Ed Johnson was dragged from his jail cell by dozens of white men. They brutally beat him. His family and friends would be next, they said. The mob hauled Johnson to the second span of the Walnut Street Bridge high above the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga.
A noose was placed around Johnson’s neck.
“There’s nothing you can do to save your life,” leaders of the mob screamed. “You might as well confess.”
“God bless you all,” responded Johnson, who faced false charges that he had raped a white woman. “I am a innocent man.”
That sent the crowd into a fury. They pulled the rope, lifting his body 18 feet off the ground for about three minutes. But he wasn’t dying fast enough. The crowd opened fire. He was shot more than 50 times. A bullet pierced the rope and his body fell to the wooden planks of the bridge.
A deputy sheriff walked up, reloaded his pistol and shot Johnson five more times in the head. The deputy then pinned a note into Johnson’s chest.
“To Justice [John Marshall] Harlan and the Supreme Court,” it read. “Here’s your Negro now. Try to save him.”
More than a century later, politicians and others use the term “lynching” to claim they have been victimized.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas famously said he was the target of a “high-tech lynching.” Congressional Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, accused Republicans of having a lynch mob mentality during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, supporters of Bill Cosby and R&B artist R. Kelly used the term to push back against accusers.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump became the latest to invoke this horrific act of violence in a message on Twitter: “All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching.”
Politicians use of the word reveals that these leaders – be they left or right, Republican or Democratic – are woefully ignorant of the reality of actual lynchings. Nothing in the United States today can or should ever be compared to the Holocaust or American lynchings. Nothing. There is no comparison.
The term is used so often that there is danger that it will lose its true meaning, its impact, its historical significance in America.
Two decades ago, I spent two weeks at Tuskegee University in Alabama researching Contempt of Court: A Turn of the Century Lynching that Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism, a book on the Ed Johnson case that I wrote with Chattanooga attorney Leroy Phillips.
Tuskegee has files on every reported lynching that took place in the U.S. between 1882 and 1944 – 4,708 of them. Tuskegee’s curator, Daniel Williams, and I went through each file.
The stories and photographs in those files are real. They reveal a terrifying evil, a hatred demonstrated on a demonic level – all because of the color of the person’s skin.
The case of Ed Johnson provides a classic example. He was 19 and had no criminal record. He dropped out of school in the third grade. He could not read or write. He held two jobs.
On Jan. 21, 1906, a white woman named Nevada Taylor was attacked and raped. She did not see and could not identify her attacker. But a paid informant, who was white, testified he saw Johnson at the scene of the crime carrying a leather strap much like the one used in the crime against Taylor. That was the evidence against him. The judge in Johnson’s case warned court-appointed defense lawyers against working too hard on the case. An all-white jury – one of whom tried to attack Johnson in the middle of the trial – found him guilty. The judge sentenced him to death and ordered his lawyers to convince their own client to waive his rights to an appeal, which they did.
Two courageous black lawyers – Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins – stepped forward on their own and took Johnson’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued its first ever stay of an execution in a state criminal case.
Before the Supreme Court could order Johnson to be freed, an all-white mob – aided by the sheriff and his deputies – lynched him.
Johnson and the other 4,707 victims of lynchings in those Tuskegree files were far different from President Trump, Democrats in Congress and Justice Thomas: They had no ability to fight back. They had no freedom of speech to voice objections. They had no power at all. No one came to their defense. They had nothing. If they spoke up, they knew the lynch mobs would go after their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.
In fact, the mob went after Parden and Hutchins. The mob burned down their homes. The lawyers fled Chattanooga for their lives and never returned.
The Sunday after Johnson’s lynching, First Baptist Church of Chattanooga Pastor Howard Jones took the pulpit. He preached from Galatians 6:7: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
“Take your place in the gray dawn of that fatal Friday outside the Praetorium, where Pontius Pilate stands before the fury of the mob and presents the only sinless one who ever lived,” Jones preached. “Hear that hoarse cry of that awful creature, the mob, as it answers back. ‘Crucify Him! Crucify Him.’ Now stand forth and tell me if you hope by force and fury of the mob to accomplish anything but destroy the best and crucify the holiest.”
Publisher’s Note: On Monday, Nov. 11, The Texas Lawbook and the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Houston Chapter are presenting a CLE Ethics event on Mark’s book, where he tells the dramatic details of Contempt of Court and the legal and ethical challenges the lawyers in the case faced. The CLE will also feature Fixed Point Films movie producer Jonah Hirsch, who is turning the book into a major motion picture. Jonah will discuss his plans for the movie.
The Nov. 11 program, sponsored by Hunton Andrews Kurth, is from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Please email Brooks Igo for more details if you are interested in attending. ACC Houston members are invited to attend for free.