Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching that Launched 100 Years of Federalism

Naji Mujahid
Phil. & Meth. Of History
Professor Jowers
December 1, 2012

Book Review

Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching that Launched 100 Years of Federalism. By Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips Jr. (New York: Faber and Faber, c. 1999. Pp. xviii, 394. $30.00, ISBN 0-571-19952-6.)

In Contempt of Court, the authors, Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips, Jr., produce an impressive historical narrative.  They come from two professional backgrounds; Curriden as a journalist and Phillips as an attorney and legal historian.  What they exhibit in their collective work are in-depth research of sources that were almost 100 years old and an impressive ability to imagine and recreate scenes for the reader, based on the available evidence.  The sources used include court records, newspaper accounts, and the private papers of some of the people involved.  Missing from their research are many of the court records from the Hamilton County Courthouse in Chattanooga, where the lynching took place.  Unfortunately, it burned down.  Nevertheless, the story is a seemingly accurate portrayal of the events.  “Unlike many books documenting the travels of cases through the state and federal court systems, this book spends a great deal of time on the characters and sequence of events surrounding the litigation. This is not a story, but rather a full-blown documentary told with detail and amazing clarity. This is quite a testament to the research underlying the story.”[1]

In 1906, Nevada Taylor, a young white woman was raped by an unidentified assailant.  Her initial account of her assault was that she did not know who her attacker was, or even his race, however she “thought” it was a Negro.  In the days to come, the authorities, led by Sheriff Joseph Shipp attempted find the rapist, but to no avail.  Eventually, they had a breakthrough in the case after a reward of $375 was offered.  In an effort to claim the reward, a local main came forth with a tale of how he saw a “suspicious looking Negro” at the train station near the crime scene.  He later identified Ed Johnson.  Johnson was subsequently arrested and the following night, a mob attempted to steal him from the local jail but was thwarted by Sheriff Shipp and Judge Samuel McReynolds.  McReynolds appeased the mob by promising a speedy trial and conviction.

It was this promise that doomed Johnson because McReynolds gave this promise primacy over Johnson’s right to a fair trial.  Johnson was hastily convicted in three days and given the death penalty.  His lawyers, who had been threatened and attacked during the course of the trial, encouraged Johnson to waive his right to appeal, reasoning that, “You can accept the verdict of the court and die in an orderly, lawful manner.  Or you can die horribly by the hands of the mob…. Do you want to die in an orderly fashion or do you want a lynch mob to take you from your cell, drag you into the streets, beat you, and hang you in front of everyone….?”  It is a lawyer’s duty to inform their client of all the possible consequences of their decisions and, unfortunately, a lynching was a distinct possibility, but the lawyers “had betrayed their client by encouraging him to waive his rights to appeal.”

This is where Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins came in to the picture.  Both of them were Black lawyers in Chattanooga and they were appalled at the way the trial was carried out and they convinced Johnson to let them handle the appeal.  Johnson accepted and the two lawyers set to the business of filing the appeal with the Tennessee Supreme Court.  The court ruled that it was not within their jurisdiction to extend the federal protections of the Bill of Rights to State cases.  However, they were willing to give Johnson a stay of execution in order to give his new lawyers time to appeal to the federal Supreme Court.

Parden eventually made his way to Washington, DC and was given an audience with Associate Judge John Marshall Harlan.  Parden cited the Constitutional violations that had taken place in the Johnson Case, including the Fourth Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments among them.  He went on to explain that two of the lawyers appointed to represent Johnson had never handled a criminal case before, that the defense was “denied enough time to investigate adequately and research properly the case against their client”, that Blacks were systematically excluded from the jury, and that the case should have been moved to another jurisdiction because “the atmosphere in the community was so poisoned that there was no way that Ed Johnson could have received a fair trial from an impartial jury.”  Furthermore, he pointed out that the jury was clearly tainted and biased because two of them made derogatory remarks and threatening gestures at Johnson during the trial.  “Parden was asking the Court to intervene directly in a state-court criminal trial for the first time in the nation’s history”.

After careful consideration and conference with the other Judges, the Supreme Court of the United States did exactly that.  And this is where the plot thickens.  The following day the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee in general, and Sheriff Shipp and Judge McReynolds in particular, were in for a rude awakening; the Supreme Court had decided to hear the case and were suspending Johnson’s death sentence.  This did not go over well.  The press, the public, and the elected officials of Tennessee verbalized their contempt of the Supreme Court intervening into their State’s business.  And then they went beyond verbal contempt.  The Sheriff, the Judge, and the District Attorney all stood idly by while a mob gathered to apprehend Johnson who was now under state protection.  Johnson, who had adamantly maintained his innocence from the day he was arrested until the moment he died, was lynched that night. His last words were, “God bless you all, I am an innocent man”.

Frustrated, the Supreme Court pondered what to do.  Eventually they decided to charge the members of the mob, Sheriff Shipp, and others with contempt of court and convene a trial where the Solicitor General would serve as prosecutor and the Judges as judge and jury.  This has never happened before or since.  Shipp, et al. were found guilty and given short sentences.  In this way, the Court fortified its power and influence in the hierarchy of American law and order.  However, because Johnson was killed, his case was never heard and therefore the Constitutional issues were not decided.

One of them, the right to counsel, was not established until another Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainright (1963), established that “The right of an indigent defendant in a criminal trial to have the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial, and petitioner’s trial and conviction without the assistance of counsel violated the Fourteenth Amendment.”[2]  Then, in 1970, the Court held in McMann v. Richardson that “[T]he right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance of counsel.”  In other words, that counsel for the defendant is able to give due diligence to the case.  More recently, in March of 2012, the Supreme Court further extended this Sixth Amendment right to the plea bargain process.

This book has been highly regarded, even winning the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award.  It’s accolades notwithstanding, Contempt of Court has not been without some criticism, “The story of the Johnson litigation testifies powerfully to the pervasiveness of racist poison that saturated the unreconstructed South. But Contempt of Court exaggerates its legal significance”[3].  However, in stark contrast to this view, former Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall was of the opinion that the “The import of the Sheriff Shipp case on the federal court’s authority over state criminal cases should not be underestimated”.  In this writer’s opinion, this book should be of interest to anyone interested in post-reconstruction era American history, legal history, or because of its narrative style, anyone inclined towards John Grisham style legal drama.

[1] John B. Gates. Article 10.  Santa Clara Law Review: 2000; Vol. 40. 4.

[2] Gideon v. Wainright.  US Supreme Court Center.  Accessed December 1, 2012.

[3] Hugh Davis Graham.  Book Review: Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism.  The American Journal of Legal History , Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan., 2000), pp. 91-93.  Accessed December 1, 2012.


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