CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – On the 112th anniversary of a lynching that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s only criminal trial, the group behind a public art installation remembering a black man killed by a mob announced the finalist Monday for the memorial that will stand near where he died.
By erecting a piece of public art adjacent to a bridge in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Ed Johnson Project seeks to do more than acknowledge a dark moment in the city’s history, a moment that changed the American criminal justice system. It hopes to heal a racial wound that remains raw to this day.
Many of Chattanooga’s black residents will not visit the city’s downtown, according to Mariann Martin, coordinator for the project. Others will not cross the bridge because they feel the injustice that occurred there has remained unaddressed.
“Chattanooga has not remembered it in any significant way,” Martin said in a phone interview.
But yet, the story of Ed Johnson’s lynching is an important part of American history, Martin said. Johnson’s case was used as precedent for civil rights cases leading up to the 1950s, 60s and beyond. It’s a case taught to students in law schools across the country.
“This is a story that literally changed civil rights in the criminal justice system,” Martin said.
Because Johnson’s black lawyers appealed his rape case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the land asserted that it had jurisdiction over local civil rights cases. It was also one of the first times that a black lawyer, Noah Parden, argued a case before the Supreme Court.
“Until there is a recognition and until there is healing and remembrance, that wound just stays,” Martin said. “And I think that’s where Chattanooga has been for the last 100 years.”
On March 19, 1906, a mob stormed the Hamilton County Jail and dragged Johnson a few blocks to a bridge spanning the Tennessee River. There, they strung him up and shot at him. A bullet severed the rope from which he hung. A member of the mob killed Johnson with a pistol at point-blank range.
Johnson had faced charges stemming from the rape of a white woman. His black lawyers tried to defend him before a biased, all-white jury. Despite a lack of evidence placing him at the scene of the rape, Johnson was found guilty.
His lawyers, Styles L. Hutchins and Noah Parden, made an unprecedented move. Their appeal on behalf of their client reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice John Harlan issued a stay of execution.
But white Chattanoogans who resented the Supreme Court’s decision defied the order by lynching Johnson.
The Supreme Court responded by holding its first and only criminal trial, which found Chattanooga Sherriff Joseph F. Shipp in contempt of court for not protecting Johnson in his jail. Shipp was sentenced to a brief prison term.
In 2000, a Hamilton County judge declared Johnson innocent of the rape charge.
Over the years, the bridge where Johnson was murdered has become an iconic symbol of Chattanooga, often featured in art, photos and logos of Chattanooga-based companies.
The Walnut Street Bridge was turned into a pedestrian walkway, and became a popular backdrop for engagement photo shoots.
The city is about to refurbish the bridge. The timeline for the completion of Johnson’s monument is tied to the rest of the project, which is scheduled to finish in fall 2020, according to Katelyn Kirnie, director of Public Art Chattanooga.
Once the memorial is complete, it will be donated to the city as part of its public art collection.
“The Walnut Street Bridge is a space that belongs to everyone in Chattanooga,” Kirnie said via email. “By telling Ed Johnson’s story, we acknowledge a painful truth about our city’s history while moving forward with hope through reconciliation, as we promise to never repeat the past.”
On Monday, the Ed Johnson Project announced that a design created by a team headed by Savannah, Georgia artist Jerome Meadows was the finalist in its selection process.
Researching the account of Johnson’s death, Meadows said in a phone interview that he was struck by how “it was a story of such intensity” with national implications that set a legal precedent. With the vestiges of racism still in society, Meadows said, the story is also timely.
The African-American artist has designed two memorials to Martin Luther King Jr. and most recently, a memorial to a paved-over burial ground of African-Americans in New Hampshire.
“Public art,” Meadows said, has a “way of speaking beyond the conflict, the verbal conflict that arises over these very sensitive subjects and has an ability to create a sense of common ground.”
His design for the Johnson memorial features three, life-size figures in a public space where people can reflect among the statues of Johnson and his two lawyers.
The figure of Parden looks back to the second span of the bridge. This is to evoke the history of the event, Meadows said. The other lawyer, Hutchins, holds his hand out to Johnson but is unable to grasp it, to symbolize how the mob prevailed that day 112 years ago.
“I sort of jokingly say that I had to refrain myself from putting capes on those two lawyers because they were superheroes in terms of what they were facing,” Meadows said.
Because of death threats, both lawyers eventually left Chattanooga.
Meadows said it is important to acknowledge it was a pair of African-American lawyers who stood up for justice.
“But also the fact that these are Americans who are saying that justice is supposed to be what binds us together and keeps us safe,” Meadows said, “and when you see it being violated, you should step up and do what you need to do to combat that.”
The third figure in the group, of course, is Johnson. He is only one of over 4,000 black Americans who were lynched from 1877 to 1950, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative.
His figure stands head up, back firmly turned away from the place where he died. Through Meadows’ memorial, Johnson finally walks free.