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Lynching That Made History Discussed at Lafayette

Black History Month forum focuses on case that changed legal history in America.

Lynching That Made History Discussed at Lafayette Lynching That Made History Discussed at Lafayette

What happened to Ed Johnson in Tennessee in 1906 would have been laughable, if it wasn't so horrifying.

In January of that year, Johnson -- who was black -- found himself accused of raping a white woman despite any evidence against and put on trial before a judge and jury who had already decided his guilt. While his verdict was being appealed, a lynch mob took matters into its own hands.

It's the type of thing that happened thousands of times in American history.

Yet Johnson's case also made history, author Mark Curriden told an audience at Lafayette College Tuesday evening.

For one thing, the case marked the first time an African-American lawyer acted as lead counsel before the U.S. Supreme Court.

More uniquely, it was also the first time the Supreme Court took jurisdiction in a criminal case, said Curriden, who wrote about the Johnson lynching in his book Contempt of Court.

“It had never happened before, and it’s never happened since," he said, and told his story. 

In January 1906 in the city of Chattanooga, a 21-year-old woman was dragged into an alley, choked until she passed out, and then raped. 

She couldn't identify her attacker, but a local paper decided it was a "negro brute," and began calling for justice. Feeling pressure, the sheriff posted a reward. A man came forward and identified Johnson. 

The judge wanted a speedy trial. Johnson was in court four days after the rape, despite having several alibi witnesses.

His lawyers had issued a statement saying they thought he was guilty. One of the jurors wanted to attack him in the courtroom. Johnson was convicted, and agreed to give up his rights to appeal after his lawyers told him he'd be lynched otherwise.

"Judge, I didn't do what they say I did. But I know I’m going to pay for another man’s sins," he told the judge.

Meanwhile, Johnson's father got a pair of African-American lawyers, Styles Hutchins and Noah Parden, to represent his son. They managed to bring his case to the Supreme Court, with Parden taking his arguments directly to Judge John Marshall Harlan.

In court, Harlan barely listened to Parden, who was feeling like he'd failed his client. However, he came back to Tennessee to learn that the court had granted Johnson a stay of execution and -- fearing a lynch mob -- declared him a federal prisoner and ordered his protection.

Their victory was short-lived. The next day -- after a local paper essentially demanded a lynching -- a gang of men with guns and sledgehammers broke Johnson out of his cell. The sheriff had told his men to take the night off. 

The mob hung Johnson, and shot him several times. One of his killers was a deputy. He pinned a note on Johnson's body: "To Justice Harlan and the Supreme Court: Here's your negro now. Try to save him."

This was before the country had a federal murder charge, so the sheriff, his deputies and the lynch mob leaders were all charged with contempt of the Supreme Court, tried and convicted. 

None of them served more than two months in jail, and they returned to Chattanooga as heroes.

Curriden's talk was followed by a panel discussion about the history of lynching and civil rights, featuring the author, Lafayette professors Wendy Wilson-Fall and John Kincaid, and attorney Prince Altee Thomas.

The event was sponsored by the college and the Easton Boys & Girls Club.

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