Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
There is a painful secret regarding my reading habits: I have always been intrigued by books and stories about lynchings in America. I would guess it is because lynchings take the clothes off American racism and reveal pure evil. We are not lost in endless debates about opposition to affirmative action, reverse discrimination, or oddly shaped congressional districts; a lynching to most people is racist wickedness even if the person lynched is actually guilty of a crime. Or better yet, as Dallas Morning News legal affairs writer Mark Curriden and Chattanooga, Tenn., attorney Leroy Phillips Jr. describe it in their new book, Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching that Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism, lynching is the “ultimate expression of racism.”
Contempt of Court follows a great tradition of stories and books over the years that have tried to express the horror and injustice of lynching. Among these classics are Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings, James Cameron’s A Time of Terror, Theodore Dreiser’s “Nigger Jeff,” James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, and Howard Snead’s Blood Justice. And just a few years ago, David Mamet’s novel The Old Religion told the sad story of Leo Frank, the Jewish factory owner who was lynched after a young white girl was raped and killed in a factory he managed and the local townspeople were tired of poor Leo sitting in jail breathing air.
Contempt of Court can take its place among those great stories not only because Curriden and Phillips have brought back to life the 1906 lynching in Chattanooga of an uneducated Negro laborer named Ed Johnson, but also because the book is written carefully and clearly and maintains a strong rhetorical position against lynching. The authors’ continued condemnation of the inhumane actions of those who brought about Johnson’s death serves as a counterpoint to the stated purpose behind the writing of this book: to describe the Johnson case’s role in the evolution of federalism in the U.S. judicial system.
In fact, the case was an early example of what the Supreme Court would be forced to do time and time again later in the 20th century: provide federal intercession in a state court proceeding because of the state’s failure to provide basic due process protections to its citizens. Such intervention would occur frequently during the civil rights movement, and it would also happen several times in relation to key liberty issues involving criminal defendants—such as Miranda rights, right to counsel, and protections against warrantless search and seizure by law enforcement officials. The Supreme Court was in effect mulling a very important legal question: Does the entire Bill of Rights apply to state court proceedings?
The irony of the Johnson case is that, although it was the perfect test case for this question, the issue was not resolved. The Supreme Court never got to set a precedent; despite its order for a stay of execution while it reviewed the state court’s actions, Johnson was lynched by a Chattanooga mob before a decision could be rendered.
But Contempt of Court is closer to today’s flashy courtroom novels by lawyers such as John Grisham and Scott Turow than to other histories of legal proceedings or theories. There is legal terminology, but never do Curriden and Phillips allow it to bog the tale down. The story is tragic, complete with stereotypical racist villains, heroic figures both black and white, and, of course, victims, all of whom come to life through writings, speeches, and newspaper articles. Consider this clipping from the Chattanooga News:
Johnson walked well, except when he was pushed by the mob. He held his head in the same lowly position which it is now known is characteristic of the Negro, and went along with the mob with his lips tight closed and his eyes downcast.
There is nothing particularly significant, of course, about Contempt of Court’s lynching incident. (Sorry, this is not the Clarence Thomas “high-tech” variety.) Curriden and Phillips simply recall a typical American lynching of the time. It follows the usual model of lynchings in the deep South: A white woman is raped. The white woman accuses a black man, who is either immediately abducted by an angry mob of mostly white men or imprisoned to stand trial for his crime. If the man is lucky and gets put in jail, his luck doesn’t last long. He is eventually seized by the angry mob, with the sheriff and his deputies putting up little if any resistance (they probably even assist the process), and then he is beaten, vilified, dehumanized, shot, hanged from a tree or bridge, and perhaps set on fire. Later, members of the mob will gladly have pictures of themselves taken beside the corpse and cut off fingers as souvenirs if they are available.
In this case, the black man, Johnson, is accused of raping a white woman named Nevada Taylor on “one of the darkest nights of the year” in Chattanooga. He is turned in by a man who has had to ask someone for a description of Johnson the day before identifying him for the sheriff. The man collects a reward and becomes the prosecution’s star witness. Johnson barely escapes lynching the night of his arrest and is put on trial in short order. He is then convicted by an all-white male jury (no blacks are allowed in the jury pool, though the town is 30 percent black), despite at least a half-dozen alibi witnesses, and sentenced immediately to death. His lawyers meet with the judge after the verdict to discuss a new trial or an appeal. The presiding judge, the Hon. Samuel D. McReynolds, coerces them to waive all of their client’s rights, because they are only putting off the inevitable. Meanwhile, Johnson begins to prepare himself for execution, and so does the city of Chattanooga—in a very special way:
[Johnson] was living for the moment, determined to harbor no ill-will in his heart. Sunday morning began with more than a dozen local citizens stopping by the jail to have their picture taken with the condemned Negro. They were not his friends or neighbors. In fact, he had never laid eyes on most of the visitors.
However, Johnson is not to die without a fight. Two black attorneys living and working in Chattanooga, Noah Parden and Styles L. Hutchins, begin to take actions that elevate Contempt of Court’s narrative beyond your ordinary lynching story. They risk their lives and careers to bring about some smidgen of due process in a city that has never known such an ideal when it comes to black people. Though Judge McReynolds continues his bigoted rule over the case and does everything in his power to stop their efforts at seeking justice, Hutchins and Parden forge ahead without apparent fear. They appeal Johnson’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, under a rarely used habeas corpus strategy and other legal challenges based on violations of Johnson’s constitutional rights. And, by luck, Parden, who travels by train alone all the way to Washington to present the case, is granted a 10-minute conference with the legendary Justice John Marshall Harlan to discuss the appeal.
Harlan, you understand, is the only Supreme Court justice to have voted against the decision in the famous 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” case. In fact, Harlan wrote a scathing dissent (which is to become the virtual blueprint for the arguments in later Supreme Court cases that will lead to the eventual overturn of Plessy). Of course, after reading the facts of the case, Harlan is appalled. He stays Johnson’s execution via an order that slowly makes its way by telegram to the authorities in Tennessee, where the gallows are already being tested.
I don’t have to tell you what happens next because this is, you recall, a tale about a lynching.
But it is in the aftermath of the murder that Contempt of Court reveals itself as a virtually incredible story—so improbable that it seems at times as if it had all been concocted by the authors. If they hadn’t actually provided the citations to the Supreme Court records, I would still have my doubts.
In a unprecedented move, the U.S. Supreme Court brings contempt-of-court charges against the sheriff of Chattanooga, Joseph Shipp, plus his deputies and members of the mob that disobeyed and circumvented the Supreme Court order. (Sheriff Shipp all but invited the mob into his jail for beer and peanuts.) Shipp and all the others are ordered to Washington, dragged before Harlan and the other justices with their lawyers, forced to put up their homes for bond, and tried before the highest court in the land. It is an unprecedented act; the justices don’t even know how to conduct the proceedings. But a trial has to be held, in their view, to preserve “the honor of the court.” The defendants are found guilty and sentenced to 60 days in jail.
Perhaps it should be noted that reading Contempt of Court often gives rise to the suspicion that the authors wanted to write a book that eventually would become a Hollywood movie—but I don’t believe they did. It is just that the book chronicles a compelling case. Unless you are an unreconstructed racist, when you read the story, the villains will seem like the worst scoundrels ever created, the victim the most innocent of martyrs.
And the book’s cinematic possibilities are clearly less favorable. There isn’t a happy ending in Contempt of Court like that of Amistad, wherein the Supreme Court was able to actually fix an injustice. Hollywood loved that ending but would not like this book’s. (It was only last month, 94 years after the fact, that a Hamilton County judge set aside Johnson’s rape conviction, citing racism as having prevented Johnson’s receiving a fair trial.) In the movie, Ed Johnson could not be shown working as a laborer in Chattanooga or walking out of a jail to hugs and kisses from his family at the end. Instead, as the credits rolled, you would likely be looking at Johnson’s weed-covered grave in Chattanooga in an unkempt, segregated cemetery. It bears the words “God Bless you all. I AM A Innocent Man.” Such a scene, I am sure, would not make for a long run at the box office. CP