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7-18-04 Lemuel Penn Murdered Near Athens In 1964: PART 2

Forty years ago, the Penn murder made national headlines and infuriated President Lyndon Johnson. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dispatched more than 80 agents to investigate. Yet the murder was overshadowed by the killings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi……



July 12, 2004


A Senseless Killing That Was Embarrassment to Georgia


By Wendell Dawson, Editor, AVOC, Inc.




“…..We had some racists and demagogues running for and even holding office in the ‘30’s and up until the mid-seventies. We have experienced lynching in our past and race riots at the University of Georgia as late as 1961. Locally, black Army Officer Lemuel Penn was followed and slain by racists in 1963 as he was driving through Athens on the way from Fort Benning to Washington, D. C….



 Penn Marker In Arlington National Cemetery


SEE:               http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/lpenn.htm


Lemuel A. Penn
Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army


On July 11, 1964 while driving through Madison County, Georgia, Lemuel Penn, a black United States Army Reserve officer, was killed by a shotgun blast from a passing car.  Penn had been on annual summer active duty at Fort Benning and was returning to his home in Washington, D.C. 

The driver of the car from which the blast occurred signed a statement admitting his role and identifying two members of the Klan -- Howard Sims and Cecil Myers -- as being the ones who actually fired the shots that killed Penn. Sims and Myers were subsequently tried in state superior court, but an all-white jury found them innocent. Federal prosecutors subsequently charged Sims and Myers with violating Penn's civil rights. A federal district court jury found them guilty, and the two served about six years in federal prison.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution    July 9, 2004        Jim Auchmutey – Staff



60 YEARS: CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE SOUTH: Madison County confronts dark past


In 1964, a black soldier was killed in cold blood. Some who remember don't want the world to forget.

Comer --- It was one of the most senseless killings of the civil rights era --- and a profound embarrassment for Georgia, just nine days after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Forty years ago this weekend, an Army Reservist named Lemuel Penn became an accidental martyr on a dark, foggy road outside Athens. He had finished two weeks of summer training at Fort Benning and was driving home overnight to Washington with two buddies.

Around 3:30 a.m. on July 11, they stopped near the University of Georgia arch to change drivers. Some Klansmen noticed the out-of-state tag and followed them east into Madison County, pulling alongside the car near the Broad River bridge on Ga. 172.

The nightriders fired their double-barreled shotguns. One of the blasts struck Penn, who had just taken the wheel, in the neck and head.

Four decades later, a group of black and white Madison Countians wants to make sure that Penn and the drive-by hate crime that took his life are not forgotten. They're holding a memorial gospel concert here Saturday at Springfield Baptist Church, a few miles from the crime scene.

They also want the state to rename a section of Ga. 172 for Penn and to raise money for a historical marker where he was murdered.

"This county has a stain, and we're trying to wash it away," said Dena Chandler, one of the memorial organizers.

The men accused of shooting Penn came from Athens, but the all-white male jury that acquitted them was from Madison County. The same two men were eventually convicted in federal court of violating Penn's civil rights. ………

Forty years ago, the Penn murder made national headlines and infuriated President Lyndon Johnson. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dispatched more than 80 agents to investigate. Yet the murder was overshadowed by the killings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, and it gradually receded into relative obscurity --- even in the place where it happened. …………

Penn's three children, now in their 40s and 50s, were invited to attend the memorial service, but they declined, citing previous plans. They were initially puzzled about why Madison Countians would want to commemorate such a terrible event, but after talking to the organizers, they decided it was a heartfelt gesture.

"We always knew that everyone there didn't agree with the Klan," said Lemuel Penn Jr., an airline pilot in Florida, who was 5 when his father was killed. "Our anger was toward the Klan, not white people."

Penn's name is among the 40 inscribed in the black marble of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery and represents the only victim killed in Georgia. Unlike most of the others, he was no activist. If he ever belonged to a civil rights organization, his family didn't know it.

At 48, Penn was a model citizen: an assistant superintendent in the District of Columbia schools, a Boy Scout leader, a decorated veteran of World War II, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.

Penn had done Reserve duty at Fort Benning before, but the summer of '64 was different. The Civil Rights Act banning segregation was about to become law, and racial tension was as thick as the humid air in the Deep South. Black reservists were told that they had best stick to the base because Klan activity had been reported in the area. At the end of his training, Penn phoned his family and told them he was leaving for home at midnight with two friends.

"They left at night because they didn't want to be seen," Penn Jr. said. "They didn't want any trouble."

The reservists mapped a shortcut through northeast Georgia. They left Athens in their '59 Chevy and drove east on Ga. 72, veering onto 172 outside Colbert. The road curved through the pitch-black countryside and descended toward the misty ravine of the Broad River. A pair of headlights appeared in the rearview mirror and drew closer.

Later that morning, the phone rang in Penn's home near Rock Creek Park in Washington. His daughters, Linda and Sharon, had made new dresses and were looking forward to showing them off for their father when he returned. Instead, the family viewed his body at a funeral home.

"I remember my mother saying how strange it was that our father had fought in the Philippines during World War II and never gotten a scratch. Then they kill him in his own country in peacetime," said Linda Penn Yancey, 53, a sixth-grade teacher in Maryland.

Klan suspected

From the beginning, the FBI suspected Klansmen in Athens who had been terrorizing blacks for months. One of them, a gas station clerk named James Lackey, confessed that he drove the car that overtook Penn. He said the nightriders followed him because of the D.C. tag. "That must be some of President Johnson's boys," he quoted one as saying.

Tried in the murder were Cecil Myers, a slender, bespectacled yarn picker at a textile plant, and Howard Sims, a heavyset machinist who collected guns and had been charged recently with beating a civil rights demonstrator during a sit-in at the Varsity drive-in in Athens. He wasn't prosecuted for the beating, and local police, who had confiscated his shotguns, returned the weapons.

Despite Lackey's confession and a corroborating statement from another Klansman, the jury took barely three hours to acquit Myers and Sims. Given the results, the state didn't bother to try Lackey.

Jim Hudson, an Athens lawyer who represented Myers and Sims, says he has no regrets about his part in the proceedings --- he was just doing his job. "I don't know if they did it or not. Probably did. I just wanted to make sure they got a fair trial," he said.

Bill Shipp, a journalist who covered the case for The Atlanta Constitution and wrote a book about it, "Murder at Broad River Bridge," says the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Years later, he learned from another attorney that perhaps two-thirds of the jurors were Klan members or sympathizers. ……..

The U.S. District Court in Athens wasn't as sympathetic to Myers and Sims as the local jurors. The two men were convicted in 1966 of civil rights violations and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Four of their Klan confederates were found not guilty.

Sims was released in 1976 and returned to Athens. He died in 1981 when he got into an argument with a man who blasted him with a 12-gauge shotgun --- the same kind of weapon that killed Penn.

Myers was released from prison in 1972 and lives up the road from Madison County. Reached by telephone, he said he has tried to forget that bloody summer night. Has he ever felt any remorse? "This conversation has gone far enough," he replied, and hung up.

Myers may have tried to forget, but the Penn children couldn't if they wanted to. Their mother, Georgia Penn, a home economics teacher who suffered from lupus, had a relapse after her husband was murdered. She died a year later. The children were taken in by an aunt in upstate New York.

As the family historian and self-described "daddy's girl," Linda Penn Yancey tends her father's memory, keeping old photos and yellowed news clippings. A few years ago, while her husband was attending a convention in Atlanta, curiosity compelled her to drive with a friend to Madison County.

"I had to go," she said. "It was unfinished business." They visited the historic courthouse in Danielsville where the men accused of murdering her father were acquitted. They found the road and the narrow bridge where he died.

She'd like to see the highway named for him. "I think it would be a wonderful gesture if they put a plaque near that bridge," Yancey said. "But I do wonder how long it would stay up."