Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Fighting for Sergeant Caldwell: The NAACP Campaign against "Legal" Lynching after World War I

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Fighting for Sergeant Caldwell: The NAACP Campaign against "Legal" Lynching after World War I

Article excerpt

Immediately following World War I racial violence swept across the United States, and many cities erupted in race rioting. In areas throughout the South African Americans faced the terror of lynching and mob violence as the preferred way of enforcing white supremacy. Among those persecuted were African American soldiers and veterans. Even while still wearing their uniforms, these soldiers were victims of shootings and beatings, and were even burned alive. (1) Sergeant Edgar Caldwell, a decorated soldier in the 24th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, had already served in the Philippines for two years by 1912. Having acquired an unblemished record and an award for sharp-shooting, he returned to the United States, voluntarily joining the military again where he was stationed at Camp McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, in the 157th Depot Brigade. The last few years had been especially rewarding for Edgar C. Caldwell; he got married and was promoted to the rank of sergeant. (2)

On 13 December 1918, Sergeant Caldwell traveled into Anniston, and boarded the Oxford Lake streetcar. Upon entering, however, Caldwell and the white conductor, Cecil Linton, began to argue over the fare. Caldwell insisted that he paid the fare, but Linton claimed he had not. Aside from the disagreement over the fare, Linton was outraged that the black soldier had seated himself in the white section of the car. Linton ordered Sergeant Caldwell off the train and attempted to manhandle him into compliance. During the struggle Caldwell resisted, shoving the conductor into a glass divider with enough force for slivers of glass to rain down over both men, as well as nearby passengers. Then, Linton enlisted the assistance of the car's motorman, Kelsie Morrison, and the two men attempted to throw the soldier off of the streetcar. As the men fought, Caldwell was punched twice in the face before all three tumbled out of the streetcar into the city street. Caldwell landed flat on his back, while his adversaries managed to remain upright; but instead of leaving the soldier there and continuing with their car's route, they decided to beat Caldwell. The motorman, Morrison, kicked the fallen soldier in his ribs and stomach until his victim, who was facing up, unsheathed his service revolver and delivered two rounds from his prone position. The first shot fatally wounded Linton; the second wounded Morrison in the neck. Though his injury was not life threatening, the motorman remained in the hospital for several weeks. (3)

After the smoke cleared and the startled passengers realized what had happened, a group of whites at the scene held Caldwell until military police (MP) from Camp McClellan arrived. (4) Over the next twenty months, fierce debates within the judicial system and the court of public opinion raged over the soldier's fate. While the Alabama prosecutors treated the incident as an example of an unruly black passenger defying the state's Jim Crow laws and murdering a white streetcar conductor, the NAACP used Caldwell's case to focus national attention on southern injustice. The NAACP took Sergeant Caldwell's case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in April 1920 in an attempt to use the federal courts to prevent yet another "legal" lynching carried out by the southern judicial system. (5) The NAACP argued that Caldwell, still a member of the U.S. Army, should have been subject to a court martial and that if the federal officials agreed with the earlier courts, decisions it "would be nothing short of lynching" Caldwell themselves. (6)

Sergeant Caldwell's case gave the NAACP the opportunity to revisit the peonage case of Pink Franklin in 1910. Franklin shot a white intruder, who had broken into his house to serve a warrant, then avoided lynching and an execution, only to serve the rest of his life in the South Carolina prison system. Historian Charles Flint Kellogg argued that although the case was a Pyrrhic victory for the NAACP, it did lay the groundwork for future contests. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.