Chattanooga, Tennessee — The last time a crowd gathered at Chattanooga’s Walnut Street Bridge for Ed Johnson, it was to witness his lynching.
In 1906, Johnson, a Black man, was wrongly accused of raping a White woman and sentenced to death. His attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, which stayed his execution. But a bloodthirsty mob dragged Johnson from his jail cell and hanged him from the bridge.
“The Supreme Court for the first time in its existence, first time ever, intervened in a state criminal prosecution. No one thought that was gonna happen,” said U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Collier.
Johnson’s final words are etched on his headstone: “God bless you all. I am a innocent man.”
As statues of Johnson and the attorneys who defended him were unveiled Sunday, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly issued a formal apology, inspiring a standing ovation.
“It was a gross injustice,” Kelly said of why it’s important to talk about what happened 115 years ago. “I think this process of reconciliation is really critically important for the city.”
Eric Atkins, the co-chair of the Ed Johnson Project, which pushed for a permanent memorial for Johnson, said he was 10 or 11 when he learned about the lynching.
“When I think of this memorial,” he said, “I think that it’s gonna stand as a symbol to where people learn that we are far better together than we are divided.”