Nine days before the men started their drive home from Ft. Benning, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. This landmark legislation banned racial discrimination in hiring and ended segregation in public places and many businesses. Local members of the Ku Klux Klan in Athens had heard rumors that Georgia might become a “testing ground” for the new law according a 2004 article from Online Athens.
Lemuel Penn and his two brothers-in-arms, Major Charles Brown and Lt. Col. John Howard, stopped to change drivers in Athens in the early morning hours of July 11. After Penn took the wheel, they resumed their journey, but caught the attention of a trio of Klansmen before they left town.
James Lackey, Cecil Myers, and Howard Sims were blue collar workers in their mid-twenties who were conducting a KKK security patrol in Athens with the intention of “scaring off any out-of-town colored people before they could give us any trouble.” They noticed the Washington, D.C license plate on Penn’s car and decided to follow it. Sims reportedly said, “I’m gonna [sic] kill me a nigger [sic]” as they began the chase.
It was about twenty miles before the Klansmen caught up with the army officers. They had driven through Colbert and then followed Ga. Hwy. 172 north toward Bowman. As they reached the Broad River, which serves as the line between Madison and Elbert Counties, the Klansmen pulled alongside Penn’s car. As Lackey drove, Sims and Myers both fired shotguns into the side of driver’s side of the car.
One blast hit clothes and luggage in the backseat, waking Brown and Howard. The other hit Penn in the jaw and neck. Brown later said, “I believe that Penn died before we managed to stop the car.”
Penn’s car ran against the concrete side of the bridge, helping Brown and Howard stop it. As they did, they saw headlights and thought the Klansmen were returning. Brown took the wheel and tried to turn around, but missed the road in the fog, causing the car to roll over.
The men got out and attempted to flag down another passing car. The driver did not stop, but apparently notified the Madison County sheriff who soon arrived with the coroner.
Almost immediately, the case received a high priority from the Johnson Administration. J. Edgar Hoover sent scores of FBI agents to crack the case. Georgia governor Carl Sanders told the public that he was “ashamed for myself and the responsible citizens of Georgia that this occurrence took place in our state” according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Suspicion quickly fell upon Lackey, Sims, Myers, Herbert Guest, the owner of Guest’s Garage, a Klan hangout, and Denver Phillips, a mechanic employed by Guest. Over the next few weeks, the FBI agents watched and followed their quarry in a friendly game of cat-and-mouse. At one point, the agents sent a birthday cake to Guest and the Klansmen invited their FBI tails to a meeting, offering to provide them with robes.
Finally, Lackey came in to talk to the FBI agents. When he complained of stomach problems, one of the agents said, “I know something's eating you, and your stomach is not going to get better until you tell me about it.” At that point, Lackey told the story of the murder.
What happened next is as shocking to a modern American as the murder itself.
The story did not end there, however. In the first case of its kind, based on the pattern of intimidation and violence by the Klan uncovered in their investigation of Penn’s murder, the FBI filed a federal case against Sims, Myers, Lackey, Guest, Phillips, and another local Klansman, George Hampton Turner. The charge was conspiring or threatening to abridge another person’s civil rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sims and Myers were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The other defendants were acquitted.
Lemuel Penn left behind a wife and three children. His wife, Georgia, died from lupus less than a year after her husband’s murder. Her daughter has little doubt that she actually grieved herself to death.
Lt. Col. Penn’s body was flown home to Dover Air Force Base, the same base where fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan often return to American soil. He was honored with a twenty-one gun salute. Penn is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with more than 285,000 other American heroes of all races.
I grew up about 20 miles by road from the murder site. I have driven hundreds of times across the Broad River bridge on Hwy. 172 where Lt. Col. Penn died as I commuted to the University of Georgia and then to a job in Athens.
I was born a little more than seven years after the murder. In that time, Georgia changed dramatically and for the better. By the time I went to elementary school, my class included both black and white children and teachers. For the most part, race wasn’t something that we thought about much, if at all. For most of my life, I really had no idea how much the world had changed a few short years prior to my entering it.
After the murder of Lt. Col. Penn, the House Un-American Activities Committee launched an investigation of the Klan. As the Bible says, evil loves darkness. When the government shed light on the actions of the Klan, the domestic terror group entered a steep decline from which it has never recovered.
I can only remember seeing Klansmen once in my life. While I was in college, working part-time at a local drugstore, a small group of Klansmen, complete with white robes but without masks, got a permit to hand out literature on the town square in Hartwell, Ga. They were neither vilified nor ignored. Instead, people drove by to see the oddities, treating them with the curiosity that such moral relics are due in the modern world.
To learn more about the murder of Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, refer to the following sources:
“Murder at Broad River Bridge: A True Story of Murder and the Ku Klux Klan,” by Bill Shipp (1981), available on Amazon.com
Time magazine subscribers can view the link the trial coverage from Sept. 11, 1964: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,830636,00.html
Online Athens article from 2004 gives a detailed account of the killing and investigation: http://onlineathens.com/stories/071104/new_20040711120.shtml
New Georgia Encyclopedia: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/ArticlePrintable.jsp?id=h-3611
Findagrave.com has photos of Lt. Col. Penn’s grave at Arlington and allows users to add flowers in his memory: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=2117
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
This article was originally published on Examiner.com: