July 11, 1964 – Murder of Lemuel Penn in Georgia, African American U.S. Army Veteran, for Driving While Black

Lemeul Penn, born September 19, 1915, was the Assistant Superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools, a decorated veteran of World War II, a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve, and the father of three young children. He was murdered at age 48 on this day in history by members of the Ku Klux Klan, nine days after passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Lemuel Penn

Penn was driving home, together with two other black Reserve officers, to Washington, D.C. from Fort Benning, Georgia where they had been training. They were spotted by three white members of a violent KKK group called the Black Shirts in Athens, Georgia, who noticed the D.C. plates on the car. One of the killers apparently said: “That must be one of President Johnson’s boys” and decided to follow the car. He added: “I’m going to kill me a nigger.”

Just before the highway crossed the Broad River, the Klansmen’s car pulled alongside the car of the three black men. Two of the group raised their shotguns and fired.

Penn was killed. The three white men were identified as the ones who chased the trio of Army reservists. The two shooters were tried in state superior court but found not guilty by an all-white jury.

The federal government then successfully prosecuted the men for violations under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just nine days before Penn’s murder. The case was instrumental in the creation of a Justice Department task force whose work culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court in United States v. Guest (383 U.S. 745, 1966)

The appellees, six private individuals, had been indicted under 18 U.S.C. § 241 “for conspiring to deprive Negro citizens in the vicinity of Athens, Georgia, of the free exercise and enjoyment of rights secured to them by the Constitution and laws of the United States, viz., the right to use state facilities without discrimination on the basis of race, the right freely to engage in interstate travel, and the right to equal enjoyment of privately owned places of public accommodation, now guaranteed by Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that it did not involve rights which are attributes of national citizenship, to which it deemed § 241 solely applicable, and dismissed the indictment. The prosecution appealed, arguing that the indictment alleged, in part, a denial of rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Justice Potter Stewart

The Supreme Court held, in an 8-1 opinion authored by Justice Potter Stewart, that protection of the 14th Amendment extended to citizens who suffer rights deprivations at the hands of private conspiracies, where there is minimal state participation in the conspiracy. The Court also held that there is Constitutional right to travel from state to state. If the predominate purpose of the conspiracy is to prevent the exercise of the right of travel, or to oppress a person of that right, as was the case here, then whether or not motivated by racial discrimination, the conspiracy becomes a proper object of federal law under which the indictment was brought. Therefore, the federal indictment was based on an offense under the laws of the United States.

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