Thursday, I witnessed history being made. I was in LaGrange for two unconnected events, though the spiritual tendons linking them can’t be denied. One of my Palaver Club fellows, George Henry, invited me to his fair city — one I had only passed through on Interstate 85 headed to Atlanta.
In the afternoon, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., spoke to a diverse overflow audience about his history of activism. After growing up in “rural Alabama,” he ended up walking with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and speaking at the 1963 March on Washington, D.C. where King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” at the age of 25.
The history would come that evening at Warren Temple United Methodist Church that sits near the heart of Calumet Village, a former mill village. The church, founded in 1865, played a role in the dawn of the history I was witnessing.
At the LaGrange city jail on Sept. 7, 1940, armed men, wearing hoods, forced the lone 20-year-old jailer to release to them Austin Callaway, an 18-year-old black man (he may have been 16). Though the jailer had a police radio, no pursuit ensued. No alarm was sounded. By morning, Callaway was found, shot several times with other gruesome wounds. He would die a few hours later. In short, he was lynched.
I must note here that lynching is not exclusive to hanging, but anytime a murder is instigated by a group with the expectation of impunity. No one in city government spoke out. Some say Callaway assaulted a white woman. No record of his arrest has ever been found, and during that era, that charge always stuck — guilty or not.
Callaway’s family went to Warren Temple and the pastor held mass meetings. He pleaded for justice. He received silence.
That silence from the good people of LaGrange ended Thursday when city leaders stood in front of the quilt of their city, including some of the family members of Austin Callaway, and said, in unequivocal terms, “we’re sorry.”
LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said, “Until we have a full and complete acknowledgment of the past we can never fully heal.” The mayor had more. “Let me say emphatically, justice failed Austin Callaway.”
The next man to step to the podium was the LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar who sponsored this effort along with a group of citizens, Troup Together (Dekmar used to be a Macon police officer). And here’s the history. According Karen Branan, author of “The Family Tree,” a true story of a 1912 lynching right down the road in Hamilton where four innocent people, including a woman, were lynched, this is only the second time a municipal leader has apologized for the more than 4,000 lynchings that occurred in this country, almost 600 in Georgia.
Dekmar addressed the elephant in the room. “Undoubtedly, some in the white community will ask, ‘why should we acknowledge and apologize for outrageous actions committed by a generation long gone or dead?’ In the black community, they believe this is another hollow effort to gloss over centuries of injustice and cruelty. To each group I say: The institution responsible for Austin’s death is still here and its members bear the burden of that history... An apology is necessary,” Dekmar said, “to aid in healing wounds of past brutality and injustice so we can build a better future.”
But one of the most striking speeches came from the president of LaGrange College, Dan McAlexander. He represented the LaGrange business community. He said, “I wish to speak to the broader community’s failures in the lynching of Austin Callaway.”
“These failures did not take place in a societal vacuum. The failures would not have happened if LaGrange’s citizens had been likely to object. Such matters of racial violence were treated by white society at the time generally, at best, with quiet disapproval by good people, and at worse, active support by others.
As the co-chairs of Troup Together, Wesley Edwards and Bobbie Hart, wrote in an op/ed in the LaGrange Daily News “We as people of different races may share the same space but we do not share the same history. History has been quite different to us based on race. We do not always know or appreciate this difference or its legacy today. That is perfect ground in which to grow misunderstanding and mistrust.”
Sound familiar to anyone?
Read my column online where you can listen to speeches by LaGrange city leaders.