On July 11, 2017, twelve years after the installation of a signpost they championed, a Madison County group and one of its organizers were honored with a Congressional Award during a brief ceremony at the Clarke County Courthouse in Athens, Georgia.
The sign marks a tragic incident on the Broad River Bridge near Highway 172 in which a decorated World War II veteran, on his way home from reserve training at Fort Benning, Georgia, was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan shortly after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The incident is well known by now. But it bears repeating at this time for two reasons: 1) that award ceremony in Athens and 2) because a similarly hateful incident occurred in Pennsylvania almost 53 years to the day.
On July 11, 1964, Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn and two others took a shortcut on their way back to Washington, DC, where Penn was employed as Assistant Superintendent of Schools. They decided to drive all night because they knew the racial situation in Georgia was unstable and didn’t want to get caught up in it. Penn drove the Chevrolet Biscayne that was struck by bullets as the Klansmen drove alongside his vehicle. It didn’t matter that he had been decorated with a Bronze Star for heroism during World War II. It didn’t matter than he was a law-abiding family man with three small children. Or that he was still serving his country through its reserves. All that mattered on July 11, 1964, was that he had black skin. No doubt that skin had learned to become impervious to a great many things during Penn’s 48 years on the planet. But it could not withstand a bullet fired at his head.
For several years, a Georgia group called the Lemuel Penn Memorial Committee worked tirelessly to have a commemorative sign placed on the spot where that American hero and Civil Rights martyr was slain. They finally achieved their goal in 2005 but had to abandon a corresponding effort to rename the bridge after Lt. Colonel Penn because of local opposition.
After all, this is Georgia we’re talking about.
So yes. In this universe, this Georgia, it matters that Mrs. Chandler is white. It also matters that the Congressional Black Caucus appreciated her group’s efforts enough to recognize it officially with its Congressional Veterans Award. It matters that Morocco Coleman, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Veteran's Brain Trust Committee, is African-American. That despite the history of segregation in the South, which his family personally experienced in the time before Civil Rights, he served his country honorably in Vietnam, lived to tell about it in a book, and went on to serve his country further with the CBC and as an admired member of the local Georgia community.
It takes a long time for change to happen in a place like Georgia. But even here, though the wheels grind slowly, they grind exceeding small.
Who knows? Maybe one day there will be enough light here that naming a bridge after the martyred war hero who died on it—because his skin had the wrong paint job—won’t seem like such a radical idea.