Fighting for Sergeant Caldwell: the NAACP campaign against "legal" lynching after World War I.

Author:Mikkelsen, Vincent P.
 
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Immediately following World War I racial violence swept across the United States, and many cities erupted in race rioting. In areas throughout the South African Americans faced the terror of lynching and mob violence as the preferred way of enforcing white supremacy. Among those persecuted were African American soldiers and veterans. Even while still wearing their uniforms, these soldiers were victims of shootings and beatings, and were even burned alive. (1) Sergeant Edgar Caldwell, a decorated soldier in the 24th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, had already served in the Philippines for two years by 1912. Having acquired an unblemished record and an award for sharp-shooting, he returned to the United States, voluntarily joining the military again where he was stationed at Camp McClellan in Anniston, Alabama, in the 157th Depot Brigade. The last few years had been especially rewarding for Edgar C. Caldwell; he got married and was promoted to the rank of sergeant. (2)

On 13 December 1918, Sergeant Caldwell traveled into Anniston, and boarded the Oxford Lake streetcar. Upon entering, however, Caldwell and the white conductor, Cecil Linton, began to argue over the fare. Caldwell insisted that he paid the fare, but Linton claimed he had not. Aside from the disagreement over the fare, Linton was outraged that the black soldier had seated himself in the white section of the car. Linton ordered Sergeant Caldwell off the train and attempted to manhandle him into compliance. During the struggle Caldwell resisted, shoving the conductor into a glass divider with enough force for slivers of glass to rain down over both men, as well as nearby passengers. Then, Linton enlisted the assistance of the car's motorman, Kelsie Morrison, and the two men attempted to throw the soldier off of the streetcar. As the men fought, Caldwell was punched twice in the face before all three tumbled out of the streetcar into the city street. Caldwell landed flat on his back, while his adversaries managed to remain upright; but instead of leaving the soldier there and continuing with their car's route, they decided to beat Caldwell. The motorman, Morrison, kicked the fallen soldier in his ribs and stomach until his victim, who was facing up, unsheathed his service revolver and delivered two rounds from his prone position. The first shot fatally wounded Linton; the second wounded Morrison in the neck. Though his injury was not life threatening, the motorman remained in the hospital for several weeks. (3)

After the smoke cleared and the startled passengers realized what had happened, a group of whites at the scene held Caldwell until military police (MP) from Camp McClellan arrived. (4) Over the next twenty months, fierce debates within the judicial system and the court of public opinion raged over the soldier's fate. While the Alabama prosecutors treated the incident as an example of an unruly black passenger defying the state's Jim Crow laws and murdering a white streetcar conductor, the NAACP used Caldwell's case to focus national attention on southern injustice. The NAACP took Sergeant Caldwell's case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in April 1920 in an attempt to use the federal courts to prevent yet another "legal" lynching carried out by the southern judicial system. (5) The NAACP argued that Caldwell, still a member of the U.S. Army, should have been subject to a court martial and that if the federal officials agreed with the earlier courts, decisions it "would be nothing short of lynching" Caldwell themselves. (6)

Sergeant Caldwell's case gave the NAACP the opportunity to revisit the peonage case of Pink Franklin in 1910. Franklin shot a white intruder, who had broken into his house to serve a warrant, then avoided lynching and an execution, only to serve the rest of his life in the South Carolina prison system. Historian Charles Flint Kellogg argued that although the case was a Pyrrhic victory for the NAACP, it did lay the groundwork for future contests. Kellogg noted that NAACP founder Oswald Garrison Villard "persuaded the Executive Committee to establish a legal redress department without delay." (7) Saving Sergeant Caldwell presented the ideal situation for mobilizing local vigilance committees, while allowing the centralized authority to remain with the NAACP executive committee in New York City.

Caldwell's case came at an important juncture in African American and the NAACP's history. For decades, African American men were told and believed that if they served their country in a time of war, they would be entitled to the privileges of first-class citizenship. However, from the Spanish-American War until the armistice of World War I, lynching and mob violence continued unabated in a period that some historians have labeled "the Nadir" in African American history. Caldwell's situation magnified the importance of the fight against lynching, which was highlighted in the NAACP's major publication, Thirty Years of Lynching: 1889-1918, published in 1920. (8) Throughout the months of fighting for Sergeant Caldwell's life, the organization also had to devote its energy and resources to the antilynching campaign against mob violence and the ongoing lynching of black southerners. Despite a strong movement, the United States Congress defeated every antilynching bill proposed during this era and afterward. (9)

While a federal law did not help Caldwell, it might have increased the safety of returning veterans or led to the prosecution of those who lynched black soldiers and civilians. NAACP lawyers paid special attention to the lynching of black soldiers and often sparred with government officials over lynching. At the same time, southern politicians dismissed, explained away, and often condoned lynching in their states. In one high-profile public challenge, NAACP secretary John R. Shillady and Florida Governor Sydney J. Catts sparred publicly in March 1919 over the murder of Bud Johnson, a black soldier on leave who was burned at the stake while still wearing his uniform. The NAACP demanded that criminal charges be filed against those who lynched Johnson, but Governor Catts issued a formal response not only defending the mob, but arguing that it was African Americans' actions that created situations where white mobs felt the need to take matters into their own hands. (10) Incidents like these led the NAACP to invest more money and resources in trying to sway public opinion inside and outside the South about the pressing need for federal antilynching legislation. (11)

The Edgar Caldwell case has caught the attention of historians Chad Williams and Mark Schneider, whose studies focus on the returning veteran as a symbol of hope for the African American community and his subsequent mistreatment as an example of the tragedy of Jim Crow in the United States. (12) Williams particularly addressed the oppression that black soldiers faced upon their return from World War I, and Schneider effectively demonstrated how veterans played an important part in the growth of the NAACP in this period. This essay builds on this earlier work by focusing specifically on Sergeant Caldwell to document this "legal" lynching that demonstrated the unwillingness of the U.S. military to intervene on the behalf of African American soldiers, and the complicity of the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts in upholding southern racist practices. I argue that in an environment where lynching was condoned (if not encouraged), it should come as no surprise that southern whites believed that lynching was the appropriate response to acts of defiance by African Americans, civilian or military.

Moreover, the federal government's role in the maintenance of white supremacy should be noted. The compliance of local, state, and federal government officials in assisting southern white vigilantism should be examined in light of the resistance offered by African American communities. If anything, it makes African Americans' fight more important and heroic. African American leaders and ordinary citizens did not sit idly by, but often spoke out and fought back in the name of the "New Negro." (13)

NAACP leaders took on Caldwell's case as an assertion of black manhood, but they were confronted head on by federal officials who sided with those individuals bent on maintaining legal segregation and white supremacy. By stressing the NAACP's emphasis on "black manhood," I argue that Caldwell's case provides another opportunity to link African American history to studies on gender and manhood in the early 20th century. Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization examined the period leading up to the armistice and the "Red Summer" of 1919, and Martin Summer's study of African American identity in the 1930s in Manliness and Its Discontents provides insights into the intersection of racial and gender politics that fueled the lynching and racial violence after World War I. (14) Historian Matthew Pratt Guterl observed that "proponents of a New Negro manhood movement argued that black men were self-sacrificing protectors of race and womanhood" and believed that "the world's work was race work, which was men's work." (15) Sergeant Caldwell's case adds to our understanding of early 20th-century race relations and issues of masculinity. As a soldier and husband, the protector of the nation and his family, Caldwell symbolized the epitome of manhood.

Persecution of black veterans was certainly one aspect of the violence in U.S. society after the armistice. Oftentimes, the black veteran was deliberately targeted because he represented the greatest threat to white supremacy. African American soldiers had been successful on the battlefield and came back recounting tales of racial equality in France. The black soldier in uniform challenged the defining precepts of southern white society, and as historian Carter G. Woodson observed, "To the [white] reactionary, the uniform on a Negro...

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