At 5 o'clock one afternoon last week, an all-white jury filed into the trial room of the Lawrenceburg, Tenn. courthouse and faced pink, plump Circuit Judge Joe Ingram. For two tense weeks, 25 Tennessee Negroes had been on trial, 23 of them charged with the attempted murder of four white policemen in the ill-famed Mink Slide race riot at Columbia (TIME, March 11). Now, after one hour and 53 minutes of deliberation, the verdict was in: two guilty; 23 not guilty. Exclaimed white Defense Attorney Maurice Weaver jubilantly: "A victory for Americanism."
Attorney Weaver was holding himself in. In the more than seven months following the night of shooting, Southern race prejudice had got such a thorough airing that acquittal for any of the defendants seemed like a minor miracle.
The incident had begun when a young Negro struck a white man. A white mob formed; the four policemen who were shot were mistaken by the Negroes for members of the mob, which surged into Mink Slide, Columbia's Negro district.
After the shooting, state troopers rounded up 104 Negroes, practically all of Mink Slide's male population, and grilled them mercilessly. Two were killed while "trying to escape." The troopers made a sizable shambles of Mink Slide before the list of suspects was arbitrarily narrowed from 104 to 25.
What's a Psychoneurosis? Later, because of the bitter feeling in Columbia, the trial had been moved to neighboring Lawrenceburg. But even in Lawrenceburg 736 talesmen had had to be questioned before twelve reasonably unprejudiced jurors could be found. During this process, Judge Ingram struck a snag. One talesman's medical certificate, which reported a psychoneurosis, set him frowning. After spelling the word out to himself, the Judge leaned forward and asked the man sympathetically: "Where does it hurt? What ails you?" One of the defense lawyers, a Negro, respectfully explained the term to the Judge.
The trial itself was hardly recommended reading for law students. Once, when the demurrers of Defense Attorney Dr. Leon A. Ransom (a Negro) got under the skin of Prosecutor Bumpus, he threatened to wrap a chair around Ransom's head. Judge Ingram often overruled defense objections before they could be completely stated.
Yet, to the astonishment of Lawyer Bumpus and almost everyone else, from Lawrenceburg to Mink Slide, the jurors took their oath seriously. Correspondent Vincent Sheean, who had covered the trial with mild hysteria, called the jury's action "the kind of thing that makes us realize the full splendor of our destiny as a nation."