Rosa Lee Ingram and her two boys were sentenced to death for the murder of a white landowner, and sexual offender in rural Georgia in 1948. The case was a superb illustration of Cold War racial protest politics, and it helped to overturn Jim Crow legislation in Georgia’s southwest corner.
Civil rights advocates from across the country flocked to Ingram’s rescue. Ingram was working on a farmstead she sharecropped outside Ellaville, Georgia, in November 1947 when a white neighbor, John Stratford, approached her aggressively about some livestock that had wandered onto his property.
Stratford sexually assaulted Ingram, and her sons, 16-year-old Wallace Ingram and 14-year-old Sammie Lee Ingram came to her rescue with farm equipment as she fought him off.
Authorities charged the three Ingrams with murder when Stratford died from multiple hits to the head. The three were then sentenced to death during a one-day trial before an all-white jury. Ingram’s second son, Charles, was acquitted owing to a lack of evidence in a separate trial.
During the post-World War II era, when the southern legal system and Jim Crow were being scrutinized, the case attracted national attention. Members of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) came to support S. Hawkins Dykes, a local white lawyer appointed to the case.
The Civil Rights Congress (CRC) began raising cash and spreading awareness about the Ingrams’ case. The Ingrams filed an appeal in 1948, and Georgia courts reduced the death sentences to life imprisonment and refused to pursue the case further. The NAACP and the CRC’s formal protests against the ruling stagnated due to strategic differences and the southern legal system’s continued influence.
On behalf of Rosa Lee Ingram and her sons, black women activists emerged as a key political voice, frequently working across traditional racial and social divides. The CRC, for example, backed the formation of the National Committee to Free the Ingram Family, led by Mary Church Terrell. The group asked the United Nations to look into the Ingram issue as a question of both human and women’s rights. Sojourners for Truth and Justice aided in the lawsuit, urging President Harry Truman to intervene.
These women’s organizations were instrumental in keeping the Ingram family’s tale alive in the press into the 1950s. After being deemed “model prisoners,” the Ingrams were eventually released on parole in 1959.