This is about the only criminal trial ever held by the Supreme Court, a truly historic trial. It involved a black man, Ed Johnson, who was accused and convicted on raping a young white woman in Chattanooga, TN in 1906. The victim was unsure of Johnson's identify, a dozen witnesses testified that he was not anywhere near the location of the attack that night, and Johnson passionately affirmed his innocence, but an all-white jury convicted him nevertheless and he was to be hanged. His father went to a local black attorney, asking for an appeal, and against all odds, the case ended before the Supreme Court, where Justice Harlan accepeted to hear the case, and his fellow-justices agreed that there had been serious flaws in the trial, and the highest court in the land issued a stay of execution, pending a hearing. The local Sheriff, Joseph Shipp, who was charged with the safety of Johnson in is jail, pending his execution, received the telegram from the Supreme Court, was enraged that the Court had intervened in local affairs, discharged his deputies, moved Johnson into a cell away from other prisoners, and conspired to allow a lynch mob to enter the jail. The mob did pull Johnson from his cell, and hung him from a bridge. When news of his lynching reached Washington, D.C., it was the Court's turn to be enraged, as well as President Theodore Roosevelt. To make a long, fascinating story short, the Supreme Court charged Sheriff Shipp and several others with denial of Johnson's constitutional rights for due process and held a trial - the only such trial ever held by the Supreme Court - and they were found guilty. Unfortunately, the defendants only served a few months at best, and Shipp returned to Chattanooga where he received a hero's welcome! But what a story!
One of the local heroes was a Baptist Minister, Dr. Howard E. Jones, who preached a sermon condemning the lynching, and had his house burned for his outspokenness.
My father came to Chattanooga as a young minister 20 years after this event. My brother, Stewart, was born in Chattanooga in 1927. I have to think that dad was aware of this case, and it's very possible that Dr. Jones was still alive and perhaps even known to him, though Jones was a Baptist and dad was a Congregationalist. I have to believe that he would have admired his courage.
A Sermon on Lynching[A sermon delivered at the First Baptist Church in Chattanooga on March 25, 1906 (the Sunday following the lynching of Ed Johnson) by Dr. Howard E. Jones. The First Baptist Church was Chattanooga's largest and most established church. Its congregation was white. The Thursday night after Reverend Jones delivered his courageous sermon, his house was set on fire.]
The white man rules in this community. I am using an old phrase, oft used by you, when I affirm that he always has and he always will. The honor of rule involves a burden of responsibility. If the white man rules and this community is condemned with a charge of anarchy and lawlessness, then the white man must face the responsibility. It is not enough for us to say that the responsibility rests entirely upon the officers of the law, because they are only our creatures. Our votes placed them in office and by our support they hold their positions.
Let us now briefly consider the events of last Monday night. They are not pretty, nor poetic. Some fifty or more men, presuming upon the oft expressed fear of a mob and impatient of law and order went to our jail. With evidence of carefully premeditated program, they took the keys away from the one man who was to defend Chattanooga's honor. But owing to their haste to get at their bloody business, they destroyed with sledges the usefulness of the keys and for two hours, they toiled at the steel bolts which were more loyal to Chattanooga's interest than all of her citizenship. But where are the police and where are the thousands who should have and could have defended us against an unspeakable disgrace?
And so the mob marches by a gallows ready prepared with stretched rope within the precincts of the jail. They are not in pursuit of justice, but lawless revenge. Their business is to brutalize a community. Let the curtain fall upon the rest of that unspeakable scene.
The worst elements among the white men of this community took over the reins of government. Was this disgrace ever rebuked? Has any arrest of those men who unsheathed their keen blades and struck deadly blows at the very heart of our civilization ever been effected? Does anyone here know of any attempt?
"Ah, Ah," but you say, "we were afraid." Afraid? Afraid of what? Afraid of the most vicious, Godless, ignorant and depraved of the white men of this community. Why did we not stop and consider that anarchy was already reigning in our midst, when a community was terrorized into a weak compro-mise with its most dangerous citizens.
Ah, no. "Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap."
We had but sown the wind, and were yet to reap the whirlwind. We had cast pearls before the swine, who were presently to trample them in the mire and turn and rend us. We had given the sacred and holy trust of law to dogs, who, despising the holy thing we had compromised, would presently be fixing their vicious fangs in the throat of our civilization.
Not only a fair trial should have been given to Ed Johnson, but a fair trial should also have been given to every member of that mob who could be apprehended. No arrest has been made. No, don't blame the officers altogether. No great, big, strong man stood up in this community and cried aloud in the name of law and justice for the arrest of those men.
But let me speak plainly to the man who sees no more in the tragedy on the bridge than that Ed Johnson got what he ought to have had. Admit it, but how about the community? Has it gotten what it ought to have had? I maintain that that mob struck more terrible blows at the heart of our civilization than it inflicted upon Ed Johnson. The beam in our eye has prevented us from seeing this. So far as Ed Johnson was concerned, the mob only deprived him of a life which in all probability he would only have possessed for a few weeks longer.
But consider what it has done to our community. It advertised Chattanooga all over this land and in foreign lands as a place where it is unsafe to live. It registered our city as among that class of communities which have only attained a very low grade of civilization, a place where intelligence flees with fear and trembling when ignorance clenches its fists and gnashes its teeth. Think of the number of people who today only know us as a city where fifty hoodlums can terrify us into passive submission to lawless barbarism. But the largest injury to the community has not yet been realized. Just as the demoralizing effects of war are felt for generations, so a season of lawlessness such as we have just gone through is as far reaching in its baneful efforts. Whatsoever a man or a community soweth, that shall they also reap. What a lesson for our children!
The minute details of the horrible affair are discussed by groups of small boys on nearly every corner. I, myself, saw a picture the other afternoon which has haunted me like a ghost. A crowd of little boys were playing in a vacant lot, and I was horrified to see that they were in mimicry carrying out the revolting proceedings of the mob on Monday night. They went through with it all. They broke into the jail, they secured the Negro, represented by a large ash can, tied about it a rope, rushed yelling with it to a nearby fence, hoisted it in the air, and then for lack of pistols, took rocks and did their best to riddle the effigy. I walked sadly away, wondering how many "pistol toters" for the future were among those little boys, wondering if they were receiving lessons which would prevent a better civilization.
"Whatsoever a man or a community soweth, that shall he also reap."
Lawlessness begets lawlessness. It always has and always will. Sow an act of lawlessness and you will get a harvest of lawless conditions. If this is not true, civilization is a farce, and anarchy is the best goal to strive for.
The speaker scorns the need of denouncing the crime of which Johnson was accused. I could pile up every adjective, as did Hamlet at Ophelia's grave; I could utter overwrought denunciations which would fall back like cold water upon the fiery indignation which such a crime stirs within me, and yet I should find myself saying, apologetically, as did the sweet Prince of Denmark, "Aye, I can rant as well as thou," but this is not a time for ranting.
I resent the crime on the bridge because of my unspeakable indignation against the crime at St. Elmo. To give over our dealing with this atrocity to lawless procedure means that over and over again, not only the innocent man hangs, but the guilty man remains free, as a threat to the sanctity of our homes. Tell me not, with the pages of history open before me, that a mob ever helps civilization. It is a blind Frankenstein monster, and its only power is force. It cannot think, it cannot reason, the most terrible of all, it cannot love. It is born of the hate of hell and has done more in the history of humanity to degrade civilization, laugh in the face of righteousness and defy the majesty of God, than has any other monster who ever issued from the pit. Blow the dust off your Barnaby Rigby, and let Dickens tell you of the mobs of London. Get down your Carlyle's French Revolution and let him show you how France lost her chance among the nations of the world through the mobs of the Reign of Terror.
Take your place in the gray dawn of that fatal Friday outside the Pretorium, where Pontias Pilate stands before the fury of a mob and presents the only sinless one who ever lived, and say, "Behold the Man." Hear the hoarse cry of that awful creature, the mob, as with gathering force it answers back, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" and then stand forth and tell me if you hope by the force and fury of a mob to accomplish anything but to destroy the best and crucify the holiest!