AFRICANGLOBE – Fifty years ago, as musty old Jim Crow customs were being tested in the South, the local Ku Klux Klan klavern established sentries to maintain the racial tyranny in Athens, Ga., by running off “outside agitators”.
The goons sat in cars at highway crossroads in town and functioned as license-plate readers. Vehicles with out-of-state tags were assumed to be the enemy and were shooed down the road, sometimes with shotgun pellets.
In the middle of the night on July 11, 1964, the watchdogs observed a 1959 Chevy with Washington, D.C., plates that paused briefly in Athens near the University of Georgia as the occupants changed drivers.
The Chevy carried three Black men, Lemuel Penn, Charles Brown and John Howard, who were accomplished, contributing American citizens — everything that the Athens good old boys weren’t.
All three were Army Reserve officers who worked as educators in Washington. Lt. Col. Penn was an assistant superintendent in charge of five vocational high schools, and Maj. Brown and Lt. Col. Howard were teachers.
They were heading home after two weeks of training at Fort Benning, Ga.
The men were driving straight through on the 750-mile trip back to Washington. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been signed into law just eight days earlier, and KKK nightriders were rampaging across the South in retaliation.
Penn and his companions were aware of the danger. They had not ventured off base during their time at Fort Benning. But they apparently didn’t notice when a tan station wagon followed them out of Athens.
To cut a few miles from the trip, Penn turned off the more heavily traveled U.S. Highway 29 outside of Athens in favor of state roads that were slightly more direct but much more desolate.
At 4 a.m., 24 miles out of Athens, the KKK chase car sped alongside the Chevy as it approached a bridge over the Broad River on Georgia Highway 172.
Penn took the brunt of two simultaneous shotgun blasts fired from the wagon. Howard leaned over from the passenger seat and wrestled the car to a stop.
Penn was dead.
In a panic, Howard and Brown sped the car back toward Athens but missed a stop sign obscured by fog and overturned in a ditch. A small-town cop came to their aid, alerted by another motorist. They were not seriously hurt.
If the KKK’s kooky plan was to keep Athens free of outsiders, the murder was a big failure. Within days, a platoon of FBI agents and dozens of reporters were swarming over the city.
Tipsters whispered the name of James Lackey, 29, a grease monkey at an Athens gas station that was a Klan hangout. G-men put the arm on Lackey, and he squealed like the pig he was.
He said he was driving the sentry car and identified the shooters as Cecil Myers, 25, a mill yarn-plucker, and Joseph Sims, 31, a machinist. Those two were charged with murder.
But the drama was just beginning.
The trial, held in rural Danielsville, Ga., eight weeks after the slaying, featured the oratory of defense attorney John Darsey, who preached in the southern mother tongue to the all-White, all-male jury.
Lackey was a lousy witness. Intimated by his former klavern mates, he gave squishy testimony and recanted part of his confession. But that may have been irrelevant.
Swaggering, shrieking and sweating, Darsey turned the case into a referendum on home rule and sovereign White rights. He called the FBI “carpetbaggers who are infiltrating our justice.”
“They loosed a horde of federal agents in our midst,” he bawled. “President Johnson sent them swarming in.”
He said LBJ “told these agents to go down to Madison County and don’t come back until you bring us white meat.”
In the crescendo of his 80-minute closing statement, Darsey cried, “Never let it be said that an Anglo-Saxon Madison County jury converted the state electric chair into a sacrificial altar to sate the savage appetite of the howling mob.”
He collapsed into a chair as his seconds mopped his brow.
The jury ate a leisurely dinner at a truck stop, and then acquitted Myers and Sims. Huzzahs echoed over Dixie.
But the two men didn’t walk free.
Anticipating a rigged local trial, the feds had charged Myers, Sims, Lackey and three other Athens KKKers with conspiracy to deny Penn and others their civil rights.
At that trial, held in Athens in 1966, Lackey’s confessions were enough to convict the triggermen, Myers and Sims. But the other four were acquitted.
U.S. Attorney Floyd Buford trembled with indignation as he spoke with reporters after the verdict. “I performed my duties,” he said. “I assume the jury performed its duty.”
The killers served about six years in prison and continued their lives in Athens.
Lemuel Penn was buried a hero at Arlington National Cemetery, described as “a casualty of our battle against bigotry.”
His wife, Georgia Penn, also a Washington teacher, died a year after her husband was killed, and their three children were raised by relatives in Syracuse.
Before she died, Mrs. Penn gave an inconceivably gracious reply when asked about her husband’s racist murderers.
“People commit crimes like this because they are ignorant,” she said. “They need education.”
By: David J. Krajicek