WTVM Editorial 1/27/17: LaGrange 1940 lynching apology long over due

(WTVM) - I had never heard the name Austin Callaway until our news department reported on a long overdue apology last week from the LaGrange police department for the young man's death at the hands of a lynch mob 75 years ago.

It's an extraordinary story that needs to be told and we believe it offers lessons relevant to today.

In September of 1940, Austin Callaway, who was black and only 17 years old, was in the custody of LaGrange police, locked up in jail on charges he assaulted a white woman.

But instead of letting the justice system move forward, a group of armed white men came into the jail, and meeting no resistance, took Austin Callaway deep into the woods and shot him dead.

There was no investigation of his murder in 1940. No suspects. No arrests. No justice.

The local NAACP chapter and the pastor of the Warren Temple United Methodist Church said at the time that the only way the town tried to settle the call for justice was by ignoring the Austin Callaway murder as if it never happened.

This week, the police chief in LaGrange did something no other police department in America has ever done: apologize for the actions of the racist mob of unknowns that took Callaway's life.

Police Chief Louis Dekmar said his department takes responsibility for not protecting Callaway back in 1940 and hopes the apologies will help build a new sense of trust among all the citizens of LaGrange.

Chief Dekmar's apology was national news, so unique was his declaration of accountability and regret for the actions in 1940 of the same police department he leads today.

In March, the Warren Temple United Methodist Church, the community group Troup Together, the Troup County NAACP and a group called the Equal Justice Initiative will erect a permanent historical marker at the church to memorialize the important story of Austin Callaway's life and death.

Black leaders in LaGrange say they are encouraged by this unique and long overdue apology.

We commend both the police chief and the NAACP for working together to make sure Austin Callaway's story is no longer a footnote to history.

It's inspiring to think this can be a new start - not just for the LaGrange community but our larger community.

A chance to unite in the present by acknowledging Austin Callaway now, and his awful and shameful death 75 years ago.

General Manager Holly Steuart brings two editorials a week to WTVM. If you would like to respond to an editorial, e-mail your response to hsteuart@wtvm.com or write to:

WTVM Editorial Committee
1909 Wynnton Road 
Columbus, GA 31906

Copyright 2017 WTVM. All rights reserved.