Justice delayed; justice denied!
My two recent columns on the killings of Emmett Till and Rev. George Lee in Mississippi seemed to bother “Fred,” who identified himself as a frequent reader. Here’s a recap of our recent exchange:
FRED: Look, with so many other pressing issues today, why on Earth do you keep taking us back in history? It’s awful what happened to them but why should we be reminded of the fate of Till and Lee? Give us a break, will you!
ME: Nice to hear from you Fred. Well, given that we’re in the midst of a rancorous election for the next president, let alone acts to suppress the right to vote, I thought it important to remind folks of the ultimate price paid by many to secure and exercise that right.
FRED: Okay but don’t you think that it’s time to move on?
ME: Actually, I have one more Fred. This time it’s about Lamar Smith. Perhaps you’ve never heard of him. So here it is.
To contextualize this narrative, it seems that death by suicide has a way of cheating survivors out of the justice they deserve. That’s the thought that raced through my mind when I heard that the killer of three innocent African Americans in Jacksonville, Florida took his own life by the gun he used to snuff out the lives of his victims. You could hear that frustration from the mouths of Jacksonville’s police chief and many others who seized and screamed into microphones.
Similarly, the Jacksonville tragedy got me thinking about death by natural causes as was the case of the killers of Emmett Till and Rev. George Lee, Mississippi men I wrote about in previous columns who died before facing justice. Although it took decades of case dismissals, Byron De Beckwith, the assassin of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, was finally convicted for his heinous crime. Of course, Beckwith’s conviction was the exception in those days in the deep South.
This takes us to a little-known Lamar Smith, the World War I veteran who knew the risk of registering Black residents to vote in the deep South and encouraging them to exercise that right. I happened across the name Lamar Smith during my research into the death of Emmett Till, which led me to learning about Rev. George Lee and eventually to Lamar Smith. Briefly, Lamar Smith’s civil rights work led to his fatal shooting in 1955 on the lawn of the Brookhaven courthouse in Mississippi by three men who, like scores of others during that time in our history, were never prosecuted for the crime. His murder was one of several racially motivated attacks in Mississippi in that year. The other incidents, as cited, included the murder of George W. Lee in Belzoni (May), Emmett Till, in Money (August), and the shooting of Gus Courts (December), a civil rights associate of Lee in Belzoni. The Smith case was cited in the NAACP‘s pamphlet M is for Mississippi and Murder.
Noah Smith, Mack Smith, and Charles Falvey were arrested for Smith’s death, but were never tried. Two grand juries were convened but did not take action because witnesses refused to testify, according to FBI documents. The FBI reopened Smith’s case in 2008 as part of an initiative for unresolved civil rights era murders but closed his case in April 2010, saying that the three men were dead and unable to be prosecuted.
Now as frustrating as it is, the Jacksonville killer’s suicide snatched away any chance for justice for the survivors of his hateful act. Similarly, deaths by natural causes robbed the survivors of the killings of Till, Lee, and Smith the justice they deserved.
So let’s wrap this up with the well-recognized phrase “Justice delayed is justice denied,” one that’s often used to emphasize the importance of timely and efficient delivery of justice.
When a legal system fails to provide justice in a timely manner, it can lead to frustration, loss of faith in the system, and even further injustice. It’s hard to imagine decades waiting for justice by the families of Emmett Till, George Lee, and Lamar Smith only to see that justice snatched away by death by natural causes.
In the end, I hope that one day we won’t have to regurgitate the past to remind folks not to take the right to vote for granted, especially during the times we now live in.
And “Fred,” if you read this one, thanks for posing me with your question. Keep on reading and I promise to keep on writing.Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.