Unveiling set for artwork honoring local trial verdict

December 7, 2017
by Staff Reports

From T. R. Williams:

Did you know that Lawrence County was the site of a very significant Civil Rights trial in 1946?

You may know this now, since the case has received a lot of media coverage in the past year. It is no longer just a footnote in Lawrence County history, and on Friday, December 8 at 5:30, we will celebrate that fact.

Please join me at the Lawrence County Courthouse for the unveiling of Justice Served, a painting by Bernice Davidson. The Courthouse will be its home, but it is portable so it can be taken to other sites for display and education.

Davidson is a resident of the Brace community, a graduate of Yale and former professor of art at Martin Methodist College.

Throughout her career, she has been dedicated to creating public art that honors heroes in the fight for social justice. The story of this trial inspired her and she launched a personal campaign for it. The Lawrence County Historical Society and others in the community helped make it happen.

The events leading to the trial began in nearby Columbia on February 25, 1946. A black woman, Gladys Stevenson, was accompanied by her son when she tried to pick up her radio at a repair shop. He was a WWII Navy veteran who’d become accustomed to equal treatment during his time away. When his mother was treated unfairly by the clerk, he defended her.

The Stevensons were jailed and a large group of white men gathered. Mother and son were taken to safety, but the unrest spilled over into the nearby black residential and commercial district. Homes and businesses were damaged, and shots were fired. Four white police officers were injured, and about 100 black men were arrested.

The night-long riot was the first civil unrest following WWII, and made national headlines.

Eventually, 25 were charged with attempted murder. The NAACP put together a defense team that included Nashville attorney Z. Alexander Looby and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Eleanor Roosevelt led a national fundraising drive to pay for their defense.

A request was granted to move the trial from Maury County, but not to Nashville as the defense team hoped. It was instead moved to a poorer, more rural place with an even smaller black population: Lawrence County.

Eventually, a jury made up of white males was seated. Marshall was the lead defense attorney, but became ill and never made it to Lawrenceburg. Looby led the defense, and is depicted in Davidson’s painting with Gladys Stevenson on the stand.

All but two defendants were acquitted – one was later acquitted in a separate Maury County trial, the other served four months before being pardoned by the Governor. Many were surprised with the colorblind verdict, given the makeup of the jury.

I am so proud Lawrence County is honoring that verdict now, at a time when Civil War statues are a point of contention in other parts of the country.

Davidson hoped to honor the heroes involved, and the twelve men who heard that case could easily qualify. Another can be found in the unlikely role of a prosecutor in the case, then-Assistant District Attorney William A. ‘Bud’ Harwell of Lawrenceburg, who later served this district as a Circuit Judge.

Harwell revealed his thoughts about the case, and his character, in his final remarks to the jury:

“I beg of you again in making these closing statements, that to just give this case your calm and cool and deliberate consideration, try it like 25 Lawrence County people being tried, and I think those who know me know that is exactly the way I feel about it, and then render your verdict fairly and impartially and let the chips fall where they may.”


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