Hundreds of us raised our voices and clapped our hands in honor of Austin Callaway — lynched in Troup County, Ga., almost 77 years ago, when he was between 16 and 18 years old.
We gathered in the historical Warren Temple United Methodist Church in LaGrange. Pastor Vincent Dominique welcomed us with warm words and eloquent prayer.
I had been waiting for over a month to attend this occasion and wrote about it last week. The sanctuary was packed, as was the church annex, where the event was live streamed.
LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton described the passive acceptance of injustice by elected officials seven decades ago and chastised their complacency. He emphasized that in order to heal today, we must admit to the misdeeds of the past.
We heard LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar acknowledge the heinous murder and apologize for then law enforcement’s negligent contribution to the crime…something no other municipality in the South has ever done.
Judge Jeannette Little decried the justice system that miserably failed this young man and promised not to let that callous disregard for the law ever happen under her watch.
We felt remorse and shame when LaGrange College President Dan McAlexander spared no words in calling out the “good people” of the community who looked on, silently accepting and ignoring the murder.
And when City Councilman Willie T. Edmondson delivered his emotional account of the African-American community’s struggle for equality, its pain and heartache, and the overwhelming optimism that we might be on the cusp of healing, the tears flowed.
Troup County’s NAACP President Ernest Ward eloquently summarized what happened, what we’ve accomplished, and what the community is capable of becoming — together.
And, finally, we listened to Mrs. Deborah Tatum’s personal message from the Callaway family both in attendance and long gone. We heard their history. We felt their pain. And we lifted them up.
We were a diverse audience — different races, political affiliations, professions, gender, economics, and cultures. But that mattered not.
We were unified by one driving force: the quest for equal justice for all — no matter what.
We felt the same comradeship. We felt the same courage. We felt the same optimism. And in the midst of it all, we felt the same grief for Austin Callaway and his family.
But the feeling that pervaded that sanctuary was the truly monumental part of the ceremony — not the national media attention.
I left that beautiful church and drove back to Jones Crossroads filled with hope — the first I’ve felt since November. And I know there were many others who experienced the same emotion.
For I truly believe that no executive orders, no hate-filled rhetoric, and no policies aimed at disenfranchising and intimidating us will ever defeat the collective power of a determined citizenry — and that was the collective power I felt Thursday evening.
We the people are stronger than any tyrant. We’ve stood up to and challenged them before. We have rolled up our sleeves and put our fists in the air and proclaimed, “You will not silence us.”
We have marched for rights, fought for equality, and bled for justice.
And you know what? We will do it again.