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Issue 120, Spring 2023

Police search men during the riots in Columbia, Tennessee, February 27, 1946 © Fox Photos/Getty Images

T he trouble in Tennessee began on the morning of February 25, 1946, when Gladys Stephenson, a thirty-seven-year-old domestic worker, marched into the local Castner Knott department store in the small city of Columbia, Tennessee, accompanied by her son James, a nineteen-year-old Navy veteran who had served two years in the Pacific. Gladys was in a foul mood because she had been charged nearly double the original estimate for the repair of her radio, and when she got the radio home it still didn’t work. She complained loudly about the shoddy repair, something that Billy Fleming, the store’s white radio repairman, considered to be out of bounds for a Black woman in the Jim Crow South. As the Stephensons were leaving the store, James Stephenson and Billy Fleming exchanged challenging glances. Billy suddenly threw a punch at James, and James, who had been a boxer in the Navy, sent Fleming flying through the store’s window. The brawl tumbled out into the street with Billy and two other white men piling on James. When Police Chief Walter Griffin arrived, both Stephensons were arrested and taken to the Columbia jail. The white men walked away. James and his mother admitted to their role in the melee and were fined fifty dollars each. But instead of being released, they were transferred to the Maury County Jail. That’s because John Fleming, Billy’s father, had filed attempted murder charges against them. Although no one in Columbia could have imagined it then, a dispute over a $13.75 radio repair bill was about to set off a chain of events that would finally propel the civil rights struggle onto the front pages of America’s newspapers.

One of the realities of post–World War II America was the bigotry and violence that greeted returning African American soldiers and sailors. When the United States first entered the conflict, fewer than eight thousand Blacks served in the country’s segregated armed forces. They filled mostly menial jobs—stewards, cooks, mess attendants, orderlies, drivers, stevedores. In the regular army, there were about thirty-six hundred Black soldiers but only five Black officers, and three of those were chaplains, according to political scientist Christopher S. Parker. By the time the war ended, the military was still rigidly segregated, but more than a million African Americans had served, many in combat roles. These veterans rightly expected to be treated as full citizens of the nation they had just fought to defend, but returning to the Jim Crow South, where two-thirds of them lived, they were confronted with a sharp rise in lynchings, beatings, and other acts of violence. These crimes were generally condoned—and often instigated—by law enforcement.

A few hours after James Stephenson and his mother had been arrested on the attempted murder charges, a crowd of white men, egged on by an inebriated John Fleming, had gathered outside the jail. Columbia, once a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, had an ugly history of lynchings. Some were fresh memories. Little more than a dozen years earlier, a seventeen-year-old boy named Cordie Cheek had been falsely accused of attempted rape by a twelve-year-old white girl—the girl had been paid a dollar by her brother to make the allegation. After a Maury County grand jury refused to indict Cheek, a lynch mob organized by several town officials “arrested” Cheek. The teen was paraded before a cheering crowd of men, women, and children; he was then castrated and hanged from a tree. When it was done, the rope was cut up and pieces were passed around as souvenirs.

Rumors were flying that a rope for the Stephensons had already been purchased. When word reached Columbia’s Black community, dozens of men, many of them veterans and a number of them armed, began gathering in the Black business district, a two-block strip of barbershops, pool halls, cafes, and churches that Columbia’s white residents derisively referred to as Mink Slide. Hoping to avoid escalation, two of the Black community’s patriarchs—James Morton, who owned a funeral parlor, and Julius Blair, proprietor of a soda fountain—made an urgent appeal to Sheriff J. J. Underwood to release the Stephensons. Morton and Blair offered to post bond if the sheriff would release mother and son into their custody. Underwood had no appetite for lynchings and agreed this was the best course. At about five o’clock that evening, James Stephenson and his mother were spirited out the back door of the jail. James briefly took refuge with the other men in Mink Slide, but it was quickly decided that his presence would only serve as a provocation. He was smuggled out of town to Nashville, about forty-five miles away, and boarded a train to Chicago.

As darkness settled, the crowd of white men had grown into a mob. The Black men took up defensive positions on rooftops and in windows; they turned off all the lights and then shot out the streetlights. Hearing the gunfire, four Columbia policemen began to advance down the street toward Mink Slide. The white mob trailed behind. “Here they come,” shouted a voice from the darkness. Shots rang out and the four policemen were peppered with buckshot. The police beat a quick retreat, as did the mob. Sheriff Underwood, who at one point during the day brandished a machine gun to keep the white mob from storming the jail, realized he was witnessing a disaster in the making and called the governor for help. He then did his best to keep the two sides apart until reinforcements arrived in the form of about two hundred Tennessee guardsmen and seventy-five Highway Patrol troopers.

Rarely in the Jim Crow South had African Americans felt sufficiently emboldened to collectively take up arms to defend themselves against a lynch mob. But it was not wholly unexpected—by either side. In 1942, the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s largest African American paper, launched its “Double V” campaign—victory over Germany and Japan abroad, and victory over Jim Crow at home. The idea took root among returning Black veterans who were determined to fight for their rightful place in America. Meanwhile, Walter White, the NAACP’s executive director, had been hearing reports that a number of Southern towns and cities and a few in the North had been stockpiling machine guns, tear gas, and other anti-riot equipment. “This material was to be used, as some officials of these cities and towns frankly admitted, in case of trouble caused by two groups—Negro veterans and organized labor,” White wrote in his memoir.

The guard unit, under the command of Major General Jacob Dickinson, understood its role was to keep the two sides apart and to serve as peacemakers. Lynn Bomar, chief of the Highway Patrol, had other ideas. Bomar, a bald, burly all-American football star who’d played at Vanderbilt and later professionally for the New York Giants, believed his mission was to enforce the unwritten rules of Jim Crow and restore the customary protocols of white supremacy. His first move was to demand that the state guard deputize the white mob, which had now grown to more than two hundred, and provide them with guns and ammunition from the local armory. Dickinson refused. Bomar, Dickinson, and Sheriff Underwood then agreed that their men would take up defensive positions around Mink Slide and wait until seven the next morning before deciding their next move. But once again, Bomar had other ideas.

At six o’clock on the morning of the next day—an hour before the agreed upon time to consider peaceful options—Bomar led his men on a rampage through Mink Slide. What occurred next could only be described as a police riot. They shot out windows, kicked in doors, looted homes and businesses, smashed up furniture and threw it in the street. At Morton’s funeral home, drapes and upholstery were slashed, embalming fluid was splashed over everything, and someone scrawled “KKK” in large white letters on the side of a casket. At Julius Blair’s soda fountain, state troopers helped themselves to cigarettes, cigars, candy, and ice cream. A barbershop owned by Blair’s son, Saul, had its mirrors smashed and its chairs slashed. As Bomar’s men swept through the business district, arresting and beating every Black man in sight, they encountered little resistance. Two state troopers were slightly injured by a shotgun blast. In all, more than a hundred Black citizens were rounded up and taken to jail while dozens of white citizens cheered and jeered.

Numerous incidents of beatings, abuse, and humiliation of Black servicemen during this period were duly chronicled by the nation’s vibrant African American press. But the stories that dominated the front pages of the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, the New York Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Afro-American, and others were generally ignored by a white press that was indifferent to the mistreatment of Black veterans. Many white editors seemed to consider such occurrences either too routine to be newsworthy—or too shameful to publicize. Newspapers in the South, particularly in smaller communities, shared an attitude that the returning Black GIs needed to be reminded of their proper place.

The Columbia story was page-one news in the Nashville papers. The Nashville Banner declared: “Highway Patrolmen and Guardsmen Bring Rioting Negroes Under Control.” In an editorial, the local Columbia Daily Herald warned that “the white people of the South” would not tolerate this sort of effrontery from Blacks: “The Negro has not a chance of gaining supremacy over a sovereign people and the sooner the better element of the Negro race realize this, the better off the race will be.”

Over the course of the next several days, testimony was coerced from the Mink Slide prisoners by means of threats and beatings. Two were shot dead in the sheriff’s office for allegedly trying to escape. Bomar later explained how he subdued a third prisoner during the fatal scuffle in the sheriff’s office: “I pulled out my pistol and put my foot on his neck and told him to lay there and not give us any more trouble.” No one was ever charged in the killing of the two prisoners, but twenty-five Black men, seemingly selected at random, were charged with the attempted murder of the four lightly injured Columbia policemen. Of those twenty-five, at least nine were veterans.

T he NAACP’s Walter White knew that he had to change the narrative. His organization had experienced a period of exponential growth during the war years, its membership rolls ballooning from about 50,000 in 1940 to 400,000 by 1946. White was a savvy political operator with many friends in high places. He understood the moment and also the need to rally public opinion to his cause. Soon after the violence in Tennessee, White formed the National Committee for Justice in Columbia and recruited former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as co-chair. Albert Einstein, Sinclair Lewis, Henry Luce, Helen Hayes, Langston Hughes, and Joe Louis were among the notables who lent their name to the cause. White also orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to the White House and to Attorney General (and future Supreme Court justice) Tom Clark, a Texan who was sympathetic to civil rights. But White was still having trouble getting the national press to pay attention to the emerging civil rights struggle, which he knew would be critical in swaying public opinion and building momentum for legislative change.

Clark, with President Harry Truman’s blessing, ordered a federal grand jury in Nashville to look into whether the civil rights of African Americans had been violated during Bomar’s police riot. This did not sit well with U.S. District Court judge Elmer Davies, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who firmly believed that “outside agitators” were soiling the good name of the South. It was hardly a surprise when the all-white grand jury found no wrongdoing on the part of the Highway Patrol and concluded that the deaths of the two Black men in police custody were justified. Judge Davies said the verdict “should put an end to the irresponsible and scurrilous rumors that have been so freely circulated over the country.” The African American press reacted with justified outrage. “Columbia Whitewash” declared the Chicago Defender’s front-page headline. The national press merely shrugged. The New York Times ran a brief story on page 25.

Meanwhile, the criminal trial was about to get underway. The NAACP’s defense team had been led from the beginning by a young Thurgood Marshall, but the future Supreme Court justice was stricken with pneumonia in July and was still recuperating when the trial opened in September. The defense was now in the hands of Z. Alexander Looby, the leading Black attorney in Nashville who had come to the U.S. from Antigua as a teen. He was assisted by Maurice Weaver, a white labor lawyer from Chattanooga, and the NAACP’s Leon Ransom, a professor at Howard Law School.

The proceedings had been moved from Maury County to neighboring Lawrence County, a hardscrabble farming region on the Alabama border. Lawrenceburg, the county seat, was a “sundown” town, meaning Looby and Ransom had to drive 165 miles back and forth each day because no hotel would have them. An all-white jury of twelve men was selected after more than seven hundred potential jurors had been examined—most were excused after frankly admitting they could not give a Black man a fair trial.

Outside of Tennessee, the trial of twenty-five Black men charged with attempted murder stirred little interest in white America. Walter White feared that another opportunity to prick the nation’s conscience might come to naught. In desperation, the NAACP leader sent a telegram to an old friend, the journalist Vincent Sheean, then living in Vermont. White and Sheean knew each other from various progressive causes, and White had a favor to ask: Would Sheean be willing to travel to the heart of Ku Klux Klan country and write about the trial?

In the 1940s Sheean’s was one of the most celebrated bylines in journalism. He had covered the Spanish Civil War with his friend Ernest Hemingway and he’d reported on some of Edward R. Murrow’s pioneering radio programs during the London Blitz. Sheean was not an obvious choice for the job. He had not covered a domestic story since his days as a cub reporter with the fledgling New York Daily News in the early 1920s. But he had grown up in a scruffy sundown town in central Illinois, a place called Pana that had been the scene of its own notorious race war the year before his birth. After years of reporting overseas, Sheean may have been a bit of a stranger in his own country, but he knew Jim Crow.

White offered to raise money to pay Sheean for his services, but Sheean proposed taking the story to the New York Herald Tribune, which had published much of his work in the past. Editors there agreed that Sheean would write as he pleased, and that the Herald Tribune would syndicate his work to other interested newspapers.

The prosecution began calling its witnesses on September 19. It mattered not at all to Judge Joe Ingram whether a confession from a Black witness had been obtained by threats or beating. “We’ll have no further reference to the beating of this witness,” the judge admonished the defense team. “Pass on to something else.” The prosecutor, a foul-tempered man named Paul Bumpus, treated the defense team with contempt. Weaver and Looby had to repeatedly ask Bumpus to stop referring to Black witnesses in racially offensive terms. Sheean’s first dispatch on September 27 landed like an artillery shell. “A central theme in the American tragedy of our time is being developed day by day in the county courthouse at Lawrenceburg, Tenn., surrounded by local indifference and national unconcern,” he began. He went on:

Twenty-five Negroes from the nearby town of Columbia are on trial for attempted murder as a result of a night of terror on February 25 last, when both whites and blacks in a few hours were swept by all the dark forces of unreason, and the frightened Negroes of the whole area gathered to defend themselves or die together in the single block of shabby little shops, their Broadway and their Fifth Avenue, known in Columbia as “Mink Slide.”

He brought a foreign correspondent’s perspective to the Columbia story, casting it as an “American Lidice,” a reference to the Czech village where in June 1942 Hitler ordered the arrest and summary execution of all males over the age of fifteen—173 in all—in retaliation for the assassination of a senior Nazi official. Collective punishment and the classification of certain groups— Jews, Slavs, Roma, homosexuals—as “sub-human” were integral parts of Nazi Germany’s racial policy, ideas that Hitler borrowed directly from the racial caste system of the Jim Crow South. Sheean, who was among the first journalists to anticipate the Holocaust, had no trouble seeing the parallels between Hitler’s treatment of his Untermensch and Jim Crow’s treatment of African Americans.

His approach to the Lawrenceburg trial was unorthodox, but his reference to Lidice was effective and well-timed—if white Americans had not been paying much attention to the case against twenty-five Black men in Tennessee, they were well-informed about the war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg that was about to render its verdict on a dozen top Nazi officials.

Sheean followed this story with another about the casual flimsiness of the state’s case and its expectation that the jury would convict the Black men no matter what the evidence (or lack thereof) showed. “They would appear to be, quite simply, hostages for the Negro community,” he wrote.

By this time, Sheean’s stories were being picked up by major newspapers across the country. In addition to the Herald Tribune, the stories received prominent play in the Washington Post, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Record, the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the nearby Louisville Courier-Journal, and others. The stories were often accompanied by a picture of Sheean, introducing him as the “famous war correspondent and political observer.” A decade earlier, when Sheean and Hemingway reported from Spain, their mere presence made headlines. And just as Walter White had hoped, the famous correspondent’s presence in the courtroom was turning the trial into a national cause célèbre. This did not go over well with the citizenry of Lawrenceburg. Sheean became persona non grata. No restaurant would serve him; no one would cash his checks. At one point during the trial, Bomar, the ex-football player, threatened physical assault.

In his third story, Sheean focused on Maurice Weaver, the only white member of the defense team. “Weaver actually seemed to question the doctrines of white supremacy in some of his court arguments and examinations,” he wrote. Looby and Ransom, the two African American defense lawyers, were low-key and restrained; Weaver was angry and confrontational. “It is not at all unusual for white lawyers to defend Negroes in the South,” Sheean noted, “but they are supposed to use the language and inhabit the psychological climate of the white race. Weaver does not do this.”

When the time came for Bumpus to give his summation to the jury, he abandoned all pretense of arguing the evidence—or anything at all about the February violence in Columbia. Instead he tried to make the case about the “outsiders”—namely Sheean—“the filthy, loathsome birds of prey [who]…swooped upon Tennessee’s tragedy, and by means of the grossest misrepresentation of fact and most grotesque distortion of truth…poured out upon the American public a flood of sewage that would nauseate even a skunk.”

Judge Ingram gave the case to the jury at 3:07 on a Friday afternoon. At 5:02 the verdict came back: Not guilty for twenty-three of the twenty-five defendants. The jury’s decision stunned the courtroom and the nation. Defense attorney Weaver let out a delighted whoop. Prosecutor Bumpus, befuddled, left the courtroom without a word. A scuffle broke out when two press photographers exchanged words with a state trooper and a court officer. It was a resounding and totally unexpected victory for the defense team, which promptly appealed the dubious convictions of the two men who had been found guilty. Both saw their convictions set aside when the prosecution abandoned the case. Several factors contributed to the not guilty verdicts. Historian Gail Williams O’Brien, author of a definitive study of the Columbia case, found that many in Lawrenceburg resented the notoriety the trial had brought to their town, and blamed Bumpus. Bumpus admitted that in Lawrence County he was about as popular “as a polecat in a perfume factory.” Certainly, the reasoned defense mounted by the NAACP’s lawyers proved persuasive, but Sheean’s stories also played a key role. It’s unlikely any of the twelve jurors had read the stories, but they knew the nation was watching and that they would be judged accordingly. Vincent Sheean had put Jim Crow justice on trial.

The national attention that Sheean’s stories brought to the case angered many readers in the South. And when the jury returned its verdict, it was received by more than a few Southern editorial writers with a kind of smug satisfaction, as if it proved there was no such thing as Jim Crow. An editorial in the Charlotte News under the odd headline “Negative Victory at Lawrenceburg” was typical: “The acquittal spikes the guns of those vociferous critics who seized upon the Columbia incident not to defend the Negroes involved but to indict the South.”

In his final story, Sheean wrote, “The verdict given in Lawrenceburg last week…was the kind of thing that makes us realize the full splendor of our destiny as a nation.” But he acknowledged that “the Negroes have a long hard row to hoe, but those who wish to help them will have to learn how to appeal to the good will of Southern white men, our brothers and our fellow citizens, who have so magnificently proved their mettle by this verdict.”

Twenty-four of twenty-six defendants on trial, May 26, 1946 © AP Photo

There was still one piece of unfinished business from the Columbia police riot. Two other Black men had been charged with attempted murder in connection with the wounding of a state trooper during the riot. Their case went to trial in the Columbia courthouse in November. By that time, Thurgood Marshall had regained his health and led the defense. He won an acquittal for one of the defendants; the other was found guilty but was quickly pardoned by the governor. After the verdict, Marshall made light of being the “least popular Negro in America,” but it was no joke when a lynch party “arrested” him later that evening as he was driving back to Nashville accompanied by Looby, Weaver, and journalist Harry Raymond. The lynch mob included local police who bundled Marshall into a police car and drove down a dirt road to an isolated spot along the Duck River. But the mob’s nerve wilted when they realized they had been followed by Marshall’s companions, including two white men—Weaver and Raymond. Marshall was released unharmed.

Vincent Sheean often judged himself and his work in a harsh light, but he was deeply satisfied with the trial’s outcome and his contribution to the cause of civil rights. “It marks a milestone in progress in the South. And, so help me, I did it—the interaction of circumstances did it, but I set them off: it would never have happened without me. For once, I have done something useful, practically useful, by writing,” he wrote in his diary. Sheean’s stories undoubtedly played a role in sparing twenty-five African American men unjust prison sentences, but also crucial were Walter White’s persistent campaign to put the civil rights struggle on America’s front pages and his shrewd decision to recruit Sheean for the job. For Sheean, doing “something useful” meant getting the country’s leading newspapers and their predominantly white readerships to see the systemic abuse of African Americans as a shameful stain on the nation’s character.

Change did not come overnight, but Sheean’s reporting from Lawrenceburg signaled an awakening. His friend—and friendly rival— John Gunther, author of the wildly successful “Inside…” book series, admitted that he was shocked by what he saw as he traveled through the South to gather material for his best-selling Inside USA, published less than a year after the Lawrenceburg verdict. “I had heard words like ‘prejudice’ and ‘discrimination’ all my life,” he wrote, “but I had no concrete knowledge, no fingertip realization, of what lies behind them.” Racism, he declared, was “the most gravid, cancerous and pressing of all American problems,” and pointed to Sheean’s trial coverage—“some of the finest journalism of our time”—as a turning point in the nation’s understanding.

As public opinion began to shift and white America became increasingly uncomfortable with the institutionalized mistreatment of its African American citizens, President Truman gained the leverage he needed to act despite opposition from Southern Democrats. Two months after the Lawrenceburg verdict, Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. The blue-ribbon panel’s report, “To Secure These Rights,” offered an unsparing examination of the nation’s mistreatment of its Black citizens and a blueprint for the modern civil rights movement. The committee condemned segregation as immoral and rejected the doctrine of “separate but equal” as repugnant because “it brands the Negro with the mark of inferiority and asserts that he is not fit to associate with white people.” It singled out the abuse of Black servicemen as a particularly odious injustice.

When the report was released in December 1947, the segregationist wing of Truman’s party was not pleased and warned the president that the South would not “take it lying down.” But Truman was undeterred. What rankled him most was the discrimination that African Americans continued to face in the military. Tired of waiting for Congress to act, the president took matters into his own hands and signed an executive order on July 26, 1948, that abolished segregation in the military. In an election year—and facing an election that he was expected to lose—it was an act of uncommon political courage. The next day, the story about the desegregation of the armed forces led the front page of every major newspaper in America.

Tom Hundley

Tom Hundley, a senior editor at the Pulitzer Center, is writing a biography of Vincent Sheean.