Street Scribe

Sixty Years Ago, Athens Klansmen Murdered Lemuel Penn

Civil rights advocates called it Freedom Summer. Unreconstructed white segregationists called it an invasion of the South. It was the summer of 1964, and 60 years ago the struggle against the American apartheid of racial injustice captured headlines in newspapers across the nation and around the world. In Washington, a sweeping Civil Rights Bill would soon become the law of the land despite opposition by white politicians, police, preachers and pundits in the South. In Mississippi, three civil rights workers were missing and later found dead, buried beneath an earthen dam. 

Blacks and whites marched together for racial integration across the Deep South in 1964. Their efforts for equality were often answered with guns, bombs and clubs wielded by Dixie-bred terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan. One such notorious racial crime had its origin right here in Athens 60 years ago, starting at a spot near the famous University of Georgia Arch that is an iconic gateway to the campus. Today thousands of students, professors and townspeople pass by the Arch, unaware of the grim history lesson that began there in 1964. 

On July 11, 1964, an African American educator and army reservist named Lemuel Penn and two fellow reservists were spotted by members of the Athens KKK as they were parked near the Arch while passing through Athens. The Klansmen pursued the car to the Broad River Bridge about 20 miles from Athens, where they fired shotgun blasts into the car occupied by the three Black men. Penn was killed, and the senseless murder of the educator and decorated World War II army officer shocked the nation and added one more number to the toll of terror wrought by white supremacists in the South. 

Penn was not involved in the civil rights movement, but being a Black man driving a car with a Washington, DC license plate was enough to incite the ignorant ire of the local Kluxers who gunned him down. In his 2013 book, Scoop: The Evolution of a Southern Reporter, journalist Jack Nelson wrote, “The more I learned about the murder, the more outraged I became. Although Athens city fathers expressed shock at the killing… the town’s climate of hate, fear and intimidation practically guaranteed the death of innocents. As I knew from personal experience, the city had a history of turning its back on its uglier features.”

Reporter Bill Shipp exposed the ugliness of the Athens connection to Penn’s murder in his 1981 book, Murder at Broad River Bridge: The Slaying of Lemuel Penn by the Ku Klux Klan. In fewer than 100 pages, Shipp’s narrative is a concise and fast-paced account of the crime and its aftermath six decades ago that still has relevance today. 

University of Georgia Press

As a student journalist on the University of Georgia’s campus newspaper in the early 1950s, Shipp incurred the wrath of segregationists in the state. His newspaper career spanned more than 50 years until his death last year. In 2016 Shipp was inducted into the prestigious Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, and in 2017 his Murder at Broad River Bridge book was rereleased by the University of Georgia Press.

A historical marker was erected at the Broad River Bridge murder site in 2006. The text on the marker notes that the two Klan killers of Penn, Howard Sims and Cecil Myers, were successfully prosecuted “for violations of the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just nine days before Penn’s murder.” Though long overdue, no historic marker or memory of Penn has been erected near the UGA Arch, where the local Klan crime began 60 years ago, though a marker close to the Arch commemorates the integration of the university in 1961. 

Philosopher George Santayana famously warned the world that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With fascism on the march in America, Shipp’s book is a needed history lesson. His quote from Georgia Gov. Carl Sanders in 1964 applies more than ever today: “What is happening is that we are permitting the rabble-rousers and extremists to become more and more vocal and influential while the good people—the vast majority—are either not concerned enough or not speaking out as they should.”