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Contempt of Justice
Mark Curriden's photo

Mark Curriden

      . . . is the legal affairs writer for „The Dallas Evening News.š Together, this reporter/lawyer team has reconstructed a long-neglected 1906 trial in their book, Contempt of Court. This case set the stage for 20th century federalism as well as providing predicates for the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

Excerpts4:30 secs
LeRoy Phillips, Jr.'s photo

LeRoy Phillips, Jr.

      . . . is a prominent trial attorney who practices in Chattanooga, Tennessee, his home.

      The law is not for lawyers, declare LeRoy Phillips, Jr. (a lawyer) and Mark Curriden (a journalist). The law is everyone's business, they say, especially in societies where we (proudly) govern ourselves. And the law changes.

      Even the power of America's Supreme Court has changed. That's at the heart of the story Curriden and Phillips have unearthed and reconstructed in their book, Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching that Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism. The case at hand is "The United States of America v. Joseph F. Shipp" ("U.S. v Shipp"). And it's about the rule of law.

      As America entered the 20th century, lynch law rivaled formal laws -- 2,100 people were lynched between 1890 and 1906. Not a single person ever came to trial or was convicted for participating in those lynchings. Lynching had become business as usual when Sheriff Shipp of Chattanooga helped the lynch mob who murdered Ed Johnson, an illiterate, poverty-striken 23 year old African-American man almost certainly innocent of the crime for which he died. Like many another so-called law-enforcer, Sheriff Shipp conspired and collaborated. The difference was, he did it in defiance of the Supreme Court. And they were outraged.

      e Court. And they were outraged. In "U.S. v Shipp," for the first and ONLY time, the United States Supreme Court conducted a criminal trial to enforce its authority, authority which rests solely on citizens' fundamental respect for the law and the Court's persuasiveness. The revered Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the unanimous decision -- the Supreme Court has the right to intervene in any matter it says it has the right to intervene in. Always. The rest, as they say, is history -- the history of federalism in America, the history of the civil rights movement and much of the history of individual rights which continues to unfold

      Alas, even when the good guys carry the day in court, they don't necessarily get rewarded. In "U.S. v Shipp," one innocent man died while the careers and lives to two heroic African-American lawyers were ruined. Yes, a monument was raised in Chattanooga -- to Sheriff Shipp. Even today, Ed Johnson's grave is weed covered, distinguished only by a simple plaque which echoes his last words, "God Bless you all. I am an innocent man." Liberty, as one of Phillips' and Curriden's legal advisors observed, often rides on a river of blood.

      Don't leave law to the lawyers, Phillips and Curriden urge us. For starters, we have the obligation as well as the right to serve on juries. Lawyers -- and journalists -- make the rule of law possible. Our fragile agreement to rule ourselves rests with each of us.

Conversation 1

Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips tell Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about the 2,100 lynchings that took place in America between 1890 to 1906.  Not one person was ever brought to trial or convicted for participating. Lynch Law is described and contrasted with the rule of law. Mr. Phillips summarizes the case "U.S. v. Shipp.š

Conversation 2

Mr. Curriden gives the details of "U.S. v. Shipp,š the 1906 case which resulted from the lynching of Ed Johnson. (Following Johnson‚s highly questionable conviction, his lawyers abandon him. Two brave [and virtually forgotten] young African-American lawyers step forward, taking Mr. Johnson‚s case to the Supreme Court and making U.S. history.) Justice John Marshall Harlan‚s critical role is described. Mr. Phillips, a native of Chattanooga, speaks to the „stunning degree of racismš and the dominant, vicious white supremacy of the South at the time and in this case. It is compared to Apartheid. Mr. Phillips describes the grave damage done by „Plessy v. Fergusonš in 1896. Phillips and Curriden explain why "U.S. v. Shipp" changed the course of US history.

Conversation 3

In writing their book, Mr. Phillips and Mr. Curriden both looked back over 100 years of law and journalism, respectively.  They give examples of how miserably each profession performed. Mr. Phillips described being „hauntedš by what he believes was Mr. Johnson‚s innocence. Mr. Curriden reminds us that protection of the US Constitution‚s Bill of Rights did not apply to state cases until decades after „U.S. v. Shipp.š Majority and minority rights are discussed.  Mr. Curriden recalls Justice Thurgood Marshall‚s assessment of the central role "U.S. v. Shipp" played in giving the Supreme Court the right to intervene in any matter it says it has the right of intervene in. Ed Johnson‚s profound significance is contrasted to his short and humble earthly passage.

Conversation 4

Journalism's irresponsible role in the case is recalled, with vivid examples. While lawyers and journalists failed miserably in this case, Phillips and Curriden point out that lawyers and journalists were also among those who changed things. Both point to racism which we must continue to confront in our communities. A cautionary note is sounded about today‚s renewed interest in states‚ rights. Dramatic examples are given of changes in state as well as federal courts. Racism, illiteracy and poverty are linked in Mr. Johnson‚s case and today. Mr. Phillips praises the strengths of our legal system, recognizing the need for each generation to preserve liberties.

Conversation 5

The law, not justice, is the job of lawyers, says Mr. Phillips, pleased that as a writer he COULD address justice. He gives examples.  The group ponders if the law was served but justice went wanting in this case: the people on the wrong side of the case ended up with monuments, local honors and career advancement while the man lynched and his defenders had their lives ended or ruined. Curriden and Phillips give details. Both the responsibility of the community and the balance between the rights of individuals and the larger community are considered. Mr. Phillips urges us to keep up with how the US Supreme Court regards our rights and liberties. Mr. Curriden reminds us it a citizen‚s absolute responsibility to serve on juries.

Conversation 6

Mr. Phillips describes efforts to set aside Mr. Johnson‚s conviction, posthumously, recognizing that an injustice was done. The malleability of the law is discussed. Mr. Phillips, the lawyer, assures us that „Law is not just for lawyers.š He describes the responsibilities of both lawyers and journalists.


We thank the distinguished audience who joined us when we recorded our program with Mr. Curriden and Mr. Phillips at The Commerce Club in Atlanta, GA. The conversation that followed the taping was also invigorating.

We particularly want to thank the distinguished Jurists who took the time to revisit the vital lessons revivified by this story.

Once again, we thank the management and staff of The Commerce Club for their superlative service and enthusiastic support.

Related Links:
Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching that Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism is published by Faber and Faber, Inc, an Affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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