Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 1, 2021

Author pulls back curtain on ‘Contempt of Court’

Book on 1906 lynching is focus of upcoming CBA session

Mark Curriden

In “Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching,” the late Leroy Phillips and Mark Curriden revisit a Supreme Court decision that changed how justice is carried out in the United States.

Published in 1999, the book details the final chapter of the life of Ed Johnson, an innocent Black man who in 1906 was found guilty of the rape of a white woman and sentenced to die in Chattanooga.

Two Black lawyers who were not part of the original defense – Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins – appealed to the Supreme Court for a stay of execution, which was granted.

Enraged, locals lynched Johnson, and groundbreaking legal action Thurgood Marshall claimed “has never been fully explained” ensued.

On Oct. 13, the Chattanooga Bar Association will welcome Curriden to Chattanooga to discuss the process of researching and writing “Contempt of Court.”

Other panelists, including the Hon. Travis McDonough, Orchard Knob Elementary principal Frederick Thirkill and attorney Jerry Summers, will discuss the recently dedicated Ed Johnson Memorial and the new information that has come to light since the publication of “Contempt of Court.”

Located on the south side of Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, the memorial serves as a place where people can remember Johnson and his death and honor Parden and Hutchins.

Here, Curriden previews the seminar, which is titled “Contempt of Court: The Turn-Of-The-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism.”

How did you and Phillips meet and come to the decision to write “Contempt of Court?”

“Leroy was a great criminal defense lawyer in Chattanooga. He was Legal Aid before there was Legal Aid. He took on all cases. He just believed in defending the Constitution.

“He once told me he represented in the same week in Chattanooga a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a member of the Black Panthers, an adult bookstore and a women’s abortion clinic. He said the adult bookstore was the only one that paid him.

“He and I met at the trial of Bobby Hoppe in 1998. Leroy was defending Bobby, who was accused of murder, and I was a 24-year-old writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

“Leroy and I talked during jury deliberations and he told me about the Ed Johnson case. I had never heard of it, and in fact, most people in Chattanooga had never heard of it. And he asked me if I wanted to help him work on the book.

“So, for the next 11 years, Leroy and I researched and wrote the book in our spare time. Neither of us were historians, and our resources were limited. There was no Google back then. And he had handwritten his notes.

“We dug up old newspaper articles from 1906, we went to the National Archives and found credible information there, and I went to Tuskegee University and dug up stuff. We did the research that was available to us.”

What was the reaction of people in Chattanooga when they learned you were researching the Ed Johnson case?

“Reverend Paul McDaniel, pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church, spent several hours talking with us. Johnny Franklin, the first African American city commissioner in Chattanooga, also spent several hours telling us what he knew.

“But by and large, no one wanted to talk with us. People were like, ‘Why are you writing about this? Why are you bringing all this back up?’ People were not ready to accept the story or wanting us to retell it. And I think they thought we’d be critical of the city, which we were. Lynchings were horrific things.

“The fascinating and wonderful thing about The Ed Johnson Project is how the whole community is involved with it. But when the book first came out, 11 people showed up at the opening reception at Read House.”

What do you think Mr. Phillips would think about the additional research that’s taken place since your book came out?

“I think he’d be thrilled. Truthfully, we missed things, and even got a few things wrong. But I think Leroy would be excited. All of this new information is perfecting history.”

What material will you discuss when the microphone is yours?

“The information we had available to us when we wrote the book versus the stuff they have today and how people pursued it. For example, there are now three accounts of what people said to Ed Johnson.”

So, there’s more history to be perfected.

“Correct. Thankfully, people are more willing to talk about it today than they were when Leroy and I were researching the book.”

What do you think made the difference?

“Time, acceptance and certain leaders in Chattanooga being more open about it. There’s more of a thirst for knowledge and even a reckoning. Leroy and I never would have thought that would happen back when we were writing.”

What else can people who attend the seminar expect?

“Frederick Thirkill has been a key component behind The Ed Johnson Project. He’s going to talk about how he met Leroy while cleaning up the cemetery where Ed Johnson was buried. And I’m going to discuss what I wish I had known back when Leroy and I wrote the book and what I would have done differently.”

You’re very conscious of the fact that your work was not perfect.

“Part of the reason the story of Ed Johnson is imperfect is because Leroy and I were imperfect – especially me. If I had been a more experienced journalist, I probably would have done a better job.

“But also, Leroy and I were white. We had no idea what Ed Johnson went through; we had no grasp of the discrimination Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins endured. And there were probably other reasons why people in the African American community did not open up to us as much as they are now to the people who are with The Ed Johnson Project.

“What The Ed Johnson Project and those involved with it have done in the local community is amazing. It’s an honor to have been even a part of the telling of this incredible story.”