St. Louis, Policing, and Racism : From the Desk of Dan Bolef

Police brutality and violent acts of white supremacy against black people in America have come to the media’s attention with the growing awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. One year ago on August 9, 2014 a police officer shot and killed Mike Brown, whose death became a rallying point for fighting the systematic oppression black communities have been facing throughout the entire history of the U.S. For many people in St. Louis, the fall and winter of 2014 will be unforgettable due to the pain and trauma experienced on individual and collective levels.

The profiling and criminalization of black bodies are nothing new, and neither is the persecution activists of color face for fighting the systems that oppress them—this history is important to remember while we are having conversations about present struggles.

Two cases that were high profile in 20th century St. Louis history were that of Bobby Williams and J.B. Johnson. Both of their cases are recorded in the archived papers of Dan Bolef,  a professor and activist at Washington University in the 1960s and 1970s.

Bobby Williams was a leader of the United Front, a black liberation organization. He received death threats for his anti-poverty work in black communities, and so he legally bought two guns to protect himself and his family. In 1971 Bobby was arrested under the charges of “filling out the gun application incorrectly.” He was convicted three times in court by all-white juries, and was sent to Federal Prison. (Image: Flyer to free Bobby Williams, from the Papers of Dan Bolef)


J.B. Johnson was arrested in 1970 under false pretenses. During a jewelry store hold-up in University City, one of the perpetrators ran away and escaped. The police apprehended Johnson, a bystander who was not involved. The jewelry store owner could not identify Johnson, but he was convicted by an all-white jury anyway. (Image: Flyer explaining J. B. Johnson’s case and asking for support, from the Papers of Dan Bolef)Bolef-JB_Johnson-001

These two cases also became rallying points for communities in St. Louis, who formed the National Committee to Free Bobby Williams and the Committee to Defend J.B. Johnson.  Below is a press release from the St. Louis Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, listing names and ages of people “killed, victimized or brutalized by the St. Louis Police Department” in 1976.Bolef-black_militants-001

Dan Bolef’s papers are available to researchers at University Archives. To review a list of his files see:

The Documenting Ferguson project, hosted by the Washington University Libraries, also looks to collect and preserve the digital history of current events.  Learn more at:

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.