LAGRANGE, Ga. – Even the 43-year-old mayor, who has lived his entire life in this west Georgia city of approximately 30,000 citizens, said he didn’t know until recently the ugly secret of racial injustice that brought a diverse crowd together for a public apology in a standing-room-only church Thursday night.
“For all those years, I had never heard the story of Austin Callaway,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton told the crowd of approximately 300 in Warren Temple United Methodist Church. “That troubles me.”
It also troubled LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, who started the community’s uncovering of this buried story several years ago, when he overheard two elderly black women looking at historical photos of police in the headquarters and saying, “They killed our people.”
Thanks to the subsequent investigation, Dekmar and about 150 LaGrange citizens who formed a racial conciliation group as a result know at least enough about Callaway’s death to use that injustice to heal and vow against it now.
According to their research, on the night of Sept. 7, 1940, the teenager was in the LaGrange jail for allegedly assaulting a white woman. A band of at least six armed, masked men forced their way past the 20-year-old jailer and drove off with Callaway.
The police didn’t pursue the gang. Callaway was found the next morning, bleeding from gunshot wounds, and died a few hours later.
No law enforcement agency investigated Callaway’s murder. No medical examiner performed an autopsy. The only finding from the grand jury was to suggest the jail should get better locks for its cells.
And the local press was complicit in the cover-up by not questioning the authorities about the crime.
With more than two dozen uniformed LaGrange police officers standing around the pews and against the church walls, in the same sanctuary where Callaway’s family grieved his unaccounted murder 77 years ago, the chief apologized and condemned his department’s decades-old negligence.
“All citizens have the right to expect their police department to be honest, decent, unbiased and ethical,” Dekmar said.
The police chief acknowledged some whites have asked why apologize for something that other people did so many years ago, and some blacks have wondered aloud whether this reconciliation would be “a hollow effort.”
“The institution responsible for Austin’s death is still here,” Dekmar said.
And then the chief voiced the awaited words, “I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction. And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”
In addition to the mayor, Troup County State Court Judge Jeanette Little and LaGrange College president Dan McAlexander also expressed apologies on behalf of the judiciary and community, respectively.
LaGrange Councilman Willie Edmondson, Georgia NAACP president Francys Johnson and Troup County NAACP president Ernest Ward accepted those apologies. Then a member of Callaway’s extended family graciously did as well.
Callaway was a cousin of Deborah Tatum’s grandfather. Tatum said during her remarks, “I speak your name, Austin Callaway, and ask God for forgiveness for the people that did this inhumane thing to you. Some might say, ‘Forgiveness?’ And I say to you that I believe God when he tells us that there is power and freedom in forgiveness.”
NAACP statistics show 4,743 documented lynchings, including 3,446 blacks, from 1882-1968 in the United States, mostly in the South. Dekmar, according to multiple reports, is believed to be the first police chief in the South to apologize for his department not carrying out its duty to protect anyone in its custody.
Thornton, the mayor asked, “How can you overcome history if you don’t even know this history? … But make no mistake, we are beginning to change that tonight.”