Analysis & Comment

Opinion | When the Supreme Court Couldn’t Stop a Lynching

In the annals of the Supreme Court, the case of United States v. Shipp is an anomaly. Brought in the first decade of the 20th century, the Shipp case is the only time the court conducted a criminal trial, with justices serving as jurors.

But a case that history largely ignored is looking more and more like a landmark. The Shipp case was one of the first times the justices actively stood up on behalf of African Americans. The court left an evidentiary record that has become the basis for an inspiring act of racial healing. The Black and white communities of Chattanooga, Tenn., are working together to mark the site of a lynching in the heart of the city and at the heart of the case. Years of effort will culminate in the dedication of a memorial on Sept. 19.

In a time of mistrust along racial lines, the initiative in Chattanooga is a model for other communities. It demonstrates that agreed-upon facts can be a precursor to recovery. It couldn’t have existed without United States v. Shipp.

The story of the Shipp case begins in January 1906. That’s when Nevada Taylor, a young white woman, was raped in a Chattanooga cemetery. The crime provoked a frenzied reaction, putting pressure on the local sheriff, a proud Confederate veteran named Joseph Shipp, to identify and apprehend the rapist. The search had turned up a piece of leather. Upon the offering of a $375 reward for information leading to an arrest, a white man claimed to have seen a Black man milling around the cemetery, twirling a piece of leather shortly before the crime. He identified Ed Johnson as the man at the scene. Seizing on this shred of evidence, Shipp arrested and jailed Johnson.

On the night of Jan. 25, a mob of hundreds of men tried to ram their way through the jail to reach Johnson. The local judge, Samuel McReynolds, in an effort to calm the crowd, promised to put the case first on his docket and expressed hope for an execution “before the setting of Saturday’s sun.”

The rush to judgment continued through the trial. There were numerous witnesses who could say that they’d seen Johnson elsewhere during the time of the attack. And when asked to identify her rapist, Taylor said she believed that it was Johnson. But she declined to make a definitive identification. Taking the stand a second time, under a demand that she swear “in God’s name” that Johnson was the man who assaulted her, Taylor only reiterated that she believed that Johnson was her attacker. A juror shouted out a threat: “If I could get at him, I would tear his heart out right now.” Judge McReynolds failed to remove the juror, and Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death.

Two Black, pioneering lawyers — Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins — led Johnson’s appeals. In an attempt to stop an unfair execution, Parden made a frantic journey to see the Supreme Court justice designated to hear emergency appeals from Tennessee, John Marshall Harlan. Fortunately, Harlan was also the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that advanced the separate-but-equal doctrine.

Over two decades, Harlan had failed to persuade a single colleague of the injustices being visited on African Americans. States’ violations of Black defendants’ rights were more a norm than an aberration. But the Supreme Court had resolutely looked the other way. For Harlan, Parden’s arrival was a rare opportunity. Here, finally, in his capacity overseeing the Sixth Circuit, was a chance to order a federal review on his own.

After Parden presented the facts of the case, Harlan telegraphed the local authorities on March 18 that a stay of execution was necessary for the Supreme Court to review the case. White Chattanooga rebelled.

The next day, jail keepers offered no resistance when the mob came around.

The vigilantes carried Johnson to the city’s most visible landmark, the Walnut Street Bridge. Using trolley wires, they strung him up and offered a last chance to confess. “God bless you all. I am a innocent man,” he said.

They hanged him and peppered his body with gunshots.

Someone attached a note addressed to “Chief Harlan.” Here lay his man — though that’s not the word they used. “Thanks for your kind consideration of him. You can find him at the morgue.”

Outraged, Harlan persuaded his colleagues to take the unprecedented step of sitting as a trial court. The U.S. attorney general, William Henry Moody, filed a petition charging Sheriff Shipp, other officials and mob leaders with contempt of the Supreme Court. After the presentation of voluminous evidence — including the testimony of Shipp’s Black cook, who said that the sheriff had anticipated a mob attack should the execution be stayed — six of the defendants, including Shipp, were found guilty of contempt. Shipp and two others were sentenced to 90 days in jail; the other three received 60-day sentences.

Shipp was released early and returned home to thousands of supporters and a band playing “Dixie.” Much of white Chattanooga promptly forgot about the case. Much of Black Chattanooga didn’t speak of it, hoping to spare future generations the pain. Today, LaFrederick Thirkill, a local school principal, remembers a family member refusing to cross the Walnut Street expanse, saying it “wasn’t a good bridge.”

One day, Mr. Thirkill noticed a newspaper article about an abandoned African American cemetery. He organized a cleanup of the site. While there, Leroy Phillips — a lawyer who in 2000 had argued on behalf of Johnson in a posthumous hearing that cleared him of the rape — said that he had something to show Mr. Thirkill. Mr. Phillips led him directly to Johnson’s grave. There on the grave marker were Johnson’s last words: “God Bless you all. I AM A Innocent man.”

Between 1883 and 1941, thousands of Black men were lynched in America. Many killings were attributed to faceless marauders, which allowed civic leaders to deny any responsibility. That wasn’t true in Johnson’s case. Thanks to the Supreme Court case, there is a litany of evidence implicating multiple facets of Chattanooga society, from the pulpit to the newsroom to the courthouse to the jail. The Shipp case established a record that leaves no room for excuses or ambiguities. And therein lay the seeds of reconciliation.

What was horrifying was also clarifying. With Mr. Thirkill taking the lead, Black and white Chattanooga came together to memorialize Ed Johnson and to recognize the injustice that had taken place. A former Chattanooga mayor, Bob Corker, who more recently was a U.S. senator, was among the backers. Mitch Patel, an Indian American hotelier, was a major benefactor. Now, in a grove beside the bridge where Johnson was murdered, sculptures of Johnson, Parden and Hutchins will forever mark the spot of a crime for which much of Chattanooga was a co-conspirator.

An earlier proposal featured a sculpture of a seated Justice Harlan. It wasn’t included, which seems appropriate. Ed Johnson lost his life proclaiming his innocence, and his lawyers risked theirs for the cause of justice. Harlan merely did the right thing under the law.

But that, too, is a lesson worth remembering: just how few people did the right thing under the law.

Peter S. Canellos, a managing editor at Politico, is the author of “The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero,” from which this essay is adapted.

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