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Cities: Athens

The Last Drive of Lemuel Penn

Georgia Highway 172 played a tragic role in the life of Lemuel Penn.  A decorated Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, Penn had earned the Bronze Star Medal as a regular Army infantryman in the Pacific Arena during World War II.  After the war, he secured a position in the Washington, D.C., public school system where he climbed to the position of assistant superintendent in charge of adult education and vocational training.  While working in this position, he began to study for a doctorate in education.  He also raised a family with his wife, Georgia, and his three children: Linda, Sharon, and Lemuel Jr.  Like many middle- and working-class African Americans, he never felt the need to become directly involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  Yet he would die simply for the "crime" of being a black man on a dark southern road. 

In the summer of 1964 Penn and two fellow U.S. Army Reserve officers and educators, Lt. Col. John D. Howard and Major Charles E. Brown, traveled to Fort Benning to complete training exercises.  They trained at Fort Benning for two weeks, inculdung July 2, the day that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.  On the night of July 11, they changed into civilian clothes and began the long drive home to Washington.  Since hotel accommodations in the South were also affected by segregation, and it would have been time-consuming to find all-black hotels or boarding houses during their travels, they planned to drive straight through without stopping. In Athens, they took a short break to change drivers.  Penn resumed driving and the group continued north.  An unknown car approached Penn's vehicle at the Broad River Bridge by the Elbert County-Madison County line, and the passengers in it fired two shots. One of them hit Penn, killing him instantly. Howard and Brown turned their car around and drove back to the nearest town, Colbert, to secure help.  

The news of Penn's death quickly spread, and the FBI began an investigation under the direction of President Johnson, Governor Sanders, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The series of events that transpired during the investigation and the subsequent trials identified Athens members of the Ku Klux Klan as the primary suspects. The trial against Cecil Myers and Howard Sims, two confirmed Klan members and suspects in the shooting, occurred in Danielsville on August 31, 1964.  The men were acquitted.

In an effort to bring Penn’s murderers to justice, the federal government charged them members with violating Title 18, Section 241, of the federal code, which made it unlawful for two or more persons to conspire together in order to violate or threaten someone's civil rights.  Using verbal interviews, newspaper stories, police reports, and eyewitness testimony, the FBI secured the necessary evidence to demonstrate Klan activity and discrimination against black citizens in Athens. Their investigation into Penn’s murder specifically uncovered acts of intimidation and terrorism against black citizens by Athens Klavern 244 in and around Athens, on August 16, 1964. 

A Madison grand jury then indicted (George) Hampton Turner, James Lackey, Cecil Myers, Howard Sims, Denver Phillips, and Herbert Guest.  However, the charges were dismissed on appeal because the argumentative language of the indictment made them unclear.  Then the Department of Justice filed an appeal, resulting in the Supreme Court's decision to reverse the first appeal. It ordered that the case be brought to trial again. 

As a result of the Supreme Court's ruling, two new federal trials were set. On June 27, 1966, the trial against Sims, Myers, and Turner began with Judge William Bootle presiding. When it ended on July 1, the verdict was sealed until the second trial concluded.  The second trial against Guest, Lackey, and Phillips began on July 2, 1966.  This ended on July 8 with the three men found not guilty. On July 9, the verdict from the first trial was unsealed and Sims and Myers became the only two suspects found guilty of their involvement in the murder of Penn. They were sentenced to ten years in the federal penitentiary. Turner received a not guilty verdict. 

In 1981, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist and editor Bill Shipp chronicled the Penn saga in his book, Murder at Broad River Bridge: The Slaying of Lemuel Penn by Members of the Ku Klux Klan. Penn's body rests in honor in Arlington National Cemetery.  On October 7, 2006, the Lemuel Penn Memorial Committee dedicated a bronze Georgia state historical marker near the spot where he was shot.  It reads as follows:

On the night of July 11, 1964 three African-American World War II veterans returning home following training at Ft. Benning, Georgia were noticed in Athens by local members of the Ku Klux Klan. The officers were followed to the nearby Broad River Bridge where their pursuers fired into the vehicle, killing Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn. When a local jury failed to convict the suspects of murder, the federal government successfully prosecuted the men for violations under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just nine days before Penn's murder. The case was instrumental in the creation of a Justice Department task force whose work culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Since the Revolutionary War, many African Americans have considered distinguished service on the battlefield as an effective way to prove to the nation that they are loyal and patriotic citizens. The Armed Forces had integrated their ranks during the 1940s and 1950s, well ahead of the national response to segregation, and during the civil rights era they offered African Americans educational opportunities, travel, and the potential for economic and social mobility.  Yet an aspect of the civil rights era that touched many African American men and women serving in the military was their vulnerability to racial prejudice and violence. 

A complaint of African Americans who served their country with distinction overseas in World War II and the Korean War, and who were respectfully treated on foreign soil, was that they fought two battles: with a foreign enemy and with their own fellow citizens on the home front. Their uniforms and medals did not shield them from racial epithets and second-class treatment back home.  They joined the military and deployed overseas during this time in disproportionately high numbers compared to whites, only to find joblessness, substandard housing, inferior medical care, and segregated public schools upon their return stateside. Penn's story indicates the worst possible outcome of this hypocrisy: the murder of people like Penn and the lynching of black servicemen and women due to mob violence. 

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Discussion Questions

1. Research the participation of African Americans, Native Americans, and other groups of American minorities in the military during the Gulf War and the War in Iraq. Have the percentages of minorities increased or decreased compared to earlier wars? What do your conclusions suggest about the changing attitudes of people of color to active military service?

2. The federal government may possibly re-open a task-force to deal specifically with unresolved hate crimes and lynchings from the civil rights era.  Do you think it is worthwhile to review such cases forty or fifty years after they occurred? Why or why not?

3.  What motivated white southerners to join hate groups such as the Klan and the Citizens Councils?  What were they protecting and what did they want to preserve?  Were there other groups of people besides African Americans that these groups worked to suppress, and why?  What kinds of hate groups continue to flourish in U.S. America?

4. The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps is a controversial group of American citizens whose members patrol the U.S.-Mexican border in order to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States.  Is this activity, in your opinion, hateful or self-protective, or a combination of factors?

5. In a charismatic speech to a mixed-race audience at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, the African American educator Booker T. Washington assured white southerners who may have been threatened by Emancipation that the descendants of slaves merely desired gradual economic and political parity, and not to interact socially with their fellow white Americans. Visit the History Matters web site to read Washington's speech, known as the "Atlanta Compromise," and discuss how taboos and restrictions regarding the social interaction of blacks and whites reinforced racial stereotypes and perpetuated the system of Jim Crow. Then view the film exhibited in the Digital Library of Georgia's site "Integrated in All Respects: Ed Friend's Highlander Folk School Films and the Politics of Segregation.  What social attitudes did interracial communities such as Highlander and Koinonia Farm challenge by bringing together blacks and whites to live, eat, work, and play? What would segregationists have found particularly disturbing about the photographs and films of these communities and why?  

Take it to the Streets!

Read the story about the Reverend Johnnie Johnson Jr. in our Albany pages, which mentions how Johnson's son is trying to get a city building named for his father.  Where no public memorial commemorates Johnson's story, because of the work of the Lemuel Penn Memorial Committee, drivers can pass by the spot where he was killed and know what happened there.  Even historical locations that are marked do not always reveal the entire story about or place, or may do so in a biased or revisionist way.  Working in teams, select two or three historical markers in your community.  Research the stories that these markers document?  Have any details been omitted or revised?  If so, what accounts for these changes? 

Writer: Lauren Chambers
Editors: Christina L. Davis, Aggie Ebrahimi, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Aggie Ebrahimi, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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