Details In Trial Of Infamous 1980 Local Shooting Of Black Women Chronicled By Lawyer

Friday, February 21, 2020 - by John Shearer

The New York lawyer who helped try the federal civil trial against three Ku Klux Klan-affiliated white men in the shooting injuries of five black local women 40 years ago said a statue needs to be erected in their honor and memory.

The comments came after attorney Randolph M. McLaughlin had given a church sermon-like speech at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, and he mentioned that he realized when being interviewed earlier that the museum has a women of distinction display, but nothing on them.

“They should be on that wall,” he said Thursday evening following a roughly 45-minute speech to a packed crowd of 150-200 in the central entrance hall area.
“Better yet, put up a statue for them. If I can help get that done, I’m with you.”

The lawyer, who had put together documents on the 1982 federal trial here into a book called “Racially Motivated Violence: Litigation Strategies,” which he said is popular in prisons, had been brought to Chattanooga through UTC student Tiffany Herron.

She had only heard about the case during a city tour in recent years and became interested in researching the story of the racially motivated shooting and subsequent trials. During her research, she met Mr. McLaughlin, and with the help of UTC and a grant was able to bring him to Chattanooga.

Other than occasional comments like criticizing Gov. Bill Lee for signing a proclamation for Klan founder/Civil War Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and President Donald Trump’s words after the Charlottesville supremacists’ rally of 2017, most of Mr. McLaughlin’s talk chronicled the case.

He said he had worked with a group of lawyers trying to combat the Klan, and he was invited to Chattanooga by the late local NAACP leader George Key after the criminal trial.

In late July 1980, defendants Bill Church, Larry Payne and Marshall Thrash had been acquitted of intent to commit murder charges in connection with the shooting of several black women near the corner of M.L. King Boulevard (then Ninth Street) and Douglas Street on April 19, 1980.

Four of the women – Viola Ellison, Lela Mae Evans, Katherine O. Johnson and Opal Lee Jackson – were hit as they were walking out of a nightclub, while Fannie Mae Crumsey was hit with flying glass while working in a garden at what was then 808 E. Ninth St., police said.

Mr. Thrash, who had fired the gun, was sentenced on lesser charges.

During that month in which the temperature reached 100 degrees several times, rioting began for several days in the Alton Park area, and Chattanooga made national news in what was one of its worst racial crises, perhaps comparable only to one that occurred in 1971.

Rumors had even circulated one day that someone had been shot near the Chattanooga Glass plant before it was found to be untrue.

It was an event that people in Chattanooga at that time have never forgotten, and it took place during a period when most white Chattanoogans had long since moved beyond the segregated and prejudiced issues of 20-plus years earlier.

But some had apparently not. Mr. McLaughlin said he found a letter from Mr. Church written to an Alabama Klan leader apologizing for agreeing to take off his robe during an earlier meeting with Mr. Key before the shooting, and he said that letter with other inferences should have been used more in the criminal case.

He said a decision was made with the agreement of the five women injured during the shooting to file the subsequent federal suit on behalf of the community instead of them individually, and that helped the case.

He recalled that Ms. Crumsey was assertive, but the four others were shy.

“But they knew what happened to them and they wanted to fight back,” Mr. McLaughlin said, recalling that he called each of them Ms. So-And-So out of respect instead of by their first names. “They stood up.”

Of the 1982 trial, he remembered that the federal courtroom at the Joel Solomon Building by Miller Park had a 1937 mural depicting a slave from 1863, and he saw it again on Thursday when he revisited the courtroom. He also saw the home at 808 M.L. King, which still has bullet damage from the shots about head high – where Ms. Crumsey would have been had she been standing up instead of leaning over.

He said they could not get a local lawyer to sign off with him trying the case since he was not licensed in Tennessee – even though someone said after the speech Chattanooga had at least two black practicing attorneys – so they ended up getting A.C. Wharton of Memphis.

It is apparently the same Mr. Wharton who became that city’s mayor in recent years.

Mr. McLaughlin said that they were having trouble getting a black juror after the defense team had eliminated several, but Judge Frank Wilson – whom Mr. McLaughlin praised – moved one black woman – a Ms. Jones – up the pool list, and she ended up serving.

He recalled some high moments during the trial, when he was escorted around town by Mr. Key. He said the Chattanooga Police Department seemed intent on justice being done properly, and a white man with a local accent even came up to him one time and, to Mr. McLaughlin’s surprise, said he supported their case.

“He said, ‘I want you to know we don’t like what the white boys did and we want you to get them,’ ” Mr. McLaughlin said.

With the help of strong testimony from Mr. Church’s former girlfriend, whose red Mustang car was used in the shooting, they did win the case in February 1982 in one of Judge Wilson’s last trials before retirement.

They received $535,000 in damages. Mr. McLaughlin said they were able to get a little money from the sale of a home that had belonged to Mr. Payne. But even more important, they also were able to get an injunction against the three defendants to keep them from harming the women or bothering blacks in Chattanooga again.

“That injunction is still on the books,” Mr. McLaughlin said proudly.

Mr. McLaughlin also said in later years he once met a black attorney from Chattanooga, who thanked him for his work. “He said, ‘The fact you all took the case, it showed us here we could stand up and fight for rights,’ ” the speaker recalled.

Nothing was said at the speech regarding what became of the three defendants. Mr. McLaughlin did reference Mr. Church, saying he did not know what happened to him.

It is known that Mr. Thrash – whose parents were very respected members of the Chattanooga community, as is his brother, George -- went on to lead an outwardly redemptive life, becoming an active member and volunteer at Red Bank United Methodist Church.

Of the five women victims, only Ms. Jackson is still living, the audience was told. She was in attendance along with her family, and in an impromptu moment, was brought to the front amid a standing ovation.

She told the crowd she was 86 and briefly chronicled being shot.

Her family member, Sonya Moton, spoke about her positively, as did Juanita Toney for the late Ms. Crumsey.

Ms. Herron, who at the beginning told the audience that the story continued to stay with her as she researched it, said in closing the event that it was a special night.

“This is a little emotional,” she told the crowd.

She then asked everyone to say the names of the five women out loud in closing, with the family members of Ms. Jackson shouting her name with obvious pride as her time to be mentioned came.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

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