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Columbia Race Riot, 1946

This post-World War II race riot occurred in the town of Columbia on the night of February 25-26, 1946. Like other outbreaks of violence in the South in the immediate postwar era, this incident involved military veterans who were unwilling to accept prevailing racial norms upon returning to their hometowns. In 1946 Columbia contained about five thousand whites and three thousand blacks. Race relations in the county had often been tense in the prior generation; since 1925, for example, two lynchings had taken place there. But racial violence decreased during World War II, and in the postwar months there were few indications of future trouble.

On February 25, 1946, James Stephenson, a U.S. Navy veteran from the Pacific theater, accompanied his mother, Gladys Stephenson, to a local department store to pick up a radio that Mrs. Stephenson had left for repairs. She and a young white male clerk began to argue about the repair order; he became verbally aggressive, threatening her. James Stephenson stepped between the two and struggled with the clerk, who ended up crashing through a window in the department store. Local police arrested both Stephensons for disturbing the peace. They pleaded guilty and paid a fifty-dollar fine.

The incident was seemingly over until, on that same day, the police again arrested James Stephenson, this time due to a warrant brought by the white clerk's father. The new warrant charged Stephenson with assault with the intent to commit murder, a felony. Julius Blair, a local black businessman, posted bond, however, and Stephenson was able to return home that evening.

On the night of February 25 a white mob gathered around the Maury County Courthouse. A block south, along the segregated black business section known as the Mink Slide, black citizens and military veterans gathered as well. The Columbia police chief sent four patrolmen to the Mink Slide. Someone shouted for the officers to stop; when they failed to do so, shots were fired, leaving all four wounded. Within hours, state highway patrolmen and the state safety commissioner, Lynn Bomar, arrived in town. Together with some of the town's whites, they surrounded the Mink Slide district. During the early morning of February 26 highway patrolmen first entered the district. The officers fired randomly into buildings, stole cash and goods, searched homes without warrants, and took any guns, rifles, and shotguns they could find. When the sweep was over, more than one hundred blacks had been arrested, and about three hundred weapons from the black community had been confiscated. None of the accused were granted bail or allowed legal counsel.

The Columbia "riot" made headlines across the state and the nation. Walter White and Thurgood Marshall of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People immediately flew to Nashville in order to organize a legal defense. White met with Governor James N. McCord and announced the creation of a national defense committee. Marshall turned to Tennessee attorneys Z. Alexander Looby of Nashville and Maurice Weaver of Chattanooga for assistance.

Matters intensified on February 28, when Columbia policemen killed two black prisoners in custody. During an interrogation of James Johnson, William Gordon, and Napoleon Stewart, the police reported, two prisoners grabbed guns from white officers and began shooting. In defense, the police retaliated, killing two and wounding the third suspect. This ended the immediate violence in Columbia, but the case continued throughout the spring and summer of 1946. A federal grand jury was convened to investigate the charges of misconduct by the white policemen, but the local all-white jury absolved the officers of any wrong doing. Eventually, twenty-five blacks were tried in Lawrenceburg for the shootings of the white officers; two were found guilty but were never retried due to lack of evidence. The one valid conviction came in a second trial at Columbia in November. Lloyd Kennedy was found guilty and served time in jail for shooting at a white highway patrolman.

By November 1946 the case was over, but racial harassment continued. As Marshall, Looby, and Weaver left Columbia for the final time, a convoy of patrolmen followed. The police stopped the three civil rights attorneys twice for imaginary highway violations. The third time, they arrested Marshall for drunk driving, placed him in a patrol car, and sped away. Looby and Weaver followed, fearing for Marshall's life, but after a long journey through the countryside, the police stopped at a local magistrate's office, where the charge of drunk driving was dropped. Marshall was free to go, but this time the attorneys asked Columbia friends to mount their own convoy to escort the three men safely to Nashville. "The Columbia incident and the reaction to it," concluded historian Dorothy Beeler, "were major events of the late 1940's, which helped create a base from which black organizations gathered strength for the civil rights push of the 1950's and 1960's." (1)

Suggested Reading

Robert W. Ikard, No More Social Lynchings (1997); Gail W. O'Brien, The Color of the Law (1999).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010