During a debate on Tuesday about a bill that would expand the State’s options for putting people to death, a Tennessee state representative expressed support for the bill and suggested adding hanging from a tree as an execution method.
Lawmakers were discussing HB1245, which would allow electrocution as an alternative to lethal injection, and an amendment that would add execution by firing squad, when Rep. Paul Sherrell (R-Sparta) said, “I was just wondering, could I put an amendment on that that would include hanging by a tree, also.”
Racial Terror Lynching in Tennessee
EJI has documented 236 racial terror lynchings of Black people in Tennessee between 1877 and 1950, including hangings of Black journalists, business leaders, and teachers.
EJI’s report on terror lynchings in the 12 most active lynching states in America found that Tennessee’s Lake and Moore counties had the sixth and seventh highest lynching rates, respectively, and Shelby County had the 18th highest number of lynching victims.
Black people were lynched in Tennessee for minor social transgressions or for demanding basic rights and fair treatment. Richard Wilkerson, for example, was lynched in Manchester, Tennessee, in 1934 for allegedly slapping a white man who had assaulted a Black woman at an African American dance.
Businessmen Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart were brutally lynched in Memphis in 1892 for defending their grocery business against white attackers. The men were friends of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, who wrote an editorial in response to their murders urging Black residents in Memphis to “leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” A white mob then attacked and destroyed her newspaper office and threatened her not to return to Memphis.
Tennessee lynch mobs regularly displayed complete disregard for the legal system. In 1906, Edward Johnson, a Black man, was convicted of raping a white woman and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Chattanooga. His attorneys appealed the case and won a rare stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court.
In response, a white mob seized Mr. Johnson from the jail, dragged him through the streets, hanged him from the second span of the Walnut Street Bridge, and shot him hundreds of times. The mob left a note pinned on the corpse that read: “To Justice Harlan. Come get your n—r now.” Mr. Johnson, who used his last words to declare his innocence, was cleared of the rape nearly a century later.
The Legacy of Racial Terror
Communities across Tennessee have partnered with EJI to truthfully confront this history of racial terror lynching. Ed Johnson was among four lynching victims memorialized in Chattanooga, and community members have installed two historical markers in downtown Nashville to remember four men who were lynched there during the era of racial terror.
In 2020, a historical marker was installed in front of the Madison County courthouse to memorialize John Brown, who was lynched on the courthouse lawn by a mob of 500 men, and Eliza Woods, who was dragged to the courthouse by a mob after she was accused of poisoning her white employer. Ms. Woods declared her innocence, but the mob ripped off her clothes, hanged her from a tree, and shot at her body.
On Tuesday, however, other lawmakers failed to even respond to Mr. Sherrell’s comment. He apologized only after the remark drew widespread attention and criticism, and in doing so he restated his support for the death penalty bill.
“A bill calling to expand the death penalty by firing squad, and even lynching, is deplorable, immoral and takes us back to the dark days of Jim Crow,” the Rev. Kevin Riggs, pastor of Franklin Community Church, told The Tennessean. “I’m appalled by the words of Representative Sherrell. Suggesting firing squads and lynchings is unconscionable. Tennessee should be moving in the direction of outlawing state sanctioned killings, instead of toward more killings and in more inhumane ways than already exist. There is no moral way to murder another person.”
The decline of lynching in the early 20th century relied heavily on the increased use of the death penalty, and public hangings were often racialized displays intended to appease would-be lynch mobs.
Northern states had abolished public executions by 1850, but some Southern states authorized public hangings until 1938. And even after they were legally banned, mobs often succeeded in forcing public hangings in Southern states.
Lawmakers on Tuesday advanced HB1245 to the next committee.