II: Gabriel, The Civil Rights Lawyer’s Tale

by Mark Kodama

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew Chapter 5:10

The time is always right to do what is right.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kingdom of Heaven

I. The Arrest

It was Nineteen Hundred ought Six.
Old Chattanooga seemed transfixed,
By a sudden New Year crime wave
Amidst an election campaign.
The city, ‘neath clouds of silver,
Astride the great Tennessee River.
Beneath its slow surface waters,
Turbulent undertows did stir.

Ed Johnson, a black handyman,
Was lynched for raping a white woman.
In the Old South, a crime more vile,
Than mob killings without fair trials.
Due process and fairness were lost.
A scapegoat must be found at all costs,
Those in charge decreed a sacrifice
On the altar of political expedience.

On January Twenty-Third at the switchback,
Nevada Taylor was attacked.
A young black man followed her home,
Shadowed her as she walked alone.
Around her soft neck this man did wrap
A tightened darkened leather strap.
In this lonely vicinity,
This thug stole the girl’s virginity.

Sheriff Shipp and the doctor were called,
Blacks and whites alike were appalled,
The newspapers demanded retribution.

Passion took the place of reason
For this was the political season
A handsome reward was offered
For information that was proffered,
For arrest of the guilty man.

A man claimed to be a witness,
A man of questionable fitness
The witness placed Ed Johnson there.
Claiming to know him by his stare.
He said he saw Johnson with the strap,
An innocent man had to take the rap.
While a guilty psychopath ranged free
In the terrorized river city.

An angry lynch mob jeered and railed,
Outside the Hamilton County jail,
Judge Samuel D. McReynolds did coerce,
The lawless vigilantes to disperse.
Judge McReynolds understood,
The lynch mob wanted blood
The judge knew the crowd wanted it

So he was ready to deliver it.
Sheriff Shipp did interrogate,
Tried to force Ed to self-incriminate.
Sheriff Shipp bragged to reporters,
He would break Johnson in short order.
Johnson was starved, struck, kicked and hit,
But the man refused to admit.
Nevada Taylor was brought to jail,
Her identification could not fail.

The Constitution they overthrew
Johnson was picked from the lineup of two.
“Johnson Is a Fiend,” screamed the headlines.
“He is surely guilty,” a newspaper opined.
The District Attorney did argue,
To the Grand Jury for its review,
The Grand Jury issued its indictment,
At the height of public excitement.

It was a tyranny of the majority,
The weakness of a democracy.

II. The Trial

Trial was set for Sixth of February,
Amid the irrational fury,
Twelve days after his arrest,
Ed Johnson’s show trial began
To pin the crime on an innocent man
To satisfy the public’s blood lust.
Ed Johnson’s guilt was a must.
Three lawyers were quickly selected.
Ed‘s due process rights went unprotected.

Neighbors ostracized the lawyers,
Threatened harm to their families.
The Mayor, Judge and D.A. met alone,
With Ed’s lawyers who wished to postpone.
They requested another venue, another date,
Judge McReynolds ruled the trial could not wait.

The courtroom, packed with an angry crowd,
Eager to fit Ed in his death shroud,
The D.A.’s r witness lied under oath,
Claiming Ed was near the outgrowth.
Miss Taylor’s own story was unclear,
For Johnson’s identity was in doubt.
Miss Taylor passed out during the attack,
The assailant assaulted her from the back.

Many witnesses did testified,
Ed Johnson was sweeping inside,
The Last Chance Saloon at the time,
Of the wanton and vicious crime.
“If I could get at him,” a juror said, “I would,
Tear his heart out now,” he said as he stood.
By morning all agreed on the verdict,
All twelve jurors voted to convict.

The Judge said Johnson did the crime,
Then praised the jurors for their time.
The Judge then sentenced Ed Johnson,
To hang until his life had run.
Ed Johnson said he was going to die
For a crime of another because of lies.
“May God have mercy on your soul,”
The judge said, playing his scripted role.

Two of Ed’s lawyers voted to appeal.
The third lawyer said his fate was sealed.
So the judge appointed three more lawyers.
To change the vote and to defer
So the three new attorneys
Voted against an appeal.
But from the dark pit of despair,
In a desolate place where

When all hope appeared to be lost,
Two men emerged to pay the cost.
Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins
Stepped into the history books,
With great dangers they undertook.
To represent Ed in his appeal
Offering a glimmer of hope
To the desperate, friendless man.


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I'm a self-proclaimed aesthete, an amateur literary critic and a history buff with a BA in Political Science and History from Wesleyan College.

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