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Remember Lynching Victim Lemuel Penn

Lest we forget, July 11 marked 56 years since the murder of Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn at the hands of the Athens chapter of the KKK.

The Lemuel Penn Committee erected a historic marker at the Madison County site of his death, but we have always been aware that the crime originated in Athens, because local authorities in 1964 turned a blind eye to the domestic terrorism imposed by the Klan.

For those unaware of this history, Penn and two fellow retired officers were returning to Washington, D.C., where Penn was  an educator, from their Army Reserve training at Ft. Benning. They left at night, hoping to attract no attention, because of  widespread anti-civil rights violence in the South. With I-85 incomplete, the route they mapped led through Athens and along back-country roads north. 

In Athens, they attracted attention. The KKK had been allowed to act as a vigilante patrol at night. Three black men in a car with D.C. license plates were noticed when they pulled over near the Arch to change drivers. They were followed out of Athens by a car holding three excited Klansmen.

Approximately 25 miles away, in a thick fog, on a lonely dark road, where the Broad River marks the line between Elbert and Madison counties, a hate crime was committed. The Klansmen sped up, pulled alongside the World War II veterans and fired shotguns into the front and back seats of the car. Penn was killed instantly. His friends pulled his body aside and got the car under control, thwarting the killers’ hope that it would plunge into the river. Charles Brown and John Howard survived, but Lemuel Penn was dead, a victim of violent, senseless racism.

President Lyndon Johnson was infuriated, and ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to find the killers. The FBI swarmed over Madison and Clarke counties. The killers were identified, but at their trial a few weeks later in Danielsville, where they were defended by Athens attorney Jim Hudson, the all-white jury let them go free.

A month later, a grand jury in Athens successfully used the new Civil Rights Act of 1964 to indict them on charges of depriving Penn of his civil rights. It was the first such use of the new legislation and marked it as a powerful weapon in the fight for equal rights.

Take a minute to remember that the struggle for justice in this country is not new, but has deep roots, and we must continue to tend it.