Cook: Before you look at Ferguson, take a good look at Chattanooga

Cook: Before you look at Ferguson, take a good look at Chattanooga

November 25th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Let's not look at Ferguson. Not yet.

Let's look at our own city, particularly the Walnut Street Bridge.

That's the bridge the mobs used to lynch black men.

In the winter of 1906, a white man in St. Elmo frantically called Chattanooga police to report that his daughter -- young Nevada Taylor -- had been raped as she walked in the cold dark from the trolley stop to her home in St. Elmo.

The city began to growl.

"The Chattanooga News described it as 'the most fiendish crime in the history of Chattanooga,'" wrote the lawyer and journalist Mark Curriden. "Despite the fact that Taylor told the sheriff she didn't see her assailant, the newspaper reported that the crime had been committed by a 'Negro brute.'"

(Curriden and the late Leroy Phillips Jr.'s majestic "Contempt of Court" and related articles are the foundation for today's column).

A reward was offered. Soon, police arrested a man named Ed Johnson. He was 19. He was black. He was also innocent.

"He provided the names of a dozen men who could vouch for his whereabouts," Curriden wrote.

Two nights in a row, hundreds of white Chattanoogans went to the city jail to lynch Johnson. (Authorities had secretly moved Johnson out of town, for his own safety).

Then came the trial, which broke many rules of jurisprudence so that an all-white jury could find Johnson guilty.

"Mr. Johnson's conviction was highly suspect," the New York Times wrote.

Thanks to the heroic work of Johnson's two local black attorneys (whose law offices were firebombed and families and homes threatened), the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, ruling that Johnson deserved an appeal and issuing a stay of execution.

White Chattanooga howled in defiance.

"Dozens of men, armed with guns, stormed the county jail," Curriden wrote.

The sheriff made it easy for them. He had sent all his deputies home that night save one (a 72-year-old jailer) while relocating all the other prisoners away from Johnson, leaving him isolated and easy to find.

"The siege on the jail began about 8 p.m., with mob leaders using sledgehammers to pound away at the big iron lock," Curriden wrote.

The sledgehammer-banging lasted for three hours.

Then, the cell lock broke. The mob hauled Johnson to the Walnut Street Bridge with a noose around his neck. Underneath the bridge's second span -- the first span had been used 13 years earlier to lynch another black man named Alfred Blount -- they let Johnson speak for the last time.

His final words: God bless you all. I am innocent.

"The statement drove the crowd into a frenzy," Curriden wrote.

They strung up Johnson, then shot him 50 times or more. One bullet ripped through the noose-rope and his body crashed to the bridge. They shot him again, then strung him back up. They attached to his chest a note containing a racial slur and directing the U.S. Supreme Court to "come get" his body.

That was more than 100 years ago.

And our city remains in debt to Johnson as well as Blount.

Yes, Curriden and Phillips published their epic, must-read work. Yes, local educator LaFrederick Thirkill worked to restore Johnson's forgotten grave, and also wrote a play about him.

And yes, in the winter of 2000, a local judge overturned Johnson's conviction and dismissed all charges against him.

But that's not enough.

Not only should the city install two plaques -- one for Johnson, one for Blount -- under the first two spans of the Walnut Street Bridge, it should also begin to calculate financial damages for each man's family.

We should pay reparations.

By day, Johnson did carpentry work for local churches. At night, he worked in the pool hall near the state line. If his annual income was $400, he would have made $16,000 over 40 years.

By today's standards, that's nearly $300,000.

And waiting in line behind the story of Ed Johnson, there is a long and violent canon of similar stories: of black men lynched, abused, disenfranchised, castrated, murdered, terrorized and enslaved throughout our nation's history.

We owe them, too.

"In America there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his reparations essay in the Atlantic. "We believe white dominance to be a fact of the inert past, a delinquent debt that can be made to disappear if only we don't look."

To talk about Ferguson is to talk about Ed Johnson. What happened in Ferguson has always been about more than what happened in Ferguson.

People ask if something like that could happen here.

It already has.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.


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