worsened the week after the shooting, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People— which took over the case on behalf of Derrick’s family—produced witnesses who insisted that Derrick’s shooting was “without provocation.”[ii] Palumbo and Minakakis had claimed that they shot Derrick after he refused to comply with their orders and reached for a revolver in his coat pocket.
In her sworn affidavit, Geneva Swagerty, who saw the shooting from her home on 119th Street, testified that the police shot Derrick while his hands were raised. She also swore she saw no gun on his person. Derrick’s companions also said under oath that the police found no weapon upon immediate search. Roger Bennet, a bouncer at the bar Derrick and his friends visited shortly before the encounter, claimed Derrick had $2,000 on his person. Witnesses made this claim repeatedly, though the amount ranged from $1,200 to $4,000. According to the police, no money was found on Derrick’s person.[iii]
On December 10, three days after the shooting, with reasonable evidence to suggest that police may have planted a pistol on Derrick post-mortem, the NAACP called on city officials to investigate the shooting and suspend the two officers accused.[iv] A month later, with no response from the mayor’s office, the NAACP garnered the support of seventy-five religious and civic federations, including trade unions, city councilman Earl Brown, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Together, they led 3,500 Harlemites in a mass demonstration. Aside from the repeated demand of a formal investigation, the protesters added the condition that Mayor Vincent Impellitteri appoint an African American “Deputy Police Commissioner.”[v]
Derick’s father, Henry, travelled from Georgia to attend the demonstration. He issued a special plea to New York’s District Attorney for a “full investigation” of his son’s death. In a sullen reminder of the hope Harlem offered black Americans in the Jim Crow South, Derrick explained to the marchers that he couldn’t “understand how such a tragedy could happen in New York City.”[vi] His son’s murder was only another painful reminder that racial discrimination knew no geographical boundary.
Several of the demonstrators, including Congressman Powell, were confident violence would follow if the city ignored their demands. Powell himself reported to the Baltimore Afro-American that a group known as the “Black Brothers” threatened to harm the accused police officers if the NYPD did not move them out of Harlem.[vii] Partially acceding to the protester’s demands, Mayor Impellitteri transferred both Palumbo and Milikakis out of the neighborhood.[viii]
In a sullen reminder of the hope Harlem offered black Americans in the Jim Crow South, Derrick explained to the marchers that he couldn’t “understand how such a tragedy could happen in New York City.”
The city also hired a new Deputy Police Commissioner. Although William R. Rowe was the first African American to reach a rank that high in the NYPD, his appointment pleased few in Harlem. Rowe had no experience in law enforcement. He spent most of his career as a theater reporter whose primary qualification for government work was being a close friend of Impellitteri. William R. Hudgins, head of the black-run bank, Carver Federal Savings Bank, claimed that “Mild terms could hardly express the
resentment a substantial number of people in Harlem feel today at the manner in which the Mayor has ignored the responsible, informed and established leadership of the community in his selection.” “I sincerely doubt,” he continued, “whether the Mayor’s choice of a theatrical press agent is the best he could have done either for the City of New York or for Harlem in particular in meeting a troublesome problem.”[ix]
Aside from these few concessions, there was no justice for John Derrick. On February 17, a New York County grand jury declined to indict either Milikakis or Palumbo for any crime.[x] The FBI agreed to launch an investigation, but only after Adam Clayton Powell used his position in Congress to publicly accused New York State of “whitewashing” Derrick’s murder.[xi] Yet after a few months, even that case seemed to disappear entirely. As Powell recalled, “a curtain of silence dropped overnight. Neither in Washington nor in New York could I get any specific replies. I simply could not find out what had happened to the Derrick case.”[xii] Nothing permanent materialized.
Part II: Defending Jacob Jackson
Hardly a year later, with Derrick’s murder still a recent memory, the NYPD again found itself embroiled in scandal. Officer William Brennan arrested Jacob Jackson for “gambling on the sidewalk.” According to witnesses, Brennan “kicked” Jackson for “not moving fast enough” and then punched him for protesting. Brennan also arrested Samuel Crawford, who lived on West 53rd Street, about a block away from Jackson, for demanding his badge number. Police also handcuffed Jackson’s wife, Geneva, when she left her house to investigate the scene. After the three arrived at the 54th Street police station, Brennan allegedly announced he brought “a couple of cop fighters.” Little is known about what happened next, though Jackson and Crawford claim to have been handcuffed together and beaten by an unknown number of officers. As a result of the attack, Jackson was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital where he received two emergency brain surgeries.[xiii] A few hours later, the NYPD charged Crawford and the Jacksons with assaulting an officer.
Still fresh from their experiences in organizing for the Derrick case, the NAACP jumped to defend the group. Edward J. Jacko Jr., the NAACP’s chief New York attorney, immediately charged Officer Brennan with assault. Once more, a New York grand jury found no evidence to indict. It was then that Jacko petitioned the Justice Department to investigate Jackson and Crawford’s beating as a civil rights violation. Unlike Derrick’s case, however, the federal government gave Jacko and his team of lawyers a surprising response.
Details of Jackson and Crawford’s case made their way to President Truman’s attorney general, James P. McGranery, on January 12, 1953. McGranery personally intervened in the case only after a distressed conversation with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who claimed New York Police Commissioner George P. Monaghan blocked his field agents from investigating cases of police brutality because of an “agreement” between the NYPD and the Justice Department. The attorney general was shocked to discover that such an agreement was in place. His assistant attorney general, James M. McInerney, entered into the deal with Monaghan in July 1952 after hearing of the deleterious effects these investigations had on police “morale.”[xiv] Having never approved the deal, McGranery immediately abrogated the agreement. Refusing to accept a change to business as usual, however, Commissioner Monaghan continued to refuse to cooperate with the FBI. To clarify, the NYPD refused to answer to the federal government. The police would only cooperate in an investigation of their own.
News of the alleged agreement and the feud between New York City and the federal government reached the public on February 11 when investigative reporter Frederick Woltman published a piece in the New York World Telegram and Sun. Woltman was best known for his articles ‘exposing’ communists. Indeed, he won a Pulitzer for journalism in 1947 for “his articles during 1946 on the infiltration of Communism in the U.S.” As he would later testify, Woltman learned of the deal from a conversation with Assistant Attorney General McInerney, who told him the deal would “allow the Police Department to launder its own linen without loss of morale.”[xv] After Woltam published his article on the deal, it ignited a political firestorm.
Many Americans were upset by the NYPD’s flagrant abuse of the law. Certainly, the controversy had an air of backroom negotiation and corruption. As McGranery himself stated, the deal undermined the “integrity of the law.” Adding to the specific nature of this agreement—effectively turning a blind eye to violence committed by law enforcement on civilians—he added, “no certificate should be granted by the department of justice to any local police organization to carry on what might be regarded as the old third degree and revive it.” While McGranery never explicitly discussed race, he did call for civil rights to be “strictly, vigorously, and promptly enforced…without fear or favour.”[xvi]
There is little doubt that Commissioner Monaghan saw federal police brutality investigations as racially motivated. When justifying his reasons for denying the FBI permission to interview the NYPD in conjunction with the Jackson case, Monaghan told the investigators, “This type of legislation was for that section of the country south of the Mason Dixon line.” He later apologized for his remark, saying it “did not sound so good.”[xvii] Still, Monaghan banked on the belief that racism and civil rights were distinctly Southern problems. His statement is only more evidence that abject racism often went unreported in Northern states during the classic “Civil Rights Era.”
NAACP administrator, Roy Wilkins, who was now solidly involved in the case, thundered against Monaghan. “Civil Rights is a national issue,” Wilkins said in a public address. “The responsibility of the federal government to secure these rights to all citizens is as imperative in New York as it is in Alabama.” New York NAACP President Ella Baker sent a telegram to the mayor’s office calling for Monaghan’s immediate resignation, further claiming he “terminated his usefulness.”[xviii] The disclosure of the NYPD’s ‘deal’ with the FBI outraged the public and gave the moral high ground to the NAACP and to all those in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. For the time being, New York was the epicenter of the fight for racial equality.
Part III: The Politics of Policing
Adam Clayton Powell, once again on the scene, stood on the floor of Congress and clamored, “New York City is a City of terror for minorities.” Addressing his fellow liberal Democrats, Powell admonished his colleagues, “It is ridiculous that we northerners fight for civil rights in the South and here in New York an agreement keeps victims from appealing to the FBI to help them when the Police Department is involved.”[xix] Powell joined with fellow New York congressman Jacob K. Javits in calling for a congressional investigation into Monaghan’s actions.
News of the deal also threw a wrench into local New York City politics. Prominent city councilman, Earl Brown, who represented Harlem and later staged an unsuccessful run against Adam Clayton Powell for his congressional district, made public several documents detailing not only the physical and emotional toll police brutality leveled against New York, but also the financial cost. Brown claimed that the city paid out $250,000 (roughly 2.3 million dollars today) to victims “injured by policemen while in their custody” over the last few years and also had roughly $3,000,000 (27 million today) in settlement money pending on court decisions. A private report later confirmed that the city paid at least $200,000 (1.8 million today) in damages to victims of “police action” in the 1951-1952 fiscal year.[xx] Brown asserted that it was impossible for the NYPD to conduct investigations of its own affairs and remain impartial. He joined with his fellow activists and councilmen in calling for Monaghan’s resignation, a public hearing of the charges considered, and a higher priority placed on minority civil rights.
Robert F .Wagner Jr., noted liberal and Borough President of Manhattan, took a different approach. While sympathetic to his constituent’s plight, he spoke of the issue with his eyes fixed on the Soviet Union. A reminder that these events took place in the early years of the Cold War, Wagner exclaimed that unless the mayor authorized a civil rights probe, “Radio Moscow will blare that we have legalized lynching right here in New York City.”[xxi]
The NYPD also allowed the Cold War to dominate its narrative. In a memorandum produced by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), police representatives instructed the House judiciary sub-committee, which considered opening an official probe into New York police brutality, that allegations of misconduct were part of a larger communist plot. It was the goal of these activists to install a “despot,” the memorandum stated: “Every thinking person knows it to be a fundamental tenet of communism that the police…must be annihilated or at least immobilized before any country may be successfully communized.”[xxii] It was clear that the PBA believed they could gain conservative support by appealing to both law and order and fears of a communist takeover. It was, after all, the heyday of McCarthy.
It seemed as though the federal government, which also agreed to bring several police officers accused of brutality before a grand jury, was making progress in permanently linking police brutality to civil rights and actually doing something about it.
On the ground, protesters gathered in the thousands to demand the resignation of Commissioner Monaghan and for the creation of an independent panel to review allegations of police misconduct. At one mass meeting at the Wendell Wilkie Memorial Building on 40th Street, the NAACP gathered representatives from the Urban League, American Civil Liberties Union, African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the American Federation of Labor. The diversity of these organizations represented the diversity of those concerned about police brutality. It is also proof that police misconduct was of great concern to labor unions and that they were willing to use their collective strength to fight it.
On the Hill, a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans succeeded in creating a congressional probe into the nature of the Monaghan-McInery agreement. Several New York congressmen, including Adam Clayton Powell, Jacob Javits, and Isidore Dollinger, pushed for a federal investigation. Kenneth B. Keating, a Republican representative of Upstate New York (and future New York Senator), who headed the house judiciary subcommittee, agreed to launch the probe.[xxiii] It seemed as though the federal government, which also agreed to bring several police officers accused of brutality before a grand jury, was making progress in permanently linking police brutality to civil rights and actually doing something about it.
Over time, however, the investigation’s focus drifted away from its roots. Rather than a probe into why African Americans were specifically targeted by excessive force, the focus shifted to how to best regulate the police. Though subtle, this is an important difference. For instance, Nathaniel Phillips, an old time Progressive labor lawyer who set up an organization to help immigrants become naturalized in 1913, wrote an editorial to the New York Times in which he described the investigation as part of a natural progression of federal power securing equal rights for all. Phillips argued that the Justice Department’s “Civil Liberties Unit,” which was intended to investigate lynchings, election irregularities, and labor-management disputes, had only been given more to do since its inception in 1944. “The struggle is an uphill one,” Phillips concluded, “But there is genuine progress and the long arm of federal power is becoming increasingly effective in the contest to establish the provisions of the Bill of Rights as living safeguards of the rights of individuals throughout the nation.”[xxiv] At no point did Phillips specifically mention race, choosing instead argue for civil rights for the national good.
Part IV: The Brullman Conviction
This brings us back to Francis Galatis. Officer Brullman’s conviction for violating Galatis’s civil rights was the high water mark of years of activism. But it wasn’t really a victory, it was a right hand turn. Despite the city paying out settlements to a few victims, no New York police officers accused of assaulting or killing an African American were ever indicted by a grand jury for crimes related to civil rights or otherwise.
Once the federal government whitewashed police brutality in New York City, many reformers stopped seeing it as a civil rights issue.
Brullman’s conviction killed the conversation by giving many of the politicians involved an easy end. Indeed, the whole affair almost escaped notice when Officer Brullman, five months after his initial conviction, won a retrial.[xxv] Few paid attention when the congressional subcommittee investigation issued a neutral-at-best report that chided Monaghan, but also claimed, “it can be said for him that he fought like any good administrator, zealously and to the very end for the men under his command—even though in this instance he misjudged his objectives slightly, by overlooking their broad context.” Sidney A. Fine, a Democratic congressman from the Bronx, thought that even this report was too “critical” and moved to halt its publication.[xxvi]
At least the New York City government made a few changes. Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner Jr., who publicly condemned the police department during the controversy, won the mayoral election in January 1954 and immediately fired Monaghan—though he was immediately appointed New York Harness Racing Commissioner by Governor Thomas Dewey, a former Republican presidential nominee, who called him “the best police Commissioner New York ever had.”[xxvii] The city also forced police captains to attend special lectures to “impress upon police and public alike that the police officer is the friend, counselor and defender of the civil rights of every person.” The NYPD also promised that eventually all of its officers would be given special training in interacting with ‘minority’ groups.[xxviii] These reforms were, of course, limited.
There are a few obvious takeaways from Francis Galatis’s story. The first is that the federal government has almost always had the power to do something about police brutality—if it wanted to. Second, that police brutality is hardly a new conversation in this country. Finally, that public outrage is often a mixed blessing. For all the attention Commissioner Monaghan’s failed deal drew from activists concerned with police brutality, eventually the attention drifted away from race, which is what motivated many of the original activists to begin with. Galatis got his justice, but at the cost of many others not getting theirs. Once the federal government whitewashed police brutality in New York City, many reformers stopped seeing it as a civil rights issue. Happy with their conviction, the promise of a congressional probe, and Monaghan’s dismissal, the Justice Department backed off. The Galatis case did not become a turning point for American policing.
I began this article as a traditional labor history. In some ways it has remained one: labor unions involved themselves in anti-brutality demonstrations throughout the early Fifties. More abstractly, however, I focused on the labor of forcing change. Everyone involved in this network of policing reform tried to change something, to commence a new strain of discourse that prioritized defeating police brutality as a necessary precursor to equality, not just in the south, but everywhere. By the mid-Fifties, it was clear many considered policing in the north to be a concern separate from civil rights—one much easier to solve. Recent events remind us that changing the national conversation about police brutality and race is anything but simple. The story of Francis Galatis offers an important lesson, for anyone who still needs one, that countless Americans never received the justice they deserved. It is a reminder that we are all part of the long fight to ensure that everyone receives real equality under the law regardless of their identity or appearance.
[i] “Indictment Denied in Death of Ex-GI,” New York Times (February 17, 1951), 19.
[ii] “Slaying Evidence Cited,” New York Times (December 15, 1950), 44.
[iii] Ibid., James Hicks, “Harlem at Riot Pitch Over Killing of Vet,” Baltimore Afro-American (December 23, 1950), 1
[iv] “Pistol Plant Alleged,” New York Times (December 10, 1950), 35.
[v] Arnold de Mille, “Harlem Blasts Police Killing of Augusta GI,” Chicago Defender (January 13, 1951), 1; “Harlem Warns Killer Police to Get Out,” Baltimore Afro American (January 13, 1951), 1.
[vi] “Slain Man’s Father Here,” New York Times (January 5, 1951), 15.
[vii] “Harlem Warns Killer Police to Get Out,” Baltimore Afro-American (January 13, 1951), 1.
[viii] “Transfer N.Y. Cops Who Slew Augusta Vet,” Chicago Defender (January 20, 1951), 1.
[ix] “Name N.Y. Newsman as Deputy Police Chief,” Chicago Defender (August 25, 1951), 1.
[x] “Indictment Denied in Death of Ex-GI,” New York Times (February 17, 1951), 19.
[xi] “Ex-GI Slaying Case Reopened,” Baltimore Afro-American (July 7, 1951), 15.
[xii] Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Adam by Adam (New York: The Dial Press, 1971), 139-141.
[xiii] “Brutality Charges Against City Police Under U.S. Inquiry,” New York Times (February 17, 1953), 1.
[xiv] The FBI and NYPD reached this agreement after the so-called “babysitter case” of 1951. The case revolved around three young women from Massachusetts who stole $18,000 in cash while babysitting for a wealthy family. The three then met a 21-year-old man, Leo Cusson, who escorted them to New York City. They were all eventually caught. During the trial, Cusson, who the police charged with rape and “impairing the morals of a minor,” displayed numerous welts he claimed to have received while in police custody. The FBI investigated, but ultimately did not pursue any investigation of misconduct. Behind closed doors, McInerney and Monaghan reached an agreement that the FBI would take a hands-off approach to the NYPD. See “The $18,000 Baby-Sitting Case of 1951 is in the News Again,” New York Herald Tribune (February 23, 1953), 3.
[xv] Judith Crist, “Police Pact Confirmed by McGranery,” New York Herald Tribune (March 5, 1953), 1, 14.
[xvii] Luther A. Huston, “F.B.I. Agents Depict Rebuff by Monaghan,” New York Times (March 6, 1953), 1.
[xviii] For an excellent summary of the NAACP’s actions in the Jackson case, see Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 131-132, 136-138; “Brutality Charges Against City Police Under U.S. Inquiry,” New York Times (February 17, 1953), 1.
[xix] Louis Lautier, “NYC Called ‘City of Terror’,” Baltimore Afro-American (February 28, 1953), 2.
[xx] Robert A. Poteete, “$200,000 Paid by City in Suits Naming Police,” New York Herald Tribune (February 19, 1953), 1.
[xxi] Charles Grutzner, “Halley Urges City Sift ‘’Deal’ on F.B.I.,” New York Times (February 19, 1953), 1.
[xxii] “Brutality Charge Called ‘Red Plot,’” New York Times (March 16, 1953), 8.
[xxiii] Walter Arm, “Jury Calls Six Police in Brutality Probe,” New York Herald Tribune (February 20, 1953), 1; Grutzner, “Halley Urges City,” New York Times, 1.
[xxiv] Nathaniel Phillips, “Safeguarding Our Rights,” New York Times (March 21, 1953), 16.
[xxv] “Policeman Wins Retrial,” New York Times (March 26, 1954), 13.
[xxvi] Clayton Knowles, “Monaghan Defender Ends Congress Fight,” New York Times (June 18, 1954), 1; “Monaghan Chided Over FBI Pact,” New York Times (July 7, 1954), 1.
[xxvii] “Report in on FBI vs. Monaghan,” New York Herald Tribune (July 7, 1954), 1.
[xxviii] Walter Arm, “Police Captains to get Civil Rights Training,” New York Herald Tribune (May 19, 1953), 1.
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.