Mural In Lawrence County Courthouse Depicts Early Civil Rights Victory

February 16, 2021

When most people walk into the courthouse in Lawrenceburg, they likely brush right past a mural representing one of the most significant early civil rights victories in a southern courtroom. The “Justice Served” mural depicts the story of the criminal case that followed the Columbia “race riot” in 1946. The proceedings for 23 of the 25 Black defendants were moved to Lawrence County and, after a trial showcasing the legal skills of attorneys who in the coming years would become household names during the Civil Rights Movement, an all-white jury came back with a not guilty verdict, a shocking event for the times.

The Trial

In February 1946, Gladys Stephenson and her son James went to the local Castner-Knott store in Columbia where Gladys expressed dissatisfaction with a radio repair she had paid for. Tensions escalated, and a white clerk at the store struck James. A fight ensued, after which Gladys and James were arrested. Angry white crowds began milling around the town square that afternoon after they heard about the fight. In response to the growing mob, many black Columbians in the business district known alternatively as Mink Slide or the Bottom, begin arming themselves for protection. After shots were fired in the dark, four police officers were wounded. State highway patrolmen later descended on Mink Slide, ransacking the district and arresting over 100 Black citizens. Eventually, 25 of those citizens would be charged, most of them with attempted murder.

The trial that resulted attracted nationwide attention, not only because it proceeded from the Columbia “race riot,” itself national news, but also because it featured some of the NAACP’s top legal luminaries in action.

Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s special counsel at the time, had been involved in pre-trial work and a protracted jury selection process over the summer, but had to bow out of the main trial because of illness. He would return to personally lead the defense during a second trial in Columbia in November, for two additional Black men charged in relation to the riot (one would be acquitted, the other convicted of a lesser charge). Marshall himself would narrowly escape an attempted lynching as he was leaving Columbia following the successful resolution of that trial.

Taking the lead at the Lawrence County trial were noted Nashville attorney Z. Alexander Looby, an analytical and eloquent jurist who would go on to defend many student sit-in activists during the 1960s. He was joined by Maurice Weaver, a fiery white lawyer from Chattanooga who seemed to relish taking part in the contentious case, loudly objecting when defendants were referred to by racial epithets in the courtroom and accusing the other side of advocating a Fascist philosophy of white supremacy. The third member of the team was Leon Ransom, a civil rights attorney and a longtime professor and former dean of the law school at Howard University.

An all-white jury found 23 of 25 black defendants not guilty on the attempted murder charges, stunning many in the courtroom. The jury took less than two hours to reach its verdict.

“The judge read the verdict over to himself, paused, apparently re-read it, and then read it again to himself,” The Columbia Daily Herald reported. “He asked the jurors if this was their verdict, and then read it aloud. Smiles spread over the faces of the acquitted defendants.”

“Southern Justice Stands Up” declared the New York Times editorial board on Oct. 6, 1946. “Columbia Trial Jury Stuns Nation With Acquittals” announced The Chicago Defender the following week.

The Mural

The mural by Bernice Davidson commemorating the historic trial was unveiled in the Lawrence County Courthouse in 2017. The trial had been relocated to Lawrence County from Maury County after the defense argued that local press coverage would unduly bias local jurors.

The “Justice Served” mural features some of the main figures in the trial and was commissioned by the Lawrence County Historical Society and funded by private donations. In it, Looby addresses the audience, while Gladys Stephenson sits on the witness stand.

Above the scene, a group of angels, representing those who lost lives to racist violence, observe the trial and pray. One of them holds a broken radio, an allusion to the radio that Stephenson had taken to be repaired. 

On the left side of the mural sits a group of defendants. On the right side sits jury members. A concerned Black citizen holds her daughter at the bottom left.

For Davidson, the mural represents not only the importance of the trial itself, but the necessity of remembering unsung heroes whose contributions to justice often are overlooked.

“It’s a story that really needs to be told because there were so many acts of bravery that went down around the whole event,” Davidson said. “People stick up for what’s right, and do the right thing, and are courageous even in the face of danger. These are stories the youth need to know.”

Davidson was touched when members of the Stephenson family in Michigan contacted her after finding a news article about the mural online. Gladys and James Stephenson had moved out of state, never to return, after escaping the mob violence in Columbia, but these relatives wanted to come see the mural for themselves. They were able to arrive in time for the unveiling.

“That was just a really beautiful experience to share the opening with those family members,” Davidson said.

The Columbia “race riot” is now remembered as the first major racial confrontation in the post-WWII United States, and as a testament to the willingness of newly returned Black veterans to demand freedom at home just like the freedom they had fought for abroad.

You can find more of Bernice Davidson's work commemorating unsung heroes of Tennessee and other subjects on her website.

The mural "Justice Served" is located in the Lawrence County Courthouse