Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 8, 2018

Legal community rallies to endow criminal justice scholarship

An artist’s rendering of the Ed Johnson memorial. Johnson was lynched in 1906 on the Walnut Street Bridge. His body was then riddled with more than 50 gunshots. - Rendering provided

Chattanooga attorneys Curtis Bowe, III and W. Neil Thomas, III have formed a committee of their fellow attorneys, who will be working in the coming months to endow the Ed Johnson Memorial Scholarship at the level of $50,000.

The scholarship, which is housed at the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, has been in existence since 2006. It is designed to benefit deserving college students at the sophomore level or higher who are pursuing a major in criminal justice.

Original funding for the scholarship came from local educator LaFrederick Thirkill, who wrote and produced a play about the unjust trial and death of Ed Johnson, victim of a Jim Crow-era lynching. Thirkill used proceeds from the play’s ticket sales to establish the scholarship fund, which has been able to underwrite only a few scholarship awards over the years.

Now the scholarship has been adopted as one of the three goals of a grass roots effort, the Ed Johnson Project, to highlight Johnson’s story as a means of promoting racial healing and unity in Chattanooga.

In addition to providing the scholarship with a solid endowment, the Ed Johnson Project is working to design and build a memorial on the site of Johnson’s lynching and to complete an hour-long documentary film about Ed Johnson and the two African-American attorneys who made legal history by taking his case to the US Supreme Court.

“It seems only fitting for the legal community to demonstrate its commitment to justice by rallying behind the Ed Johnson Memorial Scholarship,” says Bowe, the Legal Gifts Committee co-chair. “We represent our clients within the criminal justice system, and it is in our best interest to work toward seeing that the system is staffed by well-trained, knowledgeable professionals.”

“We also like the idea of being part of the solution to a longstanding division in the community,” says Thomas, co-chair. “The attorneys who worked to defend Ed Johnson – one of whom was my great uncle, W.G.M. Thomas – were thwarted by the biased criminal justice system that existed in Chattanooga at that time. We want to play our part in making sure history doesn’t repeat itself.”

The Legal Gifts Committee plans to raise the $50,000 by appealing to local law firms and local, state and national professional legal associations.

The committee’s work was jumpstarted recently when officials at Chattanooga State Community College and Rex Knowles, head of the Professional Actor Training program there, announced they would be dedicating more than $3,000 to the scholarship fund.

The gift represents 100 percent of the ticket sales from the reprise of Thirkill’s play, performed at Chattanooga State Community College in May.

Once the scholarship is fully endowed, the Community Foundation expects it to earn 4 percent annually. Those earnings should enable the Foundation to advertise the scholarship, accept applications, convene a committee of community members to evaluate applicants and award two to four $1,000 scholarships each year.

Ed Johnson was falsely accused of rape, railroaded through the biased criminal justice system, found guilty and sentenced to death – all in three weeks.

Two African-American lawyers stepped forward to represent Johnson on appeal and filed one of the first federal habeas petitions ever attempted in a state criminal case.

The lawyers convinced the Supreme Court of the United States to stay Johnson’s execution while it investigated the case. But when news of the stay of execution was delivered to Chattanooga, a mob, aided by the sheriff and his deputies, lynched Johnson on the Walnut Street Bridge and then riddled his body with more than 50 gunshots.

The Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the sheriff and leaders of the mob, charging them with contempt of court and sentencing them to time in prison.

It is the only time in American history that the Supreme Court has conducted a criminal trial. It was the first time the Supreme Court intervened in a state case to establish the role of the U.S. Constitution in a matter of civil rights and the first time civil rights were confirmed as extending to an African-American citizen.

Ed Johnson’s story languished until 1999, when Chattanooga attorney Leroy Phillips and co-writer Mark Curriden published a book about Ed Johnson titled “Contempt of Court.”

In February 2000 (almost 94 years after Johnson’s lynching), Hamilton County Criminal Judge Doug Meyer overturned his conviction after hearing case evidence and arguments for Johnson’s lack of a fair trial.

For more information about the Ed Johnson Project, visit www.edjohnsonproject.com. To contribute to the Ed Johnson Memorial Scholarship, use the Donate link.

All Ed Johnson Project funds are housed at the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, where tax-deductible charitable contributions are being accepted for the Ed Johnson Memorial Scholarship and the Ed Johnson Memorial at the Walnut Street Bridge.

The documentary film is already fully-funded and is in final production, with an expected debut date in late 2018.

Source: Bowe and Thomas