Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism by Mark Curriden & Leroy Phillips

Reprint Edition: February 20, 2001

 

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In 1906 a white woman was brutally raped in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ed Johnson, a black man, was working at his restaurant job when the attack happened but was arrested and charged with the crime. When his lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court for a stay of execution and that stay was granted, local folks, led by officials, took the law into their own hands. In a history-changing move, the lynch mob faced federal legal repercussions.

 

Contempt of Court: The Turn-Of-The-Century Lynching That Launched 100 Years of Federalism by Mark Curriden is a fascinating read. The authors go to great lengths to set the scene before introducing readers to the crime and players. Chattanooga in 1906 was considered a very racially progressive city. The members of a church in the nearby community of Soddy Daisy had even voted in favor of the idea that black men have souls, at a time when the general opinion would have been to the contrary. Curriden and Phillips make clear that this miscarriage of justice was about the political machine and the need to wrap up the case. The trial was quick and the defense lackluster. Johnson’s death was expected just imminently until two black lawyers stepped in to examine the case and take it to the highest court in the land. That the Supreme Court of the day was moved to act says something about the merits of the case, as the court of the day was not especially inclined toward involving themselves in local affairs, let alone to ensnare themselves in local politics on behalf of a black man.

Contempt of Court: The Turn-Of-The-Century Lynching That Launched 100 Years of Federalism by Mark Curriden has a well-plotted, narrative flow. While the authors are objective as befits a nonfiction work; the facts of the book are so egregious that readers will feel great sympathy for the late Mr. Johnson and cheer for the men who would champion him. Readers know from the start of the work that Johnson was lynched by his fellow Chattanoogians (the court actually went to great lengths to protect him, even moving Mr. Johnson to another area to no avail, as the sheriff was complicit in his lynching and, indeed, one of the people charged with contempt of court). He clearly had the misfortune of being a convenient target and was destined to be the little-known footnote in history that launched federalism in the United States.

Before finding this book on the shelves of Books-A-Million in Hixson, Tennessee, I’d never heard of Ed Johnson or this case. I am familiar with the area in which the crime took place and was surprised to find a case with such impact to be so unremarked. The authors paint an expertly complete and balanced picture of the time and case. The perfection of editing and constant active flow will keep readers entranced in this moment of history. There have been many moments in history where great injustices occurred and good people have tried to make them right. Ed Johnson’s was a life that could not be saved even when it seemed likely, but his lawyers and the authors of Contempt of Court: The Turn-Of-The-Century Lynching That Launched 100 Years of Federalism by Mark Curriden are sure to make sure he’s never forgotten.

If you’re interested in American history, is a must read. Pick it up today and when you finish tell everyone about this monumental case.

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