Federal grand juries seldom indict for lynching anywhere, but a jury made legal race history last week in Jackson, Miss. by doing just that: indicting Deputy Sheriff Luther Holder of Jones Countyas well as four leaders of a lynch mobbecause he did not protest or protect the jail or cell of one Howard Wash and so failed to keep alive his prisoner.
It was last October that a mob of men broke with suspicious ease into the strong Laurel, Miss. jail and snatched up Howard Wash, dark and worried because he had killed his white employer in alleged self-defense. The mob brushed politely past Deputy Sheriff Holder, past the open steel doors and heavy bars. They took Howard Wash away with them to Welborn's Bridge and left him therehanging limp like a broken crow, his slack toes pointed down at the drying creek.
Laurel was not too upset at the dark deed. It is a William Falkner kind of town, that could be the locale of any of Falkner's novels about the passions the South breeds on cotton planting and corn in the jug and native ideas of separating black from the white. But the local newspaper, the Leader-Call, ran a denunciatory editorial about the murderthe third lynching that month for Mississippiand Governor Paul B. Johnson vowed punishment for the people who had led the mob and, in the words of the Federal jury, inflicted on Howard Wash "unusual and different punishment because of his race and color."
Only twice before had Federal grand juries drawn indictments against Southern lynchers. Nothing came of them. "It all just petered out," the natives said. There were those on the creek bottoms who were not too excited now by the new indictment. It would all, they thought, kinda peter out. But a new spirit was stirring among some of Mississippi's thoughtful citizens about America's worst national disgrace, and chances this week seemed better than ever that complaisant Deputy Sheriff Holder and the lynch mob might really feel the hand of the law they had flouted. If so, to Governor Johnson and courageous Editor Harriet S. Gibbons of the Leader-Call would go a considerable share of the credit.