Black lawyers led Black struggle

Jr. | 4/12/2011, 4:34 p.m.

Johnson's father contacted a reluctant Noah Parden to represent Johnson pro bono on appeal. Styles Hutchins, his senior law partner, actually consummated the pro bono representation of Johnson amid a lynch mob atmosphere.

In 1875, Hutchins was one of the first Black lawyers to graduate from the University of South Carolina Law School. Hutchins, an admirer of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and also an ordained minister, was a paradigm for Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He used the bully pulpit to vigorously attack white supremacy. He had also been a state representative in Tennessee.

When Hutchins moved back to Georgia and opened a law office, as its first Black attorney, the Georgia Legislature passed an ex post facto law requiring attorneys with law degrees from other states to take a bar examination. He passed the bar examination and, afterwards, moved to Chattanooga.

By shouldering the appeal, these Black attorneys became outcasts in both the Black and white communities. Tennessee opposed an appeal. Even DuBois insisted that only a white attorney should represent Johnson before the U.S. Supreme Court. Both attorneys were puzzled over DuBois equating white skin with competency.

Arsonists attempted to burn down their law office. A few days later, Parden convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in a state court proceeding to save an innocent Black man. This argument had never succeeded before in the High Court.

Advocates of states' rights in Chattanooga became irate after hearing of the stay of execution. They believed that no federal court had jurisdiction to review a state court action. This issue was supposed to have been resolved by the Tilden-Hayes Compromise.

The KKK assembled a lynch mob. Sheriff Joseph Shipp, a former Confederate officer, agreed to leave the jail virtually unguarded. Johnson was hanged but an impatient mob, seeking an instant death, became a firing squad like in Sean Bell et al.

Like the police in Bell's assassination, the vigilantes were sure that no one would punish them upon the local judge's advice. He basically lectured them on Dred Scott and cited a case in Georgia: An Indian had been lynched in defiance of a court order with impunity.

Blacks boycotted. White leaders blamed the Supreme Court for the lynching. A curfew was imposed only on Blacks. Only Black taverns were closed. A local, white minister condemned the lynching using Galatians 6:7 as his text. The Supreme Court felt disrespected and it promised to get even.

This prosecution of a lynch mob in the Supreme Court and the subsequent sentencing were unprecedented. The Supreme Court was not able to rely on the U.S. Justice Department which would have had to use a local grand jury to indict the defendants and a local petit jury to convict them of civil rights violations. This was an insurmountable barrier.

Nonetheless, only six of the 27 defendants--including Sheriff Shipp--were convicted in the Supreme Court for failing to protect a Black prisoner. The severest sentence was 90 days in a federal jail. Nevertheless, white judges and law enforcement agents would hastily attack the court for undermining states rights.