By John Jason Francis, Staff Writer—
On Feb. 20, New York attorney and author of “Racially-Motivated Violence” Randolph M. McLaughlin spoke at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center about his part in the successful prosecution of a case against the Ku Klux Klan in 1980 after five African American Women were shot in Chattanooga.
The shooting occurred on 9th street, what is now Martian Luther King Boulevard, after the women— Opal Lee Jackson, Lela Mae Evans, Katherine O. Johnson, and Viola Ellison— were exiting a local business.
Although no one was killed, the four women were seriously injured by pelts from a shotgun blast and another woman, Fannie Mae Crumley was injured by exploding glass due to the shots.
The men involved in the shooting— Larry Payne, Bill Church, and Marshall Thrash— were found by police a few days after the incident. They were charged with attempt to commit murder, but later acquitted by an all-white jury.
Randolph McLaughlin spoke mostly about the case and how he was contacted by a group of his colleagues that had been working together in an organized effort to combat the Ku Klux Klan.
His colleagues requested that McLaughlin come to Chattanooga to help with a federal lawsuit against the men involved. As a group, the four victimized women decided to move forward with the case only on behalf of the community, and not themselves individually.
“They knew what it meant, they were brave, when I asked them and said their names, they all stood up,” McLaughlin said.
When he arrived in Chattanooga there was something Mr. Mclaughlin wanted to do— see the courtroom where he tried the case some 40 years previous, he said.
Randolph remembered a painting of a slave from 1863 that was inside of the courtroom during his case in 1980, he said. The painting is still in the courtroom today.
At trial, they learned of a red Ford Mustang that was used in the shooting, and that the car belonged to the girlfriend of one of the shooters Bill Church.
The owner of the mustang would also go on to testify in the trial against Mr. Church and the other members of the Justice Knights of the Klu Klux Klan.
The argument against the Justice Knights would eventually go on to work and the arguments Mr. Mclaughlin put forth would find the defendants legally liable for the incident.
Mr. Mclaughlin was able to use a law written in 1871: “An Act to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for Other Purposes,” also known as the “Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.”
The Act’s purpose was to eliminate “extralegal” violence and protect the civil liberties of freedpeople during Reconstruction.
The trial would move on and two years after the shooting, in 1982, Jackson, Evans, Johnson, Ellison and Crumley would win their case for the community.
The women were awarded over five hundred dollars for damages and the case resulted in an injunction ordered by the Federal Court on the defendants to stop them from harming any black people in Chattanooga for the rest of their lives.
In attendance that night at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center was Ms. Opal Lee Jackson herself, the only current living survivor from the incident.
Mr. McLaughlin asked Jackson to come up front to a loud cheer and standing ovation from the audience in attendance. The moment was highlighted with Ms. Jackson’s family members by her side.