How Racist Democrats’ Defiance of the Supreme Court Accidentally Helped End Lynching

Well, I’m back after a month-long blogging vacation – a forced vacation, courtesy of the scoundrels who hacked this site last month. Almost certainly the result of (un)friendly fire, I’ll have more to write about that later. In the meantime, I wanted to write a bit about my favorite subject – history – and a few lessons that Democrat leaders of today might want to heed, as they ramp-up their ill-conceived attacks against the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on Obamacare and the Arizona immigration law, Democrat leaders have had to face the sobering possibility that they might be handed a total or partial defeat in both cases. President Obama, a man who never misses a chance to manufacture new enemies to scapegoat, has outright challenged the (completely Constitutional) authority of this “unelected group of people” to rule on his massive healthcare boondoggle. And last week, Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer (and several other top Democrats) pledged to bypass the Court and kill the Arizona immigration law, should it be upheld.

This might not exactly be the best strategy, especially coming from a party that has never had too firm a grasp on the whole “unintended consequences” thing. The truth is, the Supreme Court doesn’t typically like to have its authority challenged. Doing so can sometimes lead to unforeseen results. As happened in 1906, in the case of Ed Johnson…a case in which the Democrats’ belief that an “unelected group” of justices had no authority over them led to disastrous results for the party…and, eventually, very positive results for almost everyone else.

On January 23, 1906, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a young white woman named Nevada Taylor was violently raped and choked unconscious on her way home from work at about 6pm. She had been choked from behind, and, upon waking, could give few details of her attacker, other than that he was black.

A decade earlier, a major political purge had taken place in Chattanooga, with Democrats sweeping into all city offices, in an attempt to eradicate any post-Reconstruction Republican influence in the region. The Democrat sweep brought with it a massive wave of anti-black sentiment. The April 22, 1893, edition of the Cleveland Gazette (the seminal black-owned weekly newspaper) sadly observed,

Chattanooga goes Democrat: Fires Black City Employees.

Some time ago the Democrats elected the municipal officers of Chattanooga, Tenn., for many years one of the few, and perhaps the leading Republican city in the South. The result, for our people, is that every Afro-American connected with the city government of Chattanooga has been dismissed. A number of clerkships and a fire company lost.

Chattanooga’s new sheriff was Captain Joseph Shipp, a former officer in the Confederate Army, and a proud Democrat. Shipp had run for sheriff with a promise to cleanse the city of “negro crime.” The Taylor rape put his pledge to the test.

Sheriff Joseph Shipp

Someone had to die for the crime. Someone black.

A reward of $375 was offered – more than most Chattanooga residents earned in a year. Based on practically zero evidence, a black man named Ed Johnson was arrested for the crime. Johnson, until the day he died, proclaimed his innocence. Democrat Shipp, on the other hand, knew the outcome of the trial from the onset; Johnson would hang, one way or another. Blacks were excluded from the jury, the defense attorneys were threatened with lynching whenever they attempted to file motions on their client’s behalf, evidence of Johnson’s alibi was excluded (his coworkers would have testified that he was at work the night of the rape, miles away from the crime scene), and, at one point during the trial, a juror actually attempted to kill Johnson, inside the courtroom!

The conviction came swiftly; Johnson was to hang.

With almost no hope of success, Johnson’s new defense team petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay. To everyone’s surprise, the Court agreed (I’m certain this news was met with equal disbelief by both Shipp and Johnson).

The Court made something exceptionally clear to Sheriff Shipp: while they were examining the case, Johnson was now under the Court’s protection, essentially a federal prisoner. No harm was to come to him, until the Court could render a verdict.

We will never know how the Court would have ruled in the Johnson case. Democrat Shipp saw to that.

Believing that this “unelected group” of men had no right to interfere with a good lynching, Shipp openly scoffed at the Court’s authority. He conspired with his fellow Democrats to see that their version of “justice” was carried out. Exactly one day after being directly informed by the Court that it had authority over Johnson, Shipp dismissed his deputies from the jail, and told them to leave the front door open. He then alerted the mob of “good citizens” to move on the jailhouse.

To preserve a small bit of “plausible deniability,” Shipp didn’t give the mob the keys to the cell block. In a cruel twist of irony, this only worsened Johnson’s torment. It took the mob one hour to break through the metal door leading to the cells. For a full hour, Johnson, hearing the taunts of his soon-to-be murderers, could do nothing but lie in his bunk, wrapped in blankets, praying and reciting Psalms (according to the testimony of a fellow inmate in a neighboring cell).

Once inside, the mob plucked Johnson from his cell. He proclaimed his innocence one more time before being hanged from a bridge (a bridge that most blacks in Chattanooga had to pass under on their way to their jobs downtown). His body was riddled with bullets, and a note was pinned to the body, addressed to Supreme Court Justice John Harlan: “Come get your nigger now.”

Sheriff Joseph Shipp had won the day.


A funny thing happened. Shipp’s outright defiance, indeed, his rejection, of the Court’s authority had an unintended consequence. It galvanized the Court against him. Regardless of where the justices might have stood on matters involving race (and there were several genuine white supremacists on the Court at that time), and regardless of how they might have ruled regarding Johnson’s conviction, they were now united, regardless of all other divisions, against Democrat Shipp.

Shipp learned an important lesson that day…the Court does not take insult lightly. For all we know, the Court might have upheld Johnson’s conviction, and Shipp and the other good Democrats of Chattanooga would have had a perfectly legal lynching. But Shipp’s defiance had brought the justices together, regardless of their other differences.

In the one-and-only criminal trial ever held by the U.S. Supreme Court, Shipp and several of his cohorts were charged with contempt. The Court unanimously decided to bring those charges. Shipp was convicted, and served 90 days. And while that seems a small price to pay to us today, imagine the impact in 1909…a prominent Southern Democrat sheriff sent to prison for allowing the lynching of a black prisoner in his care. It was a big deal. Just the fact that he was even tried was a big deal.

After serving his sentence, Shipp returned home to a hero’s welcome. His fellow Democrats even erected a statue in his honor. But, on a national scale, a major precedent had been set. The Court’s actions had emboldened opponents of lynching, and empowered lawyers defending black clients to more aggressively seek fair trials and appeal unjust verdicts. Shipp’s act of defiance – his belief that no black-robed bunch of “unelected men” had authority over him, had backfired. He had inadvertently galvanized the Court against him, and the Court’s resulting actions were a historic victory in the fight against the very agenda that Shipp sought to advance.

Unintended consequences. Joe Shipp and his Democrat buddies learned about them the hard way. The Supreme Court doesn’t like to be openly defied by opportunistic elected officials trying to score points at the Court’s expense.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for today’s Democrats. And, if there is, will they bother to heed it?

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