In hostile territory: Lemuel Penn 50 years ago

Special to The TelegraphJuly 12, 2014 

Headlights gaze into

midnight darkness

As Maj. John E. Brown drives

His 1959 Chevy Biscayne,

Dark inside with three

World War II veterans,

Freed for 20 years from

fear of dying in

Battles in foreign lands.

Finished with their duty at

Ft. Benning in Columbus,

Georgia,

They left its safety to travel

Hostile territory of their

native land

To the destination on the

license plate:

The Nation’s Capital

The District of Columbia.

Exhausted, Brown stops

in Athens

Before the welcoming arches of

The state university

Beside a statue dedicated

To local Confederate dead.

He and shotgun rider,

Lt. Col. Lemuel A. Penn,

Fling open doors,

Make dark dashes,

Exchange seats,

Slam shut doors.

Leave with Penn at the wheel,

Bound for the freedom of home.

Headlights gawk into

pre-dawn darkness

As James Lackey drives

His 1964 Chevy II station wagon

Dark inside with three knights,

Free from knowing fear in battle

Except that raging in their minds.

Forsaking the safety of their base,

The Security Patrol of the

regional Ku Klux Klan in

Athens, Georgia,

Pursues intruders from

Washington, D.C.

In Georgia to spread outside

agitation.

“That’s some of President

Johnson’s boys.

Hit it, James, before we lose ‘em.”

“How far we gonna

follow ‘em, Howard?”

“Until we get close enough.

Right, Cecil?”

“I’m gonna kill me a nigger.”

“If I don’t beat you to it.”

“Y’all kiddin’?”

“Wait ‘n see.”

Headlights glare into dense fog

At the taillights of the Biscayne

As the two cars course

Straight down Highway 72

Then left onto Highway 172

Around a curve past Colbert

Down a hill nearing Elberton

Onto the concrete bridge

Over the Broad River.

The station wagon just behind

Then closer

Too close

Now beside.

Two shotguns explode,

Shattering dawn’s innocence

Hitting Penn,

Awakening Howard.

Hitting clothes,

Missing Brown.

Penn’s head sags,

Striking the bloodying

dashboard,

His useless hands in his lap,

Where, from the left side

of his jaw,

Now raw and cratered,

And his opened neck

Blood oozes down his arm

And pools.

The Biscayne lurches,

Bashes into the bridge railing

Bounces back onto the highway.

From front and back seats

Four hands grab the

steering wheel,

Battle to control the

breakaway car.

Minutes later,

Brown again behind the wheel,

Reverses course to flee

the returning car,

Its light shadows shining through

The darkness of the night.

As the mask of fog tightens,

Brown misses the turn at

72 and 172.

The car swirls off the road,

Crashes into a ditch,

Spins over on its side,

Trapping Brown before

Howard frees him.

Again, scrambling in the dark,

This time up a bank

To flag down any

Good Samaritan

Who could see

Through veiled mist.

Who’d stop to help

Two black men,

One covered with a third’s blood,

As they stand, enshrouded by fog,

Soldiers terrorized in their

own country,

By cowards turned traitor

To their state,

To their nation,

To all humanity.

Postscript: The murder of Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn on July 11, 1964, was just the beginning of the collusion and injustice to follow for many months. On Aug. 31, 1964, in Danielsville, the state’s murder trial began for the two men who fired double-barreled shotguns into the car Penn was driving. Four days later the jury found both not guilty. This, despite the shooters’ bragging about the murder and the eight-page confession of the driver. This, despite the strenuous efforts of Carl Sanders, the embarrassed Georgia governor; J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary head of the FBI, and President Lyndon Johnson.

The decision transcended the by-then clichéd description of such trials as a travesty of justice. It took nearly two years, but in a federal court trial held in Athens, a jury and judge dispensed some measure of justice. Charged by the federal government with violations of the victims’ civil rights -- instead of murder -- Cecil Myers, who shot Penn and Howard Sims, who fired into the backseat, were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Both served just a little over half of their sentences. James Lackey, the driver, was found not guilty.

Penn’s widow, Gloria, died at age 49, the year after her husband’s murder. Thus the mother of the couple’s three young children never saw the men who shot her husband brought to justice, such as it was. When told of the murder, Gloria Penn reportedly said, “People commit crimes like this because they are ignorant.” Actually, they were much worse. They were guilty of betraying their state, their region and their country. People who condoned crimes such as this -- or remained silent or noncommittal about them during this era -- exhibited moral failings far beyond mere ignorance.

July 11 marked the 50th anniversary of this treachery against an American of “the Greatest Generation” who served his country on the horrendous Asian front during World War II. May the spirit of July the Fourth carry over so that we resolve to do all we can to prevent such heinous crimes, whether the victim is an American hero like Penn or an ordinary American like most of us.

Jerry Rogers, formerly of Macon, graduated from Lanier in 1962 and Mercer in 1967. He is a retired teacher living in Watkinsville. He can be reached at jrogerswtw@aol.com.

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