Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

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

Article excerpt

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.)

Near midnight on March 19, 1906, Ed Johnson was lynched from the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This would hardly seem an event worthy of special historical interest, since he was just one of sixty-five persons publicly reported as being lynched in the United States that year (sixty-two, including Johnson, were African Americans). Three years later, however, on May 24, 1909, the man who was responsible for Johnson's safety on that fateful evening, Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp, was found guilty of "contempt of court" and sentenced to ninety days in prison for aiding and abetting the work of the Chattanooga lynch mob. And this was not "contempt" of just any court, but the United States Supreme Court! Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan had listened to a formal, in-person appeal from Johnson's African American lawyer, Noah Parden, and determined that the defendant clearly had been denied a fair trial. Although federal interference in state criminal cases was most unusual, Harlan had persuaded his fellow justices to issue a stay of execution and to hear an appeal of Johnson's conviction. The lynching occurred on the evening that Harlan's decision became public. As a result of that lynching, the Supreme Court actually conducted a criminal trial for the first and only time in its history. The justices found that Shipp and five other white men had willfully ignored the Court's order to protect a federal prisoner. …

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