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Remembering Johnnie Mae Chappell: A Jim Crow-era injustice resonates in period of Black Lives Matter

Content warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.

It was a muggy Monday in 1964 and as darkness fell, Jacksonville, Florida, was ablaze with racial unrest. On a grassy roadside far from the tumult, Johnnie Mae Chappell was searching for her wallet.

The housekeeper and midwife must have been tired. A Black woman of 35, Chappell had been cleaning houses since early morning. At home were six of her 10 children. Her husband, Willie, was headed to his second job of the day.

And her wallet had fallen out of her grocery bag.

That is why Chappell and two neighbors were looking down at the ground when a dark blue Plymouth slowed beside them. Out an open window, one of four young white men inside thrust a .22-caliber pistol and pulled the trigger. The bullet sped into Chappell’s abdomen and killed her.

What happened that night, March 23, 1964, is straightforward. A white man killed a Black woman. But everything else about Chappell’s killing is twisted, a random death entwined, like countless others during the civil rights struggle across the American South, in a labyrinth of racism, corruption and injustice.

Today, Chappell’s name is found among dozens of others on a wall at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center, each testament to people whose lives were taken in racially motivated violence during the modern American civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968. Black lives did not matter to those who held power in the violent Jim Crow South. Their deaths have searing resonance today.

“These are stories that are not often told, but there is a direct line from the murder of a Johnnie Mae Chappell to the killing of an Ahmaud Arbery, a George Floyd, a Breonna Taylor,” said Tafeni English, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center.

“These were citizens targeted because of the color of their skin,” English said. “They were murdered because of a society shaped by slavery, by Jim Crow, by racial injustice that persists today.”

The Civil Rights Memorial, a circular black granite slab created by Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin and installed at the SPLC’s headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1989, is inscribed with the names of 40 civil rights martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement in lines radiating outward. Water emerges from the center of the slab and flows evenly across it, like the mighty stream of righteousness famously invoked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

(L-R) Willie Edwards Jr., Cpl. Roman Ducksworth Jr., Virgil Lamar Ware, Willie Brewster (Photos contributed)

The martyred

The wall of “The Forgotten” is a newer companion to the memorial. It is part of the interpretive center built by the SPLC in 2005 to tell deeper stories about not only those on the original memorial but also the civil rights movement itself. In 2000, Chappell’s family approached the SPLC with a request to honor her memory. The SPLC held a rededication ceremony for the memorial that year in Chappell’s name.

Still evolving with more names, the wall is a living memorial, designed as a journey of reckoning. In recent decades, as prosecutors across the South began resurrecting unresolved racial killings – from the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young Black girls to the assassination of Medgar Evers – the SPLC joined in that struggle. And at its headquarters, the Civil Rights Memorial Center bears witness.

It bears witness to Willie Edwards Jr., a truck driver for a grocery store in Montgomery. Mistaken on Jan. 23, 1957, for another Black man who was dating a white woman, Edwards was forced at gunpoint by four Klansmen to jump off a bridge into the Alabama River to his death.

It bears witness to Cpl. Roman Ducksworth Jr., a military police officer stationed in Maryland on leave to visit his sick wife on April 9, 1962, when he was ordered off a bus by a police officer and shot dead. The officer may have mistaken Ducksworth for one of the “freedom riders” who were testing bus desegregation laws.

It bears witness to Virgil Lamar Ware, 13, riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle in Birmingham on Sept. 15, 1963, when he was fatally shot by white teenagers. The white youths had come from a segregationist rally held hours after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.

And it bears witness to Willie Brewster, on his way home from work on July 18, 1956, when he was shot and killed by white men. The men belonged to the National States Rights Party, a violent neo-Nazi group whose members had been involved in church bombings and murders of Black people.

The march for justice continues

By honoring those and so many more, the SPLC pays tribute to its guiding principle that the fight against injustice is not over.

Justice never came for Johnnie Mae Chappell. Her death was not investigated for five months, and then only after two white detectives picked up the case on their own, defying their superiors by asking uncomfortable questions. Eventually, despite significant resistance, the detectives brought four suspects in for questioning.

Three of the men confessed. In a statement laced with racial epithets, one said that on that March night, with downtown Jacksonville convulsed by race riots, they had gone out to “get” a Black person.

C. Lee Cody, one of the enterprising detectives, remembers being elated by the confessions, and even more so when all four men were arrested and charged in the murder.  

But then the system of Jim Crow justice swung into gear. Evidence was mishandled or disappeared. A key report was hidden, literally under a rug. The two detectives came under intense pressure from their colleagues. When they asked why he didn’t just drop the case, Cody, now 91, said he responded, “What if it had been your mother?” 

It was not long before Cody and his partner were taken off the case. The four defendants reversed their guilty pleas and disavowed their confessions.

Only the man who shot the gun, J.W. Rich, was tried on a charge of first-degree murder. He was convicted of a reduced charge of manslaughter when a jury of 12 white men, deliberating for one hour, concluded the young men had been on a joyride and the gun had gone off accidentally. He was out of prison in three years.

Charges against the other three were dropped; criminal cases against them never pursued.

The four men “were out there for the purpose of what they did,” Cody said, his memory still sharp and his outrage over the treatment of Johnnie Mae Chappell still raw. “It was premeditated murder, to kill a Black American citizen out of strictly, pure-blooded racism.”

‘They covered it up’

Cody and his partner, Donald Coleman, never stopped trying to get to the bottom of what they saw as a miscarriage of justice. Both were fired for insubordination in 1965.

“They covered it up. They blatantly and deliberately violated the civil rights of Johnnie Mae Chappell,” Cody said of his superiors at the time, from the chief of detectives to the director of the local FBI office. All of them, along with the men in that dark car, are now dead.

“They should all have been arrested and punished.”

Chappell’s death shattered not just her life, but that of her entire family. Willie Chappell struggled for five years to raise his children alone, working as a carpenter during the day and a gas station attendant at night. Eventually, state authorities decided he could not care for the children by himself. They were scattered to foster homes and distant relatives. Some ran away from abusive foster homes periodically to make their way back to their father.

Johnnie Mae Chappell’s death is emblematic of the killings of so many during the civil rights movement – and of activists and regular people targeted because of the color of their skin today. The impact of their deaths shapes not just their families, but Black families across the country and across our history.

“The truth is, history does repeat itself,” English said. “And we as a society have a long way to go. We have a long way to go.”

Lead photo by Stephen Poff