Jack B. Simpson
It was about 1950 when I began a career in law enforcement, and I am still active now at the Newton County Sheriff's Office. Today turned out to be exceptional and unforgettable for this old lawman. I was humbled and honored beyond expectation.
I was invited to participate in the FBI's Oral History Project, sponsored by the Society of Former Special Agents, back in July 2008. The period of the 1960s during the Civil Rights era was of interest and investigators with special knowledge of important cases back then were invited to make an oral historical contribution.
Since the Lemuel Penn case was considered among my most famous cases, I was very pleased to accept this once-in-a-lifetime invitation. Retired Special Agent John McAvoy made the arrangements, met me at the Newton County Sheriff's Office and recorded my remarks about this case.
I related my recollections of the murder of Lt. Col. Penn by members of the KKK near Athens back in 1964. Old timers may remember that Lemuel Penn was a black educator from Washington, D.C., who was on summer Army training at Fort Benning. He and two fellow officers concluded their reserve duty and were on the way back home. They were not involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but were from up North and had a D.C. tag on their automobile. This was enough for Klansmen to notice them as they passed through Athens in the early morning hours of July 1964.
Lemuel Penn was an innocent, dedicated public servant shot and killed by Klansmen for no good reason. They saw his D.C. tag and thought he was a Northern agitator threatening the Southern way of life.
President Lyndon Johnson ordered the FBI to investigate this case under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, and I was one of many special agents assigned to the case. The Klansmen were identified and brought to justice. My role is described in my oral history account of the investigation.
The Penn case arose during the turbulent era of the Civil Rights movement and is now part of the oral history of the FBI. The completed recording was submitted by the society for approval by FBI headquarters.
David M. Hardy, FBI section chief, notified the society on Dec. 3, 2008, about my recording. "After review there is no objection to your providing the transcript as presented for publication." To receive such a distinction at this stage of life is an unforgettable experience. My contribution to the oral history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is being placed in the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C. Head of the project, Brian Hollestein, has advised that my interview will be available there to scholars and researchers in the future.
My narration of the Lemuel Penn case, hopefully, may serve to remind a new generation of people about some of the evil, lawlessness of the 1960s. Perhaps facts of the case will keep the extreme racial hatred of that era from ever again emerging from the dark shadows.
Jack Simpson is a former educator, veteran, author and a law enforcement officer. His column appears each Friday.