• Donald V. Watkins

"To Justice Harlan: Come and Get Your Nigger Now"

By: Donald V. Watkins

Copyrighted and Published on September 2, 2021


After they lynched him on the Walnut Street Bridge that spanned the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tennessee on March 19, 1906, the leader of the white lynch mob that killed him pinned a sheet of paper on Mr. Ed Johnson's bullet-riddled body addressed to U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan that read: "To Justice Harlan: Come and get your nigger now."


Johnson, who was black, had been accused of raping Nevada Taylor, a young white woman, in a Chattanooga cemetery on the night of January 23, 1906. Johnson was arrested two days later, even though Ms. Taylor could not identify him as her assailant and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Numerous persons who were interviewed in connection with the case placed Johnson somewhere else during the time of the rape.


Throughout this nightmare ordeal, Johnson steadfastly maintained his innocence.


On the night of January 25th, an angry white mob attacked the jail in Chattanooga, where Johnson was supposed to be confined. Unbeknownst to the mob, Johnson had been secretly moved to Nashville until he could stand trial.


On January 26th, a Hamilton County grand jury indicted Johnson for Ms. Taylor's rape. He was brought back to Chattanooga to stand trial on February 6th. During Johnson's trial, one of the jurors shouted out this threat: "If I could get at him, I would tear his heart out right now." Judge Samuel McReynolds failed to remove this juror from the jury panel.


On February 9th, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury and was sentenced to death. Johnson's execution date was scheduled for March 20, 1906, just under two months from the date of his arrest.


Johnson's three court-appointed attorneys, all of whom were white, refused to appeal his case to the all-white Tennessee Supreme Court. The attorneys justified this refusal by claiming they were under severe mental distress in defending Johnson. They asked the trial judge to appoint three other lawyers, all of whom were white, to help them make the decision about whether or not to appeal Johnson's case.


Based upon the January 25th mob uprising and the state of unrest in Chattanooga's white community, all six lawyers agreed that "the life of the defendant, even if the wrong man, could not be saved; that an appeal would so inflame the public that the jail would be attacked and perhaps other prisoners executed by violence."


In truth, Johnson's white lawyers abandoned the fight to save his life because they could not stand the searing "heat" of Chattanooga's white racism that was aimed directly at them for representing an innocent black man who had been falsely accused and wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman. They bowed to this uncontrollable racism.


Black Lawyers Fought With Extraordinary Courage and Valor to Save Johnson's Life


After Ed Johnson's court-appointed white attorneys sold him out, his family turned to two black lawyers -- Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins -- in a desperate bid to save his life. These two lawyers ignored the local white community's thirst for Johnson's death and took him on as a client. By doing so, they placed their own lives in danger.


At the time, Attorney Parden was Chattanooga's most highly respected African-American attorney. Yet, the trial judge, Samuel McReynolds, did not appoint Parden to represent Johnson in this rape case.


Parden made a frantic trip to Washington to see U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, the justice designated for handling emergency appeals from Tennessee. On the morning of March 17, 1906, Parden presented Johnson's case to Justice Harlan for an emergency stay of execution pending Johnson's appeal to the Supreme Court.


After Parden left, Justice Harlan read the transcript of the lower court denials of Johnson's appeals. He became convinced that Johnson's case raised serious constitutional issues.


At Harlan's request, a majority of the justices gathered on Sunday morning at the home of Chief Justice Melvin Fuller to hear Johnson's plea for intervention. After debating the issue for an hour, the justices agreed to grant a stay of execution. Harlan ordered telegrams sent to all the parties involved, including the local Hamilton County sheriff, Joseph Shipp.


The two local Chattanooga newspapers fanned the flames of racism in the white community with their negative and biased reporting of the Supreme Court's order staying Johnson's execution. On March 19th, which was the day before Johnson's scheduled hanging, one of the newspapers articles lamented: "The gallows in the Hamilton County jail has again been disappointed in the case of Ed Johnson, convicted by the state courts of rape, and sentenced to death. The hanging will not take place tomorrow morning, as scheduled."


That night, an angry white lynch mob came for Johnson, again. This time Sheriff Shipp made it easy for the mob to get to Johnson's cell, as only one man guarded the jail on this night. The lone jailer turned the keys to Johnson's cell over to the mob without resistance.


The mob tied Johnson arms behind his back and dragged him to the Walnut Street Bridge, which was six blocks away. "When the bridge was reached, the mob took Johnson a little beyond the arc light, put a rope around his neck, threw it over a beam, and swung him up....The first time Johnson was swung up, the rope broke or slipped and he fell. He was swung up a second time and shot. After some shots were fired, Johnson again fell, and while lying on the ground was again shot. It was about ten minutes after the mob had reach the bridge until Johnson was killed."


Right before he died, Johnson told the lynch mob in a calm voice: "God bless you all. I am an innocent man." After Johnson was dead, the leader of the mob pinned the note on his body which read: "To Justice Harlan. Come and get your nigger now."


The U.S. Supreme Court Tried Johnson's Murderers on Criminal Contempt Charges


Word of Johnson's lynching soon reached the justices of the Supreme Court. The justices were outraged. President Theodore Roosevelt promptly ordered a federal investigation into the lynching, with the understanding that the findings could be used by the Supreme Court should it choose to bring criminal contempt charges against members of the lynch mob.


On May 28, 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal contempt charges accusing 27 mob members of conspiring to lynch and murder Ed Johnson. The defendants included Sheriff Shipp, Deputy Matthew Galloway, and jailer Jeremiah Gibson. Eventually, the charges would be dropped against most of the 27 men. In addition to Shipp, Galloway, and Gibson, six members of the lynch mob -- Nick Nolan, William Mayse, Henry Padgett, Alf Handman, Bart Justice, and Luther Williams -- went on trial before the Supreme Court on criminal contempt charges.


Six of the defendants, including Sheriff Shipp, were found guilty of contempt. Defendants Galloway, Justice, and Ward were acquitted. Sheriff Shipp and two others were sentenced to 90 days in jail. The other three convicted defendants received 60-day sentences.


When Shipp was released from jail, a hometown crowd of thousands celebrated his return as a hero, with a local band playing "Dixie."


Ed Johnson's black lawyers were forced to flee Chattanooga for their personal safety. Their homes were burned to the ground. They never returned to the city.


Epilogue


The gruesome facts regarding Ed Johnson's lynching were memorialized for all time in the U.S. Supreme Court case of United States v. Shipp, 203 U.S. 563 (1906). I first read about this tragic case in my Constitutional Law class at The University of Alabama School of Law in the fall of 1970. It affected me deeply and in a very profound way. At the time, I was attending the law school on a scholarship awarded by the NAACP in New York City to black students from Alabama who were willing to desegregate the law school. As a result, I was experiencing my own healthy dose of white racism at the law school.


Ed Johnson's bravery in the face of death, the unforgiveable betrayal of duty by Johnson's six court-appointed white lawyers, the incredible fight for justice by Johnson's black lawyers at the risk of death, the failure of the state law enforcement officers and the trial judge to respect and protect Johnson's constitutional rights throughout his ordeal, the unprecedented intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court in trying to save Johnson's life, and the Supreme Court's subsequent issuance of criminal contempt judgments against Sheriff Shipp and the other members of the lynch mob, are all factors that have motivated and guided my 48-year unwavering fight for the fair administration of justice for the "least of these" since I graduated from law school in 1973.


Throughout my career, I have seen scores of white criminal lawyers sell out their clients solely because they could not withstand the ostracism in Alabama's white community that comes from representing black suspects in criminal cases that are unpopular in the white community. I have also witnessed numerous white state and federal court judges cave-in to white community prejudice and pressure, as they routinely railroaded and judicially lynched black defendants in their courtrooms.


In my view, today's U.S. Supreme Court would not stay Ed Johnson's execution. A majority of the justices on the High Court would use scholarly language to champion states' rights and confer broad sovereign immunity on Sheriff Shipp and the other local law enforcement officials who aided and abetted the lynching of Mr. Johnson.


Finally, while the physical lynching of wrongfully accused black criminal suspects have been curbed, the railroading of them in most state and federal courtrooms continues, unabated. What is worse, the vast majority of white court-appointed lawyers in criminal cases today follow the same pattern of betraying and selling out their black clients that Ed Johnson experienced in his case 115 years ago.



IMAGE: Ed Johnson and the attorney who defended him, Noah Parden

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