June 21, 1940 – Alabamian Black Man Lynched for Failing to Address White Cop as “Mr.”

On this day in history, Jesse Thornton, a 26-year-old black man, was attacked by a mob in Luverne, Alabama as he was being led to the city jail. Thornton and a few friends had been standing in front of the barbershop talking. As an officer came along, Thornton said, “There comes Doris Rhodes, boys.” Officer Rhodes (actually named Doris) overheard the remark, turned to Thornton and said, “What did you say?” Thornton tried to recover by claiming he said “Mr. Doris Rhodes.” The officer said, “No you didn’t Nigger.” He then struck Jesse with his black jack, knocked him to the ground, and arrested him.

A mob quickly gathered and Thornton tried to flee. The mob fired gunshots and threw bricks, bats, and stones. Thornton was felled by a bullet and the mob drove him off to a nearby swamp where he was shot again. Seven days later, a local fisherman found Thornton’s body eaten by vultures and buzzards in the Patsaliga River near Tuskegee Institute.


Meanwhile, after the killing, the mob kidnapped Thornton’s wife from her home during the night. They told her that she would face the same fate as her husband if she told anyone about the kidnapping. Following the kidnapping, she was so intimidated that she refused to speak to anyone in town, including black residents.

Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney with the NAACP, was contacted by the Birmingham branch of the NAACP. Marshall requested that the Department of Justice investigate. The Assistant Attorney General sent a memo to J. Edgar Hoover, then Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, asking that the FBI investigate any officials that were complicit in Thornton’s lynching. Hoover’s FBI was not much interested in pursuing complaints about civil rights, however. It is uncertain if the FBI or Department of Justice ever took formal steps to prosecute anyone in connection to Thornton’s case.



One Response

  1. Oh my God. Can you imagine what Thorton’s wife went through too that night? It shouldn’t be surprising, but it still is.

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