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During the day, Johnson did carpentry at various local churches.

At night, he tended pool tables at a place called the Last Chance Saloon, which sat on the state line. North Georgia counties were dry, so this was the last chance to buy alcohol. Despite three hours of interrogation, Johnson maintained his innocence, claiming that he was at the Last Chance Saloon all evening on the 23rd. He provided the names of a dozen men who could vouch for his whereabouts. Several hundred men did raid the county jail that night—and the following night—in an effort to lynch Johnson.

At one point, Judge McReynolds personally pleaded with leaders of the mob to let the courts deal with Johnson, and promised that justice would be swift.


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If the mob had gotten its way, Chattanooga would have seen its first lynching since —nearly a decade. A third lawyer also stepped forward to help defend Johnson. He was Lewis Shepherd, a former judge who was widely regarded as one of the best lawyers in Tennessee. He also was well-known for representing the poor and downtrodden, and he often defended blacks charged with crimes against whites. Thirty-four white men were summoned to jury service. A dozen were seated. The first witness was the victim, Taylor, who walked the jury through what had happened on the night of her attack.

The Legacy of Lynching, on Death Row

Hixson told jurors he saw Johnson near the scene of the crime at about the time the attack took place. Witnesses testified that on the morning the reward was announced, Hixson had walked by the church where Johnson was working on the roof and casually obtained his identity. A second juror rose, tears streaming down his face. Can you say it? Can you swear it?

I would not take the life of an innocent man. But before God, I believe this is the guilty Negro. At which point a third juror jumped from his chair and started going toward the defendant with his arms raised, only to be held back by fellow jurors. Judge McReynolds informed the defense attorneys that he planned to sentence Johnson to death. When they met with Johnson, even Shepherd reluctantly went along with the advice that any attempt to appeal the conviction would be fruitless.

Parden and his partner, Styles L. Parden had helped Shepherd track down witnesses in the Johnson case but had declined his invitation to officially join the defense team. But Hutchins pushed for them to take the case. Now much is expected. They told the judge there was significant doubt about the guilt of their client, and they argued that his previous lawyers had improperly abandoned him by convincing him to waive his right to appeal.

But McReynolds quickly rejected the plea, stating that the defense attorneys had missed the deadline under local rules requiring that motions for new trial be filed within 72 hours of a verdict. Do you know the law better than this court or the lawyers who represented the defendant? Do you think a Negro lawyer could possibly be smarter or know the law better than a white lawyer? March 7: Parden and Hutchins filed a petition in U. Hours later, Judge C. Clark agreed to hold a hearing to allow Parden and Hutchins to present evidence and make arguments.

March The habeas hearing in federal court lasted more than eight hours. They largely confirmed the allegations in the habeas petition, including how the threat of the lynch mob influenced their decisions. March After deliberating in his chambers for more than three hours, Judge Clark returned to the bench to announce his decision at a. Supreme Court.

What Do You Do After Surviving Your Own Lynching?

March In an interview with the Chattanooga News , Judge McReynolds asserted that federal judges do not have authority to issue stays in state criminal cases. March Gov. Cox granted Johnson a seven-day stay of execution—three days fewer than the federal court. More newspaper articles quoted McReynolds and several lawyers saying that the appeal to the U.

Supreme Court was frivolous and would be quickly rejected.

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March In Chattanooga, a grand jury was convened to investigate the lynching attempts against Johnson before his trial. But Judge McReynolds testified that he could not remember a single person he saw on the night he addressed the mob. The grand jury issued no charges in the incident, but it did indict three black men for stealing two mules. March At a. A prominent local minister and educator, the Rev. March Parden filed the official appeal of the denial for federal habeas with the U.

Supreme Court clerk. He was assisted by Emanuel D. Hewlett, one of the few black members of the Supreme Court bar, whose experience was limited to serving as co-counsel in one earlier case. This would be the first time a black lawyer served as lead counsel in a case before the court. March Parden made his arguments directly to Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Kentuckian who was assigned to hear emergency appeals from within the 6th Circuit.

Bryan Stevenson and the Legacy of Lynching | The New Yorker

Harlan, who was born two years before the death of his namesake, the great Chief Justice John Marshall, came from a slaveholding family but had served in the Union army during the Civil War. In , Harlan had issued a scathing dissent when the court upheld the separate-but-equal doctrine in Plessy v. Parden pointed to specific violations of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments. They were there to give Ed Johnson a trial, and then they were going to hang him.


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  • Signed: John M. Harlan, associate justice. Twenty minutes after the train had been stopped, one of the women, Ruby Bates, called over a posse member and told him that she and her companion, Victoria Price, had been gang-raped by the blacks. The boys were immediately arrested and taken to the Scottsboro jail. As the sheriff sent the women to two local doctors for medical examinations, news of the alleged attacks spread.

    Sheriff M. Wann pleaded with the mob to allow the law to take its course and threatened to shoot anyone who rushed the jail. He also telephoned the governor for assistance, and by p. The local circuit judge, Alfred E.

    Hawkins, convened a special session of the grand jury to indict them; local citizens complained of the fiveday delay. A decade or two earlier, black men charged with raping white women under similar circumstances might well have been executed without trial. Lynchings in the South peaked in the late s and early s, when well over a hundred were reported annually and in some years over two hundred. Prior to World War I, lynchings typically enjoyed the support of local communities; efforts to prosecute even known lynchers were rare, and convictions were virtually nonexistent.

    By , however, the number of reported lynchings had declined dramatically— from an average of This decline was attributable to many factors, including the possibility of federal anti-lynching legislation, the diminishing insularity of the South, more professional law enforcement, and better education. But the decline in lynchings probably also depended on their replacement with speedy trials that reliably produced guilty verdicts, death sentences, and rapid executions. Some jurisdictions actually enacted laws designed to prevent lynchings by providing for special terms of court to convene within days of alleged rapes and other incendiary crimes.

    In many instances, law enforcement officers explicitly promised would-be lynch mobs that black defendants would be quickly tried and executed if the mob desisted, and prosecutors appealed to juries to convict in order to reward mobs for good behavior and thus encourage similar restraint in the future.

    In such cases, guilt or innocence usually mattered little.

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    As one contemporary southern newspaper observed, the honor of a white woman was more important than the life of a black man. Both local newspapers treated the defendants as obviously guilty even before the trial. The trials began on April 6, just twelve days after the train incident. A crowd estimated at five to ten thousand gathered outside the courthouse, which was protected by national guardsmen wielding machine guns. Hawkins appointed as trial counsel a Tennessee lawyer, Stephen R. When Roddy objected to his appointment on the grounds that he was unprepared and unfamiliar with Alabama law, Hawkins appointed Moody, the local septuagenarian, to assist him.