February 25, 1946 – Rioting in Columbia, Tennessee involving a Returned Black Veteran Who Dared Defy a White Man

On this day in history, James Stephenson, a recently discharged Navy veteran, got into an argument with a white radio repairman in a shop in Columbia, Tennessee over a botched repair job for his mother Gladys. The repairman, William Fleming, “slapped, struck or kicked” Gladys, and James came to her defense.

Fighting broke out between the two men, and either Fleming or both Fleming and Stephenson crashed through a plate-glass store window.

Both Stephenson and his mother were arrested. News of the confrontation spread, and by 6:00 p.m., a white lynch mob paraded around the jailhouse. At least part of the mob then headed toward the black section of town, known as Mink Slide. A number of black veterans organized an armed defense of their neighborhood. According to court testimony two months later, two armed white men “under the influence of alcohol” and four city policemen who went into Mink Slide that night were wounded by gunfire from blacks, who were convinced that a lynching was about to occur.

As Fred Jerome recorded in his book The Einstein File:

African-Americans firing on white policemen was enough for the governor to rush in five hundred state troopers with submachine guns. They attacked Mink Slide, destroying virtually every black-owned business in the four square-block area, seizing whatever weapons they could find and arresting more than one hundred black men.”

The officers fired randomly into buildings, stole cash and goods, searched homes without warrants, and took any guns, rifles, and shotguns they could find. None of the accused were granted bail or allowed legal counsel.

Matters intensified on February 28, when Columbia policemen killed two black prisoners in custody, allegedly in “self-defense.” [A federal grand jury was convened to investigate the charges of misconduct by the white policemen, but the local all-white jury absolved the officers of any wrong doing.]

The Columbia “riot” made headlines across the state and the nation. Walter White and Thurgood Marshall of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People immediately flew to Nashville in order to organize a legal defense. White met with Governor James N. McCord and announced the creation of a national defense committee. Albert Einstein was among those who joined the National Committee for Justice in Columbia, Tennessee, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt and also supported by Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Joe Louis, A. Phillip Randolph and Langston Hughes.

Twenty-five of the arrested black men were indicted for ‘attempted murder.’ Thurgood Marshall, chief defense attorney for the twenty-five, angrily declared:

The action of the Tennessee State troopers in roping off the Negro section of Columbia, Tennessee, and firing at will and indiscriminately was closer to . . . German storm troopers than any recent police action in this country.”

Twenty-five black men sit in Maury Circuit Court on May 28, 1946, for a hearing in their case. (Photo: Nashville Public Library, Special Collections, Nashville Banner Archives, AP)

No doubt thanks to pressure by the National Committee for Justice and the national attention to the case, as well as to Marshall and his interracial defense team over the course of two trials, twenty-four of the twenty-five defendants were acquitted, with the twenty-fifth released after serving ten months of a five-year sentence. After the second trial, Marshall himself narrowly escaped from a lynch mob (including local police). This would not be the only attempt by whites to murder Marshall.

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