Before packed pews of black and white residents, the city police chief here publicly apologized for his agency’s failure to protect an African American man in its custody 77 years ago, denouncing the lynching of Austin Callaway as a failure of justice and “a dark chapter in our history.”
“As the LaGrange police chief, I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and inaction, and for that I am profoundly sorry,” Chief Lou Dekmar said. “It should never have happened.”
Dekmar’s extraordinary apology is believed to be among the first for a law enforcement agency anywhere in the country, and comes against the backdrop of heightened tensions between some African-American communities and the police.
The chief spoke to a standing-room only crowd of about 200 people at Warren Temple United Methodist Church and received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his remarks.
“I … owe an apology to an African-American community that has lived with the burning frustration of injustice that was the result of an intentionally indifferent justice system,” the chief said.
Six hooded and armed men seized Callaway from the city’s jail on Sept. 8, 1940, took him to a country road and shot him five times. The lynching was never investigated and no arrest was ever made in the murder.
One of the only references to the crime that Dekmar could find in his research was a note from the Troup County grand jury from 1940 suggesting that the city jail should get better locks.
“Many in the criminal justice system did not participate in lynching black Americans, but they had firsthand knowledge of it and did nothing to stop it,” the chief said.
Among those who also spoke was Deborah Tatum, a descendant of Callaway’s who still lives in LaGrange. In her remarks, Tatum asked for forgiveness for the men who murdered her relative.
Afterwards, she said of the ceremony’s significance, “It’s been a long time coming. It was really inspirational.”
LaGrange City Councilman Willie T. Edmondson, who is black, praised the chief for seeking to right an historic wrong.
“This crime set a tone for years of mistrust,” he said.
Mayor Jim Thornton, who is white, expressed regret that Callaway’s murder was unknown to most residents until Dekmar and others brought it to light.
“Justice failed Austin Callaway,” he said. “There should be no safer place than police custody.”
A legacy of distrust
Later this year, Dekmar will become president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. In his remarks, he reached well beyond the community where he has been chief for 22 years and spoke to the failings of policing in America during the Jim Crow era, what he called law enforcement’s “darkest hour.”
And he said that legacy continued to harm interactions with African-Americans today.
“Weekly, I deal with African-American citizens who are suspicious, untrusting and apprehensive about what the police do and say,” the chief said. “And in each of these encounters I have to build individual trust, because in some quarters of our city, African Americans are unwilling to trust the police because of its history.”
The chief also directed some of his remarks to white LaGrange residents who might not see the need to apologize for a tragedy that occurred before many in the audience were born.
“Some in the white community will ask, ‘Why should we acknowledge and apologize for outrageous actions committed by a generation long dead and gone?’” he said. “Others in the black community may believe this is another hollow effort to gloss over centuries of injustice and cruelty.
“To each group, I say that the institution responsible for Austin’s death is still here and its members bear the burden of that history. An acknowledgement and apology is necessary to aid in healing wounds of past brutalities and injustice, so we can build a better future.”
John Lewis: ‘There must be closure”
Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, at LaGrange College earlier in the day for an unrelated event, said he hoped the chief’s apology will move other agencies to take responsibility for past wrongs.
“What is happening here in LaGrange, Georgia, is so important,” Lewis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It is a must that there be closure, and that we find out what happened and how it happened. The police department here is making a down payment on helping other places move to this point.”
In 2013, the police chief in Montgomery apologized to Lewis for the city police department’s failure to protect the Freedom Riders who came to the South to protest segregation.
Lewis said he was inspired by Dekmar’s decision to take responsibility for actions taken decades before he became chief.
“He was moved by something,” Lewis said. “I call it the spirit of history.”
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