After 94 years, black man convicted of rape is vindicated

Tennesseans hanged him, though court granted stay

February 27, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- In 1906, the lynching of a young black man named Ed Johnson was a public spectacle in the heart of this Smoky Mountain city. Shortly before he was hanged, he said to the crowd of white men, women and children who were watching: "God bless you all. I am innocent."

On Friday, almost 100 years later, in a downtown courtroom packed with a somber crowd of black and white men, women and children, and with television news cameras recording every moment, Johnson was vindicated.

Judge Douglas A. Meyers set aside Johnson's conviction of raping a white woman, saying: "Something I don't believe the white community really understands is that, especially at that time, the object was to bring in a black body, not necessarily the person who had committed the crime. And I think that's what happened in this case. There was a rush to find somebody to convict and blame for this."

Johnson's conviction was highly suspect. The all-white jury in the trial never heard the victim definitively identify her attacker. A member of the jury physically threatened Johnson and was not admonished by the judge.

After the guilty verdict, Johnson was sentenced to death. But the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal on the grounds that Johnson's right to a fair trial had been violated. The court issued a stay of execution. That ruling, seen as unwanted federal interference, did not sit well with the white community in Chattanooga.

On the night after the Supreme Court issued its stay, a mob of white men broke into the jail, took Johnson from his cell, paraded him through the streets and dragged him to a downtown bridge that spanned the Tennessee River. With a hangman's noose dangling from a metal girder above the Walnut Street Bridge, they hoisted Johnson up by his neck.

As he was swinging in the air, a few men began to riddle Johnson's body with bullets. A stray bullet severed the rope, and Johnson's body fell onto the bridge. Then one of the men put the barrel of his gun to Johnson's head and fired five times.

The Supreme Court responded to the town's defiance of its authority by holding a criminal trial of Joseph F. Shipp, the Chattanooga sheriff, and other local law enforcement officers and members of the group who had participated in the lynching.

It was the first and only time the Supreme Court has held a criminal trial. The court found the sheriff and some of the other defendants guilty of contempt of court for violating the court order that Johnson was to be kept safe, and thereby aiding and abetting his lynching.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes issued one of the strongest rebukes of the Chattanooga criminal justice system. Holmes described Johnson's trial as "a shameful attempt at justice."

Comparing the judge and jury in the state trial to the lynch mob, he told reporters, "This was not merely a case of a defendant claiming he did not receive a fair trial."

"In all likelihood," Holmes said, "this was a case of an innocent man improperly branded a guilty brute and condemned to die from the start."

In the proceedings Friday, the Chattanooga district attorney, Bill Cox, who offered no resistance to the motion to clear Johnson's name, said, "I have no doubt that the criminal justice system in place at that time failed Johnson and failed us all."

Johnson has no known descendants, so a local black minister and former county commissioner, the Rev. Paul McDaniel, brought the request to clear Johnson's name before the court.

Two white lawyers, LeRoy Phillips Jr., with a longtime Chattanooga practice, and Mark Curriden, a legal affairs reporter for The Dallas Morning News and former Chattanooga Times editor, argued Johnson's case in court. The lawyers have written a book about the case called "Contempt of Court," which has brought the case into this city's consciousness again and spurred Friday's court action.

The issue has received additional attention because of an exhibition of photographs of lynchings that had been on display at the Roth Horowitz gallery in New York. Curriden pointed out in Friday's proceedings that Johnson's was one of the 4,708 lynchings that occurred in this country from 1882 to 1944, according to an archive at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

"We have a lot of racial problems still left in this country," said Phillips, "and we have to look at those problems and look at our history, not through rose-colored glasses, but in a truthful manner. The truth in this case is brutal, sickening. It is terrible how we treated black people, and we owe them an apology. But today we sent a message that we care, that we care about justice, that racism does not have a place in the judicial system."

On the Walnut Street Bridge, a popular and manicured pedestrian park and walkway, people were enjoying springlike weather Friday afternoon. As Tina Harr, 52, who is white, jogged under the beam from which Johnson was hanged, she stopped to talk about the court hearing.

"This bridge is a symbol of a sad part of our history," Harr said. "And if we can change that history by clearing his name, then I think we have made a small step, another step, in working for better racial harmony."

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