CONTEMPT OF COURT by Mark Curriden


The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched 100 Years of Federalism
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Welcome to an overlooked chapter in American history. Combining the details of a compelling story and the significance of precedent-setting Supreme Court decisions provides the ingredients for a terrific book. Dallas Morning News journalist Curriden and attorney Phillips deliver just that, presenting a reconstructed version of events that could be mistaken for a blockbuster movie if not for the un-Hollywood-like ending. When a white woman is assaulted and raped in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1906, it doesn’t take long before a black man is accused. The racial dynamics of the community, the characters of the sheriff and judge, and the obviously flawed conviction of the accused, Ed Johnson, would be rejected as unimaginative plagiarism if this were a work of fiction. When two local black lawyers decide to appeal, however, events take a very unfamiliar twist as they end up in front of Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan requesting a stay of execution. Even more surprising is their success, for at this time, no precedent establishing the authority of the US Supreme Court to intervene in state criminal matters existed. Upon hearing the news from Washington, the local mob lynches Johnson with nearly overt cooperation from the sheriff. To the amazement of local officials, the incident doesn—t end there, for the members of the Supreme Court are considerably agitated by this affront to their authority. Federal investigations ensue and lead to contempt of court charges against the sheriff. These unprecedented charges lead to an equally unprecedented conviction, and the position of the Supreme Court as the ultimate court of appeal is established. Of course, the sentences are light and the prejudice that killed Ed Johnson remains more vigorous than the faint hope for justice that inspired his lawyers. Nevertheless, in a century that ultimately saw the Supreme Court take the lead in fighting institutionalized racism, this case was a watershed and deserves our attention.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-571-19952-6
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1999


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