Consider, if you will, a tale from 1906: The lynching of Edward Johnson.
Johnson was a 23-year-old black carpenter who did odd jobs for friends at the Last Chance Saloon in Chattanooga, Tenn., who had the misfortune to be chosen almost randomly for a public lynching by the local white populace. Here is a nicely succinct version of the first round of events, from a review of a book (scroll down to "Lynching in Tennessee") about the case titled Contempt of Court: The Turn of the Century Lynching that Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism:
- The story begins when Miss Nevada Taylor was accosted by an unknown assailant on a dark night while returning to her home. She was 21 years old and described as beautiful. An assailant came up behind her, put a leather strap around her neck, and told her that if she screamed she would be killed. She was raped and later testified that she could not positively identify her assailant but she thought he was black and spoke with a kindly voice.
Sheriff Joseph Shipp was a wealthy businessman, who at age 15, joined the Confederate Army as a Private and ended the war as Captain. Above all, he was a politician who was up for re-election in two months and would do whatever was necessary to be re-elected. Having no suspects, Sheriff Shipp collected a reward of $375, which was more than the average Chattanooga citizen earned in a year.
In the meantime, the two local newspapers kept up a storm of editorials in which they referred to Miss Taylor as a "white princess" and the perpetrator as a "Negro brute." The papers more than suggested that when the culprit was arrested he should be lynched and that "someone must pay."
Will Hixson, on learning of the reward, told the Sheriff that he saw Johnson in the area of the assault with a leather strap about the time of the event. It was later shown that Hixson had told others he intended to get the reward. Hixson further had indicated he did not know Johnson nor had he seen him before, but he testified he was able to identify Johnson by the light of a match that Johnson had requested from Hixson. On this dearth of evidence, Johnson was arrested. Johnson never changed his story. He maintained his innocence and said he never had any contact with Miss Taylor, and at the time of the assault, he was working at a saloon some distance away. A dozen alibi witnesses testified Johnson was with them at the time. Once Johnson was arrested, the Sheriff did not investigate anyone else, though he had several other names and leads. One lead was that a white man had been the perpetrator.
The upshot of all this was that Johnson narrowly escaped with his life when the sheriff had him quietly transported out of town to another jail shortly after his arrest; when a lynch mob gathered that same evening, it was infuriated to discover Johnson gone and rioted, scouring through the jail until it was satisfied Johnson was not there.
This was at the height of "the lynching era," that spate between 1890 and 1920 when racial violence inflicted by whites against blacks, all for the purposes of terrorizing them into submission, was not only common but positively celebrated as a form of the "popular will." Often these lynchings came at the end of spectacle trials in which blacks were swiflty convicted with flimsy or nonexistent evidence and then swept out into the public square by the vengeful mob.
Edward Johnson received this sort of "let's give 'em a fair trial afore we hang 'em" proceeding in court, swiftly convicted even though the only evidence against him was Nevada Taylor's half-hearted identification, though in fact she told police she wouldn't be able to identify her attacker positively because she did not get a good look at him. Johnson's substantial alibi evidence was dismissed. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but was whisked away to Knoxville before the crowd could stir to action.
Johnson's trial ran afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court because 20 years before, it had ruled that jury pools must contain African-Americans as well, while Johnson's jury pool excluded blacks. A courageous black lawyer named Noah Parden took up Johnson's case and pursued it all the way from state appeals courts to the Supreme Court, where he finally found a sympathetic ear in the person of Justice John Marshall Harlan, the "Great Dissenter."
On March 19, Harlan issued a stay of Johnson's pending execution and announced that the Supreme Court would hear his appeal. It announced that he was now a federal prisoner, and issued an order that he be remanded to federal custody.
But before that could happen, the mob struck. That very night -- with the collusion of the sheriff, who left only one man on duty to guard the jail -- Johnson was hauled out of the jail and lynched. They hauled him out to a bridge that had been the site of the last previous lynching in Chattanooga (in 1893). Here is how Philip Dray describes it in his profound and disturbing study of the era, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America:
- Slipping a rope around his neck, the mob demanded that Johnson confess, assuring him he had nothing to lose now by telling the truth. "I am ready to die," Johnson replied, adding:
- But I never done it. I am going to tell the truth. I am not guilty. I have said all the time that I did not do it and it is true. I was not there. I know I am going to die and I have no fear at all. I was not at St. Elmo that night. Nobody saw me with a strap. They were mistaken and saw somebody else. I was at the Last Chance Saloon just as I said. I am not guilty and that is all I have to say. God bless you all. I am innocent.
Someone fired a pistol, then a spray of bullets struck him. One shot split the rope and Johnson fell to the ground, where his body was fired into hundreds of times as it lay motionless on the ground. The mob then departed, leaving a note pinned on the corpse:
"To Justice Harlan. Come get your nigger now."
A last note: This case, as Contempt of Court goes on to explore, was at the root of the famed United States v. Shipp ruling.