A Murder in Georgia
Reflections on the horror of good-old-boy racism in the not-so-distant past.
I was fast asleep a few hours before dawn when Lemuel Penn’s car made its way through my tiny hometown of Colbert, in northeast Georgia. The Washington, D.C., educator and two colleagues, all of them U.S. Army reservists, were headed home after a training exercise at Fort Benning.
They were African-Americans. And they were being followed.
A few miles east of Colbert, a car carrying three members of the Ku Klux Klan pulled alongside Penn’s Chevrolet sedan on a bridge. Two of the Klansmen opened fire with sawed-off shotguns. The 48-year-old Penn died instantly. For whatever reason, the shooters chose not to chase his companions down and kill them too.
It was July 11, 1964, just nine days after the Civil Rights Act had been signed into law.
The Klansmen, from nearby Athens, were arrested. One confessed and identified the other two, Joseph Sims and Cecil Myers, as the shooters. The pair went on trial in September; it took an all-white jury in Madison County all of 81 minutes to acquit them.
Although the federal government later prosecuted Sims and Myers under the Civil Rights Act, the jury’s quick decision spoke volumes about the racial hatred pervasive in the South. And here it was on full display just outside the community where my family had moved seven months earlier. I was only 8 years old at the time, and the shooting terrified me, so much so that for years, whenever we crossed the Broad River bridge in our family car, I would drop to the rear floorboard, out of range of the gunmen I was sure lurked nearby.
These memories came flooding back as I edited the story featured in this issue about Central Florida’s Groveland Boys, four African-Americans accused of raping a white woman in 1949. In their case, despite a lack of physical evidence, it took an all-white jury just 90 minutes to return with guilty verdicts. And it struck me that the cases of Penn and the Groveland Boys were not really that long ago in our history. To think that a huge Klan rally—coinciding with the retrial of one of the Groveland defendants—was staged in downtown Orlando along Orange Avenue just 63 years ago is astounding.
As noted in our story, state Sen. Geraldine Thompson has introduced a bill asking the state to exonerate the four Groveland men (two were shot dead by law enforcement) and apologize to their families. At the time we printed this issue, the bill was still in a Senate committee.
The Groveland case received much attention in 2013, when Gilbert King won a Pulitzer Prize for his book about it. The Penn killing, by comparison, has remained obscure. But when I think about the worst examples of racist cruelty, it is his case that always comes to my mind.
When I was 9 years old, I saved a copy of a Saturday Evening Post that had an article about Penn’s murder. I still unbox it occasionally to read about what happened that summer morning 10 minutes from my house. Strangely, what draws me most to the magazine is the eerie black-and-white photo of the Broad River bridge. It’s as if the image has been burned in my mind forever.
Penn’s family received no apologies. His killers served only six years in prison. His wife, Georgia, died a year after his murder; their three children were raised by relatives.
He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery because of what he did for his country two decades earlier—something that had nothing to do with civil rights but had everything to do with liberty and heroism.
Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn was a decorated veteran of World War II.