How ‘Columbia race riots’ in Tennessee sparked civil rights movement

COLUMBIA, Tenn. – A historical marker recognizing one of the most pivotal moments in Columbia’s history was installed in 2016 on a broken sidewalk in front of an abandoned building, covered in dust, almost forgotten.

Before then, a visual reminder of the incident, dubbed by many as the Columbia race riot of 1946, could only be found in history books propped on library shelves.

James Stephenson in his Navy uniform.  (Photo: U.S. Navy)

On Feb. 25, 1946, a dispute over a broken radio involving James Stephenson, 19, a U.S. Navy veteran, his mother Gladys and a white store clerk — led to a seminal court case some consider “the first step” in the U.S. civil rights movement.

As James Stephenson, a boxer, stood between the angry white store clerk and his mother, the clerk struck James in the head, prompting him to retaliate by pushing the clerk through the store window — both men and broken glass lying on the ground.

The altercation led to the arrest of the mother and son, an elevated charge of attempted murder against James Stephenson, the formation of an impending white mob and a court case that brought national attention to the Tennessee city.

After rumors swirled about the possible clash — or even worse a lynching — between Columbia’s white and Black residents, the Tennessee Highway Patrol ended up storming a Black neighborhood known as the Bottom. 

In the decades following, the incident was largely “ignored,” only discussed in hushed tones around the community, according to some longtime city residents, a dark part of history rather forgotten.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of that defining moment in Columbia’s history that calls once again for attention.

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This image published in The Daily Herald on Thursday, Feb. 28, 1946 shows group of Tennessee guardsmen marching through downtown Columbia. (Photo: The Daily Herald)

A ‘turning point,’ not a riot

Maury County historian Jo Ann McClellan doesn’t call what happened in 1946 a riot. 

She and other historians struggle to find an appropriate word to describe it. During a recent interview, she said the word “uprising” was more fitting. McClellan said the day’s events were a “turning point” in American history.

“People lose sight of the big picture,” McClellan said.

“It was not a riot. What they were doing was standing up for the right to be treated as a human being,” she said. “It is about respect and treatment as a citizen of the U.S.”

The clashes between the white store clerk and the Stephensons, and Black residents and police, represented a cruel juxtaposition, reflecting the reality many young Black veterans faced after returning from fighting overseas in World War II.

The return home was a battleground for social change — a second war fought by Black veterans who had only recently returned from overseas, as Gail Williams O’Brien details in the groundbreaking book “The Color of the Law: Race, Violence, and Justice in the Post-World War II South.”

This time, the conflict took place on their own soil, defending racial equality amid the lingering effects of slavery, ensuing aggression and the painful history of several lynchings in Columbia. 

“They were defending themselves,” O’Brien said on “History’s Hook,” a podcast hosted by Maury County Archives Director Tom Price.

Many media outlets at the time failed to highlight state law enforcement’s role in storming a Black neighborhood, where stores and property in the Bottom were destroyed.

On the evening of Feb. 25, men from the Bottom shot out the lights of lampposts to deter visibility of intruders, while also shooting four approaching Columbia police officers with buck shots, causing minor injures. The next morning, state authorities, in position, descended into the neighborhood.

State authorities beat some residents and seized weapons, cash, jewelry and other property without a warrant. As the violent raid came to an end, over 100 Black residents were arrested. Two died in jail at the hand of law enforcement. Another died during a health emergency.

The ransacking of the neighborhood left a lasting economic, social and emotional scar on the community.

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‘First step’ in civil rights movement 

Price, an area historian with 30 years of experience in the field, said the event served as a kickstart for civil rights on the national scale.

“It took national significance as a trial,” Price said. “This is the impetus that starts civil rights in America from a legal standpoint.

“It was emblematic of a nationwide shift from mob violence against African Americans to increased confrontations between Blacks and the police in the courts. Legal precedent was set that marked a first step in Civil Rights in America using the law and legislation.”

Price said the event caught the attention of the “great influencers of the period.” Among them were then President Harry Truman, prior First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Thurgood Marshall, legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who eventually became the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Despite references in history books and newspaper headlines, historians today say the incident wasn’t a “riot” at all, but an “uprising” that drew the eyes of America.

Following the events in Columbia, Truman established The President’s Committee on Civil Rights with an executive order in December 1946.

“It marks a significant change in race relations not only in rural Tennessee but nationally. Historians count the event as the very first step in the civil rights movement,” Price said.

The committee produced a 178-page report titled “To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights.” The report proposed the establishment of a permanent Civil Rights Commission, Joint Congressional Committee on Civil Rights, and a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice that would develop federal protections from lynching, fair employment and the abolishment of poll taxes.

The document also raised the possibility that a 1946 United Nations Charter could be used as a source of law to oppose ongoing racial discrimination in the U.S.

Attorneys Maurice Weaver, Z. Alexander Looby and Walter White led the courtroom defense of the 25 people charged.

How the case unfolded

Legal proceedings continued throughout the spring and summer of 1946, and 23 of the 25 Black defendants facing charges were acquitted by an all-white jury, according to the Tennessee Historical Commission.

The case concluded in a second trial at Columbia in November 1946, when Lloyd Kennedy was convicted for shooting at a white highway patrolman.

No race riot nor a lynching ever materialized that day.

But the damage was done.

A federal grand jury convened to investigate the charges of misconduct by the white authorities, but a local all-white jury absolved the officers of any wrongdoing.

Violence quelled as James Stephenson was put on a bus out of town to Chicago where his father lived, never to return.

After the verdict, historians like McClellan said Black people slowly began to see respect restored toward them.

McClellan, along with the African American Heritage Society of Maury County, led the charge in installing a historic marker in the city in 2016, acknowledging the uprising in 1946.

Morton Funeral Home was chosen as the site because that’s where prominent business owner, James E. Morton along with other business owners and the Maury County Sheriff “strategized” about thwarting violence in Columbia and defending the Bottom against the rumored lynching. The men were also instrumental in devising the plan to get James Stephenson out of town and harm’s way.

Time to deal with the past, pastor says

Trent Ogilvie, a local pastor who has spent the past 16 years as the executive director of the Columbia Housing and Redevelopment Corporation, said the city and its inhabitants have largely “ignored” the incident.

A generation later, that is slowly changing.

“In order to move from the past we have to recognize it,” Ogilvie said.

“Ignoring it does not solve it. It continues to manifest itself in very different ways. That one event really brought to light the tension that existed in Maury County” he said. “A lot of those effects linger when you don’t properly deal with it.”

The Bottom community has experienced economic decline over the decades, while other parts of the city’s downtown have experienced a recent Renaissance with booming new businesses, restaurants and boutiques.

“It did not recover,” Ogilvie said. “Sometimes you win the battle, but you lose the war. Those businesses should be a part of the downtown business community. For it to have existed as such for so long, it is disturbing and troubling.”

Leaders in the community seek to move forward while recognizing its history with the goal of improving the community for generations to come.

How does that happen? Education and a vision are key, said Ogilvie, who is also a part of the Stand Together Fellowship, a group of religious and civic leaders committed to bridging cultural and racial divides within Columbia.

“We can look at our history and our past, but at this point, we need to make sure we shape our future.” Ogilvie said. “We should be having programs that teach people our entire history. We uplift the voices in the community and encourage our young people to be active and present in the community. We make sure they have access to the positions as teachers, CEOs and working in the banking industry.

“That is something that we can build on and try to move forward together,” he said.

ContributingKerri Bartlett, The Columbia Daily Herald

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