Until recently, if visitors walked the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Tennessee, they likely would be unaware of its troubled history. But that has now changed – in a way many hope will promote reconciliation.
On March 19, 1906, a murderous crowd surged to the bridge, where it lynched Ed Johnson. The young Black man had been accused of raping a white woman and was sentenced to death after a flagrantly biased trial. When he was granted a stay of execution by the U.S. Supreme Court, white residents turned to mob violence.
On Sept. 19, 2021, a very different crowd gathered on the bridge. In a spirit of righting history, the diverse group of hundreds walked across the Tennessee River. Then, amid song and the spoken word, including a formal apology from Mayor Tim Kelly, they witnessed the unveiling of the Ed Johnson Memorial, the result of years of work to bring the case to light and heal a city. Now, the bridge’s full story – of violence and bravery, of inhumanity as well as courage and deep spiritual faith – is there for all to learn from.
The Johnson case left a powerful mark. The appeal to the Supreme Court was one of the first by a Black attorney. The court’s order of a federal review of Johnson’s conviction was unusual for a tribunal that long ignored unconstitutional procedures in the South. After the lynching, the Supreme Court conducted its only criminal trial in history, resulting in several convictions. Justice Thurgood Marshall would later say it was the first time Black people saw the court act on their behalf.
That action would reverberate amid the civil rights movement. “The fact that the court was willing to sentence Sheriff Shipp, who left the jail unguarded on the night Johnson was lynched, established a deterrent to state and local officials during the 1950s and ’60s, preventing them from defying desegregation orders of the federal courts,” says Peter Canellos, author of “The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero.”
Justice Harlan’s granting of the stay set in motion the events that shifted the dynamic. “Since 1883, the Supreme Court had really looked the other way as segregation took hold,” says Mr. Canellos. “There was a tremendous reluctance to force state courts to live up to constitutional standards of due process in criminal cases.”
More than a century later, facing up to that – and the horrifyingly common violence done to Johnson – is a key part of the memorial. Eddie Glaude Jr., professor of African American studies at Princeton University, reminded listeners at its dedication that “we gotta tell the truth.” And, he said, “On this day the Lord has made, as the rain comes down, these are tears of joy. ... The question you must ask yourself is, ‘What are you going to do with this moment?’ ”
“Remembrance, reconciliation, healing” are the spirit behind the memorial. “We can strive to be better tomorrow than we are today,” says Eric Atkins, vice chairman of the Ed Johnson Project. “When hearts and minds are intermingled, you can achieve things you thought were impossible.”