Tennessee Weighs Commission to Examine Jim Crow Brutality

By CHAS SISK, Nashville Public Radio

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Charlie Morris vividly recalls his brother's murder.

Jesse Lee Bond was a sharecropper in Shelby County. Suspicious because his harvests never seemed to cover his debts, in the spring of 1939, Bond asked the local general store for a receipt of his seed purchases.

For his diligence, he was shot, castrated, dragged and left for dead in the Hatchie River.

"The medical examiner at that time, as well as the sheriff, when they took him out of the river, they told The Commercial Appeal there was no signs of anything but drowning," Morris says.

Now 97, Morris described the killing and cover-up at a legislative hearing earlier this year.

Tennessee is taking a tentative step toward acknowledging its legacy of lynching and other civil rights crimes. State lawmakers are weighing whether Tennessee should establish a commission that can investigate cold cases ignored during Jim Crow — and decide whether to prosecute perpetrators if they're still alive.

In all, 238 Tennesseans are documented to have been lynched. The crimes include hangings, beatings and drownings.

State Rep. Johnnie Turner, D-Memphis, pushed a bill through the legislature this year that creates a study committee of three state representatives and three senators. The group will hash out details — or even if the commission is something Tennessee desires.

Turner has no doubts.

"There are a lot of cases out there — unsolved, civil rights murders," she says. "It is extremely urgent that we do something now before it becomes too late."

Systemic Violence

The move is part of a larger effort to rethink brutality under Jim Crow. Some now say lynching should be viewed as domestic terrorism aimed at depriving African-Americans of their rights, rather than random violence.

The gruesome death of Jesse Lee Bond in 1939 is difficult to contemplate now, these people say. But they add, it's long past time for authorities to acknowledge his killing was not an isolated incident.

The movement to rethink lynching includes a national museum in Montgomery, Ala. The Memorial to Peace and Justice is being built with private funds by an organization called the Equal Justice Initiative.

Soil taken from lynching sites will be included in the memorial. And when it opens next year the Memorial to Peace and Justice will also feature 801 removable pillars — one for each county in the 20 states where lynchings were recorded. Organizers hope each county will build its own lynching memorial, using that pillar.

And this week, the Equal Justice Initiative launched an interactive map to show where lynchings occurred.

Debate Over A Commission

Though separate, a lynching commission in Tennessee would add to those efforts.

It's up to the study committee to determine what the scope of the commission would be. The measure approved by lawmakers calls for focusing on cold cases from "the civil rights era," which Turner describes as the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

And it's not clear whether those cases would be investigated by the commission itself or turned over to local prosecutors.

The measure passed the state legislature unanimously, though with some reservations. State Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, questioned the need for a commission. He says the only crime that could be prosecuted is murder.

"And if there's any (police) department out there that doesn't have a cold case unit and isn't investigating murder, then they need a change in leadership," he says. "It sounds like something that will sound good in the news."

Turner, however, cites her family's experience under Jim Crow to justify more intensive inquiry. Her father-in-law was murdered, she says, for standing up to a white man who whistled and flirted with his daughter.

"We know that law enforcement and the criminal justice system failed to hold these vigilantes accountable," she says. "I don't think we should ever not assume responsibility for not trying to find an answer."

Even if Turner's father-in-law and his killers are deceased, she says, their families still remember the injustice.

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