by Bill Shipp
This September we are reprinting a new edition of Bill Shipp’s award-winning Murder at Broad River Bridge: The Slaying of Lemuel Penn by the Ku Klux Klan. In his book, longtime Atlanta Constitution reporter Bill Shipp, reports on the stunning details of the murder of Lieutenant Colonel Lemuel Penn by the Ku Klux Klan on a back-country Georgia road in 1964, nine days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Shipp gives us, with shattering power, the true story of how a good, innocent, “uninvolved” man was killed during the Civil Rights turbulence of the mid-1960s.
Penn was a decorated veteran of World War II, a United States Army Reserve officer, and an African American, killed by racist, white vigilantes as he was driving home to Washington, D.C. from Fort Benning, Georgia. Shipp recounts the details of the blind and lawless force that took Penn’s life and the sorry mask of protective patriotism it hid behind.
This section, “Weep for the Coward,” gives insight to the effect Penn’s murder had on his family, lays a humanitarian foundation for the injustice of the killing, and sets the stage for how the murderers were persecuted and what verdict was meted out.
Weep for the Coward
JULY 11, 1964, was the hardest day Charles E. Brown ever experienced. Even after help arrived at the tragic scene just outside Colbert, there was a new ordeal: rural lawmen poking flashlights into the car and shining them on Penn’s body, now lying on the floorboard. “What’s been goin’ on here?” one officer drawled suspiciously at Brown and Howard. Then came the long hours of questioning, by local officials first, then state officials, and finally federal officials. There seemed to be a tone in the questioning that somehow Penn, Brown and Howard had caused trouble, and that this was their retribution.
But there had been no trouble, not until the sudden shotgun blasts on that desolate road.
Both Howard and Brown were allowed to use telephones in Athens to notify their families. Military authorities were notified at nearby Fort Gordon. Brown and Howard were numb from grief, shock and exhaustion. The hardest telephone call of all was left to Brown, the call to Georgia Penn to tell her that her husband had been murdered in Georgia.
Penn died on a Saturday. On that Sunday and Monday, hundreds of people called on Georgia Penn and the three children to offer condolences at the Penns’ neat frame-and-brick home on a tree-shaded street in a quiet, recently desegregated Washington residential area.
“It is a pity that he could live through World War II and not be able to return home and live within the boundaries of his own country in safety and security,” Georgia Penn told friends with understandable bitterness.
On Monday evening the coffin was taken to Jones Memorial Methodist Church in Washington and opened so that mourners could view the remains of Lemuel Penn for the last time. Penn had been a trustee of the church.
In an emotional service on Tuesday, the Reverend Stafford Harris told the mourners: “Weep not for this peace-loving man, but weep for the coward who stooped to such a crime …. Lemuel Penn now rides for God’s battlefields.”
Penn was eulogized for his work in education by Carl Hanson, school superintendent for the District of Columbia. A commendation from Penn’s military unit was read at the service. It had been prepared while Penn was at Fort Benning and was to have been presented to him upon his return home.
Olaf Slostad, an official of the Boy Scouts of America, an organization in which Penn had been an active and honored leader, read from the pulpit: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty.”
The altar where the body lay was banked with flowers. On a red, white, and blue spray was a card that read: “A magnificent gentleman — from his friends and military associates of the 222nd Maneuver Control Command, Ft. Meade, Maryland.” This was from Penn’s army reserve unit, the one that had sent him on his fateful journey to Fort Benning that summer.
An army caisson, drawn by six grays, approached the Arlington National Cemetery gravesite to the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” played by the army band. The music changed to “Abide With Me ” as the casket was lifted over the grave.
The caisson at last stood empty.
It was the same caisson that had carried President John E Kennedy’s body to his grave seven months earlier.
Georgia Penn and her children wept.
Slightly more than a year later, on July 20, 1965, Georgia Penn died at George Washington University Hospital. Doctors attributed her death at forty,nine to a rare form of arthritis. Friends said she never recovered from the shock of her husband’s death, and died of a broken heart.