On 30 March 1934, 60-year-old cotton farmer Raymond Stuart was found dying in the living room of his Mississippi farmhouse. He had been beaten with an axe-like instrument. The suspects were any black persons in the neighbourhood.
In the 1930s Kemper County was a centre for lynching black suspects with a rate twice the rest of the state. It was, therefore, a matter of pride that, when one of Stuart’s tenants Ed Brown, together with Henry Shields and Arthur Elrington, was arrested, they were not lynched on the way to the county jail. Deputies had guarded them with tear gas, machine guns and shotguns.
A week later, represented by local lawyers including John A Clark, appointed by Judge J Sturdivant, they went on trial for Stuart’s murder. The only evidence against them was their confessions. Unsurprisingly an all-white jury convicted the men, who were duly sentenced to death.
The Meridian Star was thoroughly pleased with the result, the way justice had been done, and lynchings avoided.
But what the local paper had not reported was how the men had come to make their confessions. One had confessed after a mock hanging. Deputy Sheriff Dail was quite open about whipping another. He thought it was ‘not much for a Negro, not as much as I would have done if it was left to me’.
An increasingly beleaguered Clark soldiered on. Finally, he appealed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for help. The organisation noted that ‘anytime a white lawyer in Mississippi says things are bad and he needs help, then we have to help’.
Eventually, Clark handed the case over to his friend Earl Brewer. It was Brewer, financed by the NAACP, who finally took the case to the United States Supreme Court (Brown v Mississippi 297 U.S. 278, (1936)), which in a landmark decision quashed the convictions, citing the confessions as involuntary. The case was remitted for a retrial.
For two years Brown, Shields and Elrington remained in prison awaiting a trial that never came. Finally, in November 1936, they pleaded nolo contendere to manslaughter, agreeing to sentences of between six months and seven and a half years. Preferable to the noose.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor