Letters of the Law

The Start of a ‘Long Overdue Conversation About Justice’

Thanks to President Bill Harbison for his February President’s Page about the lynching of Ed Johnson and the contempt trial of Sheriff Shipp (“Contempt Case Helped Develop Due Process Concept”). I share President Harbison’s belief that “... Tennessee lawyers should be aware of the sad and difficult parts of our history as well as the good and uplifting parts.” There are “good and uplifting parts” for certain for which I am thankful, but there are parts of our legal history for which a Tennessee lawyer devoted to justice should feel outrage and shame.

For the first four decades of the 20th century Tennessee “justice” turned a blind eye when white mobs lynched black men. In a period of less than one year, 1917-1918, white mobs in Memphis, Lexington, Dyersburg and Estill Springs burned black men at the stake, sometimes before a crowd of thousands.

The law did not intervene to prevent these brutal terrorist murders, that if performed today by ISIS, would be rightly denounced as savage and inhumane. Nor did the law choose to prosecute the terrorist murderers.

In Dyersburg, the mob actually held a kangaroo trial in the circuit courtroom, electing judge, jury and prosecutor from their own number. The sheriff testified at the “trial.” The “jury” sentenced the defendant to death by burning and the sentence was carried out on a vacant lot near court square as thousands looked on. The defendants eyes were burned out, a red hot poker was jammed down his throat, and chained to a buggy axle he was burned alive. None of the participants were prosecuted. Why?

On May 31,1929, 19-year-old Joe Boxley was lynched near my home in Crockett County. The lynchers were known but never prosecuted. Why?

Until World War II African Americans in many parts of Tennessee lived in a terrorist police state. The law which should be an instrument of justice was used as an instrument of suppression and terror. One might reasonably ask why, for decades, did district attorneys, judges, governors, legislators, law enforcement officers tolerate murder?

Today we have a justice system that sends massive numbers of Tennesseans to prisons run for profit. We tolerate a system that provides little justice but huge profits.

While we are asking questions about justice ignored, should we not ask ourselves, why do we tolerate this?

President Harbison’s article is the first voice in an important, long overdue conversation about fundamental justice. Let’s talk.

— Jim Emison, 1987-88
TBA President, Alamo, Tenn.

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