CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – Opal Jackson still carries the shotgun pellets in her leg.
On the night of April 19, 1980, a group of three Klansmen went on a shooting spree in a black neighborhood of Chattanooga. They used gasoline to set fire to a cross made of 2x4s where train tracks crossed over the road. Then, driving down the street firing two shotguns loaded with birdshot, the Klansmen injured four black women two blocks away.
Flying glass injured a fifth black woman. The brick wall near where she stood still bears the scars of the blast.
In the ensuing criminal trial, two Klansmen were acquitted and the third served a brief sentence. The rioting carried on for four days. The Reverend Jesse Jackson came to the city in an attempt to bring calm.
The president of the local NAACP chapter, George Key, reached out to the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and attorney Randolph McLaughlin, with one question: Could they take the case?
That federal civil lawsuit brought by the five black women against the Justice Knights of the Ku Klux Klan became a landmark case that developed a legal strategy used to pursue justice against hate groups to this day.
When McLaughlin met with the five women, the New York lawyer gave them a choice. They could seek compensation just for themselves and the injuries they sustained, or they could bring a federal, class action lawsuit on behalf of the black community in Chattanooga.
“I said, if we do that, we’ll try to get a federal court order preventing the Klan from ever doing this again to anyone in this city,” McLaughlin said. “And the women said, to a person, that’s what we want.”
McLaughlin, now a professor at Pace University School of Law, returned to Chattanooga for the first time Thursday evening to recount the story of the case at an event hosted by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. It was the reunion between the lawyer and only plaintiff in that case still alive – Opal Jackson – since the case concluded.
At least 150 crowded into the atrium of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center filling up the chairs and backing up along the walls. The cultural center sits on 9th Avenue – renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard in the aftermath of the shooting – between the site of the attack and the art deco federal courthouse where the case was heard.
The Chattanooga civil lawsuit argued the Klansmen violated the 1871 anti-Ku Klux Klan law passed when Ulysses S. Grant sat in the White House, which took aim at conspiracies intended to take away individuals’ civil rights. In the early 1980s, the law was more than 100 years old.
However, the Reconstruction-era law is still being applied today. It is the basis for a suit filed against the organizers of the deadly 2017 Charlottesville rally.
Brian Levin, director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said the 1871 law is one of several legal strategies at the disposal of attorneys seeking justice for individuals injured by hate groups. Since the time of civil rights pioneer Dred Scott, attorneys could use tort law to make their case and there are state-level civil rights laws too.
But with the 1871 law, “The advantage of using it is that, first, you get into federal court,” Levin said. “You certainly have a different kind atmosphere in federal district court I would say. … It enables, for instance, a bit of a streamlined kind of case if there’s an interstate conspiracy.”
McLaughlin said he developed the strategy because he was an African history and African-American studies major in college, immersing himself in the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction. When he became an attorney, he recalled the law and then looked it up.
According to Hilary Green, a history professor at the University of Alabama who focuses on Reconstruction, the anti-Klan statutes were started because of the massive influx of violence that grew out of the 1868 elections.
“There’s a lot of violence at the polls,” Green said of that time period. “Communities have self-defense groups to protect their communities from these night riders. You also have open assassinations of any political rival.”
Congress passed the 1871 statute, Green said, in order to give teeth to the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The courts pared the law back during the Jim Crow era, but it remains on the books. The Chattanooga case was a stepping stone that prevented the law from becoming a faded, 140-year-old precedent, she said.
The Ku Klux Klan Act is “one of the legal legacies of Reconstruction,” Green said.
As McLaughlin and the Center for Constitutional Rights set out to prove that the Klansmen engaged in a conspiracy against the five plaintiffs, they argued in a courtroom displaying a mural of Confederate soldiers returning from war. In the center of the piece, an enslaved black man picks cotton.
While the Klansmen received representation through legal services, the attorneys for the five women struggled to find a local lawyer to make a motion to admit them, eventually relying on a Memphis attorney for help.
In 1982, the jury awarded the five women $535,000 – about $1.4 million today, McLaughlin said. The judge issued an injunction preventing the Klansmen from engaging in violence in Chattanooga, an injunction that is still on the books.
McLaughlin compiled the legal documents into a book, “Racially Motivated Violence: Litigation Strategies.”
“We wanted to use this book as a model in this case to help other lawyers all across the country learn how to do what we did here. And they did,” McLaughlin said.
Minutes into his talk, McLaughlin turned his comments to Jackson. She was shy, he said. The small woman sat at a circular table in the middle of the room Thursday night.
“I think as the last surviving plaintiff who stood up to Klan violence here and everywhere, we owe her a standing ovation. Right now,” McLaughlin said.
Walking to the front of the room, Jackson briefly spoke about that night 40 years ago. She was waiting for a cab that ran up and down the street with Katherine Johnson, Viola Ellison and Lela Evans. Fannie Crumsey suffered the injuries by flying glass.
“I got shot in the leg and others got shot in other places,” Jackson said. “All of ‘em are dead now except me. I’m 86 years old and thank the Lord for that.”