Ed Johnson, a native of Chattanooga, has been honored in the city where he was born and lynched by a mob following his historic trial more than a century ago.
Johnson’s life was taken on the Walnut Street Bridge in 1906, and on Sunday, Sept. 19, he was immortalized in statue form at the same site, along with the Black attorneys who represented him.
The slain Chattanoogan was wrongfully sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the assault and rape of a white woman, but the United States Supreme Court granted him a stay of execution, making him the first Black man to receive the ruling and the trial the first criminal case in which the Supreme Court intervened.
Mayor Tim Kelly spoke during the memorial ceremony, beginning with a warm welcome and a “long, long overdue” apology. Johnson’s lynching, he argued, was “a grave injustice.” “I believe that this reconciliation process is really vital for the city.”
“A miscarriage of justice and a heinous act of violence put in motion a historic series of events that would go to the Supreme Court and set a landmark precedent for civil rights cases across the country,” Kelly said.
Before delivering a proclamation apologizing “to Mr. Ed Johnson for the miscarriage of justice that happened on March 19, 1906,” he continued, “The lynching of Ed Johnson was a tragic but essential chapter in Chattanooga’s history, and a chapter that for far too long has been ignored and dismissed.”
Noah Parden and Styles Hutchens defended Johnson. Due to the lawsuit, Parden became one of the first Black lawyers to appear before the United States Supreme Court.
Johnson was dragged from the jail where he was being held by an enraged mob, which included members of the local police force, and hanged from the second span of the Walnut Street Bridge on March 19, the day the Supreme Court granted a second stay for Johnson and two days after Parden met with U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.
Johnson’s final words from the bridge were, “God bless you all, I am an innocent man,” which are carved on his tombstone as well.
Following the lynching, both Parden and Hutchens departed the city for their own safety.
Johnson’s conviction was reversed by Hamilton County Criminal Judge Doug Meyer in February 2000. Symbolizing grace, courage, and compassion, the memorial now acts as a lasting reminder to the city.
“Mayor Tim Kelly gave a welcome message and an apology as the Ed Johnson Memorial Dedication got underway. Mayor Kelly commented, “This has been a long time coming, and the city has failed Ed Johnson.”
Dr. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., chair of Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies, delivered the keynote address, acknowledging the tragedy while reminding guests that this is just one little step forward in a much broader issue.
According to WTVC News Channel 9, he addressed the crowd, “It is rare in these challenging times that communities come together to recognize a grave wrong, a wrong that haunts.”
“America will not change, and Chattanooga will not change,” Dr. Glaude stated, “until it re-examines itself and determines what it genuinely means by the words democracy and freedom and that we interpret those words as practices rather than ends.”
The United States v. Shipp, the Supreme Court’s only criminal trial, resulted in then-Sheriff John F. Shipp and many others being charged with contempt of court for failing to provide adequate protection for Johnson despite many warnings and earlier lynching attempts. Shipp was only sentenced to 90 days in prison.
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