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Pictured are a models of the three central figures in the Ed Johnson Memorial by sculptor Jerome Meadows.

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Ed Johnson

In the early evening of March 19, five days ago, dozens of Chattanoogans gathered on the south side of the Walnut Street Bridge to remember the life and death of Ed Johnson.

Not that long ago, many of us had never heard of Ed Johnson. At least, many of us in white Chattanooga hadn't.

Black Chattanooga knew the story. After a kangaroo court-trial, Johnson, accused of raping a white woman, was lynched from the second span of the bridge by a mob and complicit Hamilton County sheriff.

(In 1893, Alfred Blount had been lynched from the bridge's first span. In 1885, Charles Williams was lynched at the Hamilton County jail. In 1897, Charles Brown was lynched from a tree on the banks of Chickamauga Creek, according to Equal Justice Initiative's research.)

To many black Chattanoogans, the Walnut Street Bridge was never a symbol of Chattanooga's flowering renaissance; it was a legacy of racist violence. Many black folks wouldn't even set foot on the bridge. Wouldn't even walk across it.

Then, in 2000, the Rev. Paul McDaniel — a local, well-known African-American pastor and former county commissioner — led efforts to legally clear Johnson's name.

Then, local attorney LeRoy Phillips Jr. and journalist Mark Curriden — both white — published "Contempt of Court," a meticulously detailed retelling of Johnson's story.

Then, local African-American educator LaFrederick Thirkill began restoring the cemetery grounds where Johnson is buried. And writing and producing a play about his story. And he started a college scholarship for local students in Johnson's name.

Then, Eric Atkins, a local African-American activist and leader, worked with lawmakers to pass Tennessee House Joint Resolution 701, a state resolution recognizing Johnson.

Then, local filmmaker Linda Duvoisin, who is white, began her documentary on Johnson.

Then, in 2016, a local group — white and black — formed the Ed Johnson Project. They met — historian, court interpreter, writer, lawyer, educators and more — in a small room at the Camp House.

"We all shared one common goal. We believe remembering the Ed Johnson story has the power to help heal and unite our community," the project website proclaims.

They began planning a memorial.

And things kept changing.

Today, city and county leaders, once dismissive, have pledged open support of Johnson's memorial.

Individual donors and larger groups, especially the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, have been generous and supportive.

The project has held public meetings — documentary screening, discussion follows — throughout the county.

More than 40 presentations.

More than 3,000 people attending.

"We hope to begin construction of the memorial itself in early 2020, with a completion date of later that year," said Mariann Martin, a local educator and one of the original project members.

Thirkill and local poets have taken Johnson's story into public schools, holding student workshops.

"We see Ed Johnson walking, a strong black man," wrote JaMaal H. Macon Jr., a stand-out African-American freshman at The Howard School. "I see Ed Johnson walking inside of me, the strength and sanity he had."

Tuesday evening, before the bridge crowd, JaMaal read his poem; as a basket of Lenten roses and white daffodils was passed around, I couldn't help but think:

Ed Johnson has changed this city.

"Young and old, black and white," said Atkins. "All walks of life, we can have a real conversation about something so horrific as lynching. And if that is a starting point, then hallelujah just for that."

During the evening, county commissioner Greg Martin — he authored a recent opinion piece on Johnson's jailhouse religious conversion, yet also voted against funding the memorial — spoke briefly to the crowd. Atkins responded.

"I've read about the Apostle Paul saying remove these thorns from my flesh," Atkins said. "We need this thorn removed from the body of this community. We needs hearts to move. We've seen a change of hearts and minds in residents of this city. Just as Ed Johnson had a conversion, we have seen a conversion. That is what will propel us to go forward."

Near the end of Tuesday's event, local African-American attorney Ardena Garth reminded the crowd of the timeless film "To Kill a Mockingbird." It's been screened today and Wednesday at two local movie theaters.

Go see it, she said.

"This is a fictional event we can compare to the real history of Chattanooga," she said.

Much work remains. There are many Ed Johnsons today. The slow lynching that is the criminal justice system. The slow lynching of Chattanooga poverty.

Yet, something has changed. At least one thorn is being removed.

"We are walking across the bridge, aren't we?" said Atkins. "We are here."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329.

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