Good Essay On Lynching In America: A Case Study Of Ed Johnson
Tennessee State University
It was in the suburban land of Tennessee that a case was filed against a Negro named Ed Johnson in the year 1906 (Rushing, 2003, p.63). In Forest Hills Cemetery, an eighteen-year-old lady was found dead, with a leather strap bound around her neck. She was walking in the fading twilight when a black man grasped her from behind and then dragged her towards a shrubbery spot near the entrance of the cemetery. The girl, Nevada Taylor, lost consciousness and did not see the face of the man who attacked and assaulted her. Seeing Ed Johnson at the trial court, Taylor supposed that that man was the one guilty of rape and assault, especially since Johnson was a very black man—illiterate and “never holding anything on a regular basis” (Rushing, 2003, p.65). He had a peculiar way of walking, and would most probably be the type of man who would assault a white teenager in Tennessee.
It was about 6pm on January 23, 1906 when Miss Nevada Taylor walked along Forest Hills Cemetery, as she was an employee of a grocery store owned by W.W. Brooks (“Awful crime at St. Elmo”). After parking her car at the marble yard, she started walking towards her house. Suddenly, she heard some footsteps from behind her, and abruptly found it difficult to breathe. A leather strap was bound around her neck by a black man, and she was just about to faint. She tried to scream for help, but the assailant warned her not to, or else he would cut her throat. Taylor did not see the face of the assailant, but was only aware that it was a very black Negro man. At last, Taylor fainted, and the next thing she was aware of, was the fence behind her in the marble yard, and her torn clothes and her throat that was tortured.
Taylor immediately reported the incident to her father and her brother, who reported it at once to the police officers in the county jail. Bloodhounds were brought to the scene at about eight o’clock in the evening. The trail was lost, however, and there was the slightest of clues that were inefficient to help them trace the suspect. At the court on the 6th of February, Taylor was questioned on whether she could identify the man who assaulted her. She looked at the suspects and pointed to Ed Johnson. Nevada Taylor said the following lines:
Sheriff Shipp talked to them, and one of them, from his voice, his size, his face, and everything combined, I thought was the Negro who assaulted me. He, at first, had the same soft voice he used in talking to me, and later changed it, making it deeper Though this Negro tried to change his voice, I believed I recognized it. His hat was a soft, dark hat like it had been rolled at one time (Testimony of Nevada Taylor)
In spite of this, Ed Johnson denied the conviction, insisting that he was innocent, and that he had never seen the lady (Taylor) in all his life. He said, he never had any belt or any strap, and what he got were only his suspenders (“Says he is not guilty”). Still, the crowds believed Johnson was guilty, until thousands of men raided the jail to execute Johnson informally.
The case of Ed Johnson was a result of the social structure within the community. By the start of the 1900s, the white society was ahead of the black ones, either in terms of education, finance, business, and even human rights. Although the number of Negroes outnumber those of the whites, the former were lacking in strength, power, and capacity, which deprived them of their right to be heard and supported by the society. With a social structure that bended towards white men, it influenced the occurrence of lynches against the black men. This was mainly one of the reasons why, during the time of Johnson, it took only two hours for dozens of men to enter the jail (“God bless you all—I am innocent”). It took little resistance to open the prison and drag Johnson out towards the Tennessee Bridge. There was no way to control thousands of armed men. In fact, Gibson depicted that reason cannot even be used to control the mob (“God bless you all—I am innocent”). In a state of social flux such as this, wherein more than a thousand armed men attacked the jail house for the informal execution of a suspect, there was no way to stop the crowd, even without formal support of jurisdiction. Crowds shouted, “Kill him now! To the county bridge!” (“God bless you all—I am innocent”), and lynch became the only solution for the purge of apprehension.
Obliteration of power
The case of Ed Johnson was also a result of the obliteration of the power of the Supreme Court. Supposed to be, the power of the Supreme Court should be irrevocable, however, this cannot withheld against the power of the citizens to execute vengeance using their particular scheme. When 1,500 men attacked the jail houses at seven o’clock in the evening, the police officers only succeeded in protecting the inmates and not Ed Johnson (“Law and order victorious”). Mob violence was treated only after police forces were accumulated, to stand against the people’s forces, especially since they were armed with weapons. When it is the people who demand execution, the power of the Supreme Court may fail, and the alleged criminal may be directly executed, even without formal trial. This is almost similar to the lynch that occurred in 1835 in the State of Pennsylvania, when a man was burned alive without formal trial, as he was supposed to have some connection with some abolitionists (Collins, 1918, p.17). With this comes the obliteration of power of the judicial court, when the mob cannot be coped, making way for lynching to take place.
Pursuit for lawlessness
Lastly, the case of Ed Johnson was also a result of lawlessness and injustice, which took place, as proven by the occurrence of a “bloody business” when thousands marched to the jail, bringing ropes and gallows, and looking for Johnson. They were not in pursuit of justice but of “lawless revenge” (A sermon on lynching), and this thing can assault and dehumanize a community, merely by executing unspeakable disgrace and degradation. As it was in the sermon of Dr. Howard Jones on the Sunday of the 25th of March:
Why did we not stop and consider that anarchy was already reigning in our midst, when a community was terrorized into a weak compromise with its most dangerous citizens? (A sermon on lynching)
It was as if, the strong ones were robbed of their strength and power, and their right to rule and govern the community. No one stood up for justice and the execution of impartiality and reasonableness, in fear of the forces of the mobs that numbered in thousands. In this pursuit of lawlessness, no fair trial was given to Johnson, but acted only as an impulse to the community’s emotion, with reference to the situation. In a civilized community, justice and law should prevail, and not the instinct to act on one’s impulse or whim. Hence, execution should only cover those who were strongly proven to be guilty of crime and injustice.
During the 1860s, an English traveler named Murray depicted that in the farms by the James River in Virginia, the white men numbers only six, while the black men were two hundred and fifty (Collins, 1918, p.16). Aside from that, there was no village around for many miles, and no way to ask for help, except through the Negroes who lived within the estate. This social and racial structure can obliterate power, law and the order, and may lead to movements of lawlessness and injustice, which can lead to deprivation of justice and impartiality, as seen in the case of Ed Johnson. When people act according to instincts and strong emotion, impartiality may be sacrificed, and the power of the judicial court would be left to nowhere. It is important to remember that justice is not based on physical appearance, race, religion, economic standing, or social position. Execution should only come once justice is applied, and impartiality is given to all comprised persons within the judicial court.
A sermon on lynching http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/sermon.html
“Awful crime at St. Elmo,” Chattanooga Times, 1/24/1906 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/newselmo.html
Collins, W.H. (1918). The truth about lynching and the Negro in the South. New York, N.Y.: The Neale Publishing Company.
“God bless you all—I am innocent,” Chattanooga Times, 3/20/1906 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/newsgodbless.html
“Law and order victorious over overwhelming odds,” Chattanooga Times, 1/26/1906 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/newslawandorder.html
Rushing, K. (2003). Chapter 4: The case of Ed Johnson. In L. Chiasson Jr.’s, Illusive shadows: justice, media, and socially significant American trials (pp.63-76). Westport, C.T.: Praeger Publishers.
“Says he is not guilty,” Chattanooga Times, 2/2/1906 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/newsjohnsonsays.html
Testimony of Ed Johnson, Defendant, Feb.6, 1906 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/johnsontestimony.html
Testimony of Nevada Taylor, Prosecution Witness, Feb.6, 1906 http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/testimony.html